In the middle of the 20th Century, as Americans fled urban areas for the suburbs by the millions every year, cities thought they could save themselves by building lots of downtown parking. It didn’t work, but in recent years, many of those same cities have realized their fortunes are changing, more people want to live downtown, and parking is hardly the best use of that space. Coupled with a nationwide housing crisis, the tradeoff has become relatively simple: Do we want to trade some of this excess parking for some much needed housing?
To some places like downtown Santa Monica, this isn’t much of a tradeoff at all. Parking Structure 3 in downtown Santa Monica was built in 1966 and has 337 parking spaces on five levels. As its name suggests, it is not an especially attractive or noteworthy parking structure. It has concrete beams, pale turquoise ceilings, and open sides with seven taut cables marking the edge of the structure so cars don’t accidentally drive off it. A mural of a beach with sunbathers along the exit on Fourth Street is the little that prevents Parking Structure 3 from being completely utilitarian. And even that utility has been brought into serious question in recent decades by its owner, the city of Santa Monica.
Parking Structure 3 is one of 13 parking garages (plus five surface lots) owned by the city in the downtown area. (This count doesn’t include the numerous private garages also in the same area.) In 2010, one of those garages, Parking Structure 6, which is just three-tenths of a mile from Parking Structure 3, was redeveloped and expanded to add more spots than Parking Structure 3 has in total, giving the downtown area more parking than it knew what to do with.
The city has commissioned two studies—one in 2009 and another in 2020—that concluded Parking Structure 3 is no longer needed. According to the more recent study, even at the busiest of busy times for Santa Monica, parking is still in excess capacity of approximately 2,000 spaces spread out across the various lots. That’s about six Parking Structure 3’s worth of excess parking. This general finding that downtown Santa Monica has way too much parking has been supported by an independent analysis using the city’s publicly-available parking data. This study found that parking availability in downtown Santa Monica has actually been increasing in recent years, perhaps because more people take Uber and Lyft and therefore don’t park downtown and the expansion of the Expo Line train to Santa Monica in 2016. According to that analysis, even during the peak demand periods, one-third of downtown Santa Monica’s parking spaces are available.
Not only is Parking Structure 3 no longer needed, but it would cost the city a pretty penny to keep around. In 2017, the city determined Parking Structure 3 was one of some 2,000 buildings needing “seismic improvements” because it was constructed with concrete before earthquake building standards were in place. It would cost approximately $3 million to do those repairs, the city says, plus another $1.5 million to replace the aging and often broken elevators, for a total maintenance cost of $4.5 million. Meanwhile, demolishing it would cost about $3.5 million.
And then it could be replaced with something Santa Monica desperately needs: Affordable housing, perhaps as many as 150 units’ worth.
For Leonora Camner, executive director of the non-profit advocacy group Abundant Housing LA and member of the Santa Monica Housing Commission, this project ticked all the boxes. The site is in a dense, walkable area with easy access to jobs, not just in Santa Monica but also in downtown Los Angeles via the Expo Line. Even on the incredibly divisive Housing Commission where nearly every project meets divided opinions, Camner said the demolition of Parking Structure 3 was met with near-universal approval. She told Motherboard, “Almost everybody was really supportive of Parking Structure 3 becoming affordable housing.”
Getting rid of Parking Structure 3 is an obvious choice according to multiple experts, city officials, and studies. And yet, there is also a campaign to “Save Parking Structure 3” from this fate, spearheaded by business owners who imagine that demolishing it will represent the first step in a disastrous process resulting in nothing less than downtown Santa Monica becoming a “wasteland.”
It is just one parking garage in one city, but repeated in project after project, it demonstrates why cities have such a hard time solving their most difficult problems, even after the solution seems obvious.
John Alle says he wants affordable housing in Santa Monica. “My friends can’t afford to live in the city, many of them.” He laments that the people who make Santa Monica what it is—the street cleaners, the retail and restaurant employees, the city workers—cannot afford to live there either. He says he wants this to change.
But Alle, a landlord of property along the Promenade, joined up with other business and property owners as part of the Santa Monica Bayside Owners Association, which was founded in 2020 to sue the city and the California Coastal Commission to, as his petition puts it, “Save Parking Structure 3.” They have also plastered signs around the Third Street Promenade imploring people to “Save Parking Structure 3.”
“We support mixed use housing for low income and homeless,” the Change.org petition states, “but not by removing much needed parking.”
The simple version of why Alle wants to save Parking Structure 3 is he rejects any assertion that the parking is not needed. The studies do not convince him, because he has canvassed the parking garage for hours and spoken to the people who park there. He believes they park there because it is the closest parking lot to where they want to go, and if they have to park elsewhere they will go elsewhere, to the detriment of nearby property owners like himself. To illustrate the point, he told a story of someone who told him that someone they know goes to the Third Street Promenade, an outdoor mall and the main retail strip of downtown, with their elderly father who uses a walker. The extra few blocks to park at a garage would be too far. He sees this having a cascading effect on the businesses along the Third Street Promenade.
“I'm looking at it more as a business person on the street,” Alle said, “trying to help tenants stay open, and trying to get a return on my investment, and trying to help the rest of the block so that we all thrive.”
But there is more to why Alle opposes this project. It involves an elaborate slippery slope upon which the demolishing of Parking Structure 3 and building more housing creates a snowball effect that prevents the city from accomplishing its environmental and housing goals and ultimately results in Santa Monica going into, as Alle told me, “a recession.”
His argument goes like this: If the parking is taken away, people won’t come. “It’ll be a wasteland,” Alle said, turning the once-bustling Promenade into “a row of souvenir shops” that will be “really sad.” With all that reduced revenue, both to local businesses and the city through sales taxes, Santa Monica won’t be able to fund its environmental initiatives (which Alle said he supports). “So if we take away the garage, we take away the revenue,” Alle outlined. “And we take away the sales tax revenue and the parking revenue. There’s no way that the city can replace that.” It can try to raise taxes, he said, but then people will move and the city will have a recession. Better, Alle argues, to keep the garage then and not have Santa Monica fall apart.
Central to this argument is Alle’s calculation that Parking Structure 3 generates around $45 million in annual spending in Santa Monica. Even if that calculation is true, which Alle said he did himself, it’s entirely dependent on the assumption that everyone who parks in Parking Structure 3 would not simply park somewhere nearby like Parking Structure 6 (or 5 or 4 or 1 or 2, all within a few blocks of 3) if it were to go away, but that they would stop coming to Santa Monica altogether.
But, after speaking with Alle for an hour, it was also obvious this lawsuit isn’t really about Parking Structure 3. It is about what Alle perceives as a deteriorating state of downtown Santa Monica and his frustrations in getting the city council to address those concerns. It is a pattern Camner of Abundant Housing LA recognizes from opposition to projects across the county, that specific projects tend to be catalysts that ignite existing discontent rather than concentrated actions for clearly-defined reasons. Repeat these fights project after project, in city after city, across the entire country, and you end up with a country some 6.8 million units short of adequately housing its people.
Alle’s concerns about the future of the Third Street Promenade are indeed very real. Once a nationally-recognized success story, the Third Street Promenade has been in decline for years.
Ilana Preuss of the consulting firm Recast City conducted a study of the Promenade last year. She found an outdoor mall failing to adapt to a post-Amazon landscape yet still vying for big-ticket national chains like Old Navy and other “national credit tenants” that are reducing the number of stores they have, eschewing older sites like the Promenade for newer, trendier locations like the Grove and Westside that didn’t exist in the Promenade’s heyday.
“If a retail area is only going after those kinds of national chains, it's really easy to just be displaced by the next newest place down the road, which is more or less what happened both with the promenade and with malls,” Preuss told Motherboard. “And malls had become obsolete really in most places over the last 5, 10 years.”
The solution, Preuss and other urban growth experts say, is to embrace local businesses with a more diverse clientele than suburbanites and tourists, creating a place locals want to go to for its own sake rather than a collection of big-name stores people seek out. Key to this conversion, especially for places like the Promenade in a rich downtown area with public transit access, is the construction of mixed-use areas with both housing and stores that serve the needs of the people who live there.
In other words, places like the Promenade need to be less geared towards the out-of-towners driving and parking to shop and build places where people live so they can walk to the shops easily, serving those people not just with restaurants and sunglasses stores but bakeries, grocery stores, coffee shops, and other retail locations people typically want close to their homes.
Alle told me he broadly supports this vision for the Promenade’s future, but then he proceeded to tell me, using different words, why he doesn’t.
He explained that the problem with the Promenade right now is the prevalence of homeless and drug addicts making it an unsafe and unwelcoming place. In a typical example, he said people park in the garages, see or are threatened by a homeless person, then get back in their cars and go home. He thinks none of the mixed-use possibilities for the Promenade’s future can be realized until this problem is addressed.
It is worth emphasizing that, while homelessness remains a pervasive problem not just in the Promenade and Santa Monica but Los Angeles and much of California as a whole, Alle’s concerns here are hardly universal. Many people enjoy downtown Santa Monica and it continues to be a popular upscale commercial and leisure destination. It currently has a Tesla store, a Tiffany & Co., a Louis Vuitton, three movie theaters, six restaurants listed in the Michelin guide, an Apple store, and a farmer's market. The Promenade itself may be suffering from high vacancy rates—many of those “vacant” storefronts have short-term leases filling the space—but the cause of that lack of long-term commitment is far from obvious. Generally, it seems to be locked in a chicken-and-egg debate about whether the presence of homeless people makes the property undesirable or if the Promenade is undesirable because outdoor malls stuffed with national chains are no longer popular and the homeless therefore find that empty space useful. In any event, crime statistics show that downtown Santa Monica’s violent crime rates are actually down. But, like the official parking statistics, Alle rejects those too, saying people don’t bother to call the police anymore.
The more I asked Alle about Parking Structure 3, the more obvious it became that this wasn’t really about Parking Structure 3 He wanted to talk about the carjacking in Parking Structure 8 last July or the dead body recently found near Parking Structure 6. He wanted to talk about the sanitary conditions around the Promenade, how unpleasant it is to walk past homeless people in the stairwells of the parking structures, and the maintenance person who told him he saw a couple having sex on the Promenade early one morning.
And most of all, he wanted to talk about how the city isn’t listening to him about these problems. He wanted to talk about the difficulties he’s experienced trying to get a routine police presence on the Promenade, something council members have opposed because not everyone views the police as a welcoming presence, another characterization Alle rejects. He wanted to talk about trying to get some council members to walk the Promenade with him only to be rebuffed. Or have someone from the parking facilities cover up the outlets in the parking garages so the unhoused can’t use them. Or put permanent locks on the garbage rooms so they can’t sleep in there. By the end of the call, I noticed that every time I asked about Parking Structure 3, Alle quickly turned the conversation to something else.
“They’re not listening,” Alle said no fewer than five times. “That’s the frustration here.”