By John P. Anderson
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors recently cut the ribbon to officially open a new $36,000,000 parking garage at Cedar and Kettner in Little Italy. The garage has 640 spaces, built at a cost of $56,250 per space. The garage will primarily be used for free parking for county employees and will also be available for paid public parking use on nights and weekends.
Here’s a laudatory video from the ribbon-cutting:
Supervisor Diane Jacobs noted “this truly is the best-looking parking garage in the entire region and the most needed parking garage”. The “stalls are a little wider than you’ll find in most commercial parking structures”.
The Little Italy neighborhood is home to many of San Diego’s most highly regarded restaurants including Bracero, Buon Appetito, Monello, Ironside, Davanti Enoteca, Juniper and Ivy, and many others. Most of the restaurants have little, or zero, private parking provided. The area has also seen tremendous growth in the number of residential units in recent years. The result has been a thriving neighborhood that is among the most vibrant places in the entire county.
A large part of the enjoyment of Little Italy stems from the many people and attractive buildings present – I doubt India Street would be improved by the addition of a massive parking garage. In recent years the need for parking of unused vehicles has been further reduced due to the explosive growth of taxi-hailing apps like Lyft and Uber.
The new county parking garage is the second portion of the “Waterfront Park project” that created a 12-acre park across Harbor Drive from San Diego Bay, replacing 8 acres of surface level parking lots adjacent the County Administration Building. That project cost $49.4 million dollars after an initial project cost estimate of $44.2M with $19.7M for building the park, $18.5M for building underground parking, and $6M for design and administration costs.
In total, between the two projects $54.5M was spent on moving parking spaces and $18.5M was spent on the actual park that people enjoy. This is excluding the $5.2M of difference from the original estimate to the actual construction costs and the $6M of design and administration costs. Those cost breakdowns yield a result of 75% of funds used to move spots for empty cars and 25% of funds used to build a park. For purposes of this article let’s assume the admin and cost over-run figures split on the same lines. The vast majority of the funds used for these joint projects was for moving parking spaces, not for building a park.
This project was sold as a project to build a great park – it would seem fitting if most of the funds were actually used to build a great park. Instead we spent 75% of the funds to relocate parking spaces, not creating new spaces but moving existing parking spaces. 251 spaces moved approximately 15 feet, they were undergrounded in the same location as the previous surface level lots.
To boot, the county demolished a historic building in Little Italy to make room for the large new parking garage. The Star Builders Supply Company building was built in 1911 and added to the county list of historic buildings in 1991. County supervisors unanimously voted to demolish the building. It’s now gone, but you can enjoy the below video of the beautiful piece of San Diego history that has now been erased like so many others.
From the total 891 parking spots that were moved, 71.8% were moved about 1-2 blocks east from their previous location. 28.2% were moved about 15 feet underground. To accomplish this feat, county taxpayers spent $54.5 million dollars. As enjoyable as the new park is and a huge improvement to the ugly surface parking lots perhaps it would have been better to save that money or spend it on a better use. To move so many parked cars such a small distance seems a pyrrhic victory.
A small consolation might be that the total number of parking spots went from 1,200 in the surface lots to 891 in the new underground and multi-level parking garages, a net reduction of 25.75%. We could have spent even more money if we moved all of them! A legitimate question would be if the previous 1,200 spots or the new 891 spots are actually needed or not. But as so often happens when it comes to accommodating automobiles, too much is never enough and no cost is too high. More lanes on I-5 for $6 billion? Of course! More parking lots in Balboa Park? Of course! Analysis of the actual demand and cost comes far behind the populist appeal of free goodies for motor vehicles. The environmental impacts of our car culture is even further down the priority list than our dollars.
Enjoy the Waterfront Park (aka Parking Lot Relocation Park); it’s a great place. Building beautiful things is something a great city does. I’m proud that San Diego built it. In total, though, this project was a massive use of taxpayer dollars to move parking spots a small distance – not to build a great public park. They are distinct items and taxpayers did not need to spend tens of millions to provide a tax-free employment perk that most employees, government-employed or not, do not enjoy. We also did not need to use prime real estate to do so. Taxpayers must demand better stewardship of public funds and assets.