By Jennifer Erickson | LB Indy
Sympathetic to pleas from Sawdust Art Festival board members and exhibitors, the City Council Tuesday agreed to make an exception for pay parking spots on the festival’s frontage road, reversing a weeks-old policy change that extended meter hours until 9 p.m., two hours past the traditional cutoff time.
Meters hours throughout Laguna Beach moved to 9 p.m. from 7 p.m. as part of a package of pilot parking initiatives that began July 1, in part to encourage trolley use and tame congestion.
Responding to entreaties from Sawdust board member Gavin Heath and president Rachel Goberman, the Council placed the matter on the evening’s agenda so they might take action right away.
“We are asking for your immediate attention and serious consideration going back to the original hours,” implored Heath. The artists are suffering because people aren’t staying in the evening, he said.
“It is imperative that I convey tonight that we at the Sawdust are being extremely and adversely affected by the increased hours,” said Goberman, indicating that she was speaking for the festival’s 200 plus members. The time between 7 and 9 p.m. used to be a time when “folks would come in and stroll the grounds, shop, get a glass of wine and listen to the music,” she said. “But now we are losing business because people are leaving early” since they are too stressed out about parking tickets, resulting in a direct loss of revenue for the artists, the festival and the city, she said.
“If the council wanted to make this change for the Sawdust Festival, then what would we say to the businesses downtown?” queried City Manager John Pietig. Other alternatives exist, he said, such as parking in the ACT V canyon lot and riding the free trolleys. And since all of the meters take credit cards, patrons can easily pay the meter all the way up to 9 p.m., he noted.
Extended meter hours during the 10-week festival season were among the strategies mapped out by Irvine’s RBF Consulting to reduce downtown parking and traffic congestion. They were included in the pilot summer parking program implemented on July 1 along with better signage, higher parking rates downtown, cheaper peripheral lots, and valet parking options, among others.
The parking consultants said it was a mistake to offer free parking in a high demand area because it skews demand. To optimize visitor-serving parking, you generally want to charge for it, said Deputy City Manager Ben Siegel.
Only warning citations and no parking tickets had so far been issued for cars parked at the frontage road meters after 7 p.m., according to Siegel. When metered hours were extended, city policy also removed a three-hour time limit, allowing customers to remain through 9 p.m. and longer.
Even so, several exhibitors attested to customer fears of being ticketed. “Our customers are constantly running out to their cars,” said exhibitor Dennis Junka. “It’s killing us. It’s just not good,” agreed fellow exhibitor Shamus Koch.
A lack of awareness about the change in policy seemed to be exacerbating the problem, Council member Steve Dicterow said. He’d heard that some people parked thinking meters were off the clock after 7 p.m. and then cut their intended visit short to avoid ticketing when they realized meters had to be fed up to 9 p.m.
While there are decals on every meter indicating the times of operation, “we understand there is an education component and it takes some time to modify behavior,” said Siegel, explaining the rational for forbearance in issuing fines.
Regardless, patrons’ fears of ticketing were real enough to send them away early, and that exodus needed to be stopped, according to the exhibitors.
Those pleas did not fall on deaf ears.
“I’m supportive of changing the time back to 7 p.m. right away,” said Mayor Elizabeth Pearson, whose motion was supported unanimously. The Council asked board members to monitor evening attendance over the remainder of the summer to see if the restored hours made a difference.