The Santa Monica City Council voted Tuesday to end a 15-year tradition of free parking downtown and install parking meters in six municipal garages.
Revenue from the meters, expected to be about $700,000 a year, will help reduce by 40% a fee paid by merchants in the 3rd Street Mall and Downtown Maintenance District to operate and maintain the structures, said City Manager John Jalili.
A downtown merchants group proposed the plan to reduce the fee, which they said is causing businesses to leave the area and deterring others from locating there. Each merchant must now pay an annual fee that is five times the city's business license tax or $15,000, whichever is less.
"I believe it's a necessary but painful step to take," said Councilman Dennis Zane. "If we want to see the downtown stay in the deteriorated and lifeless state that many people view it . . . I suppose we can avoid biting the bullet on issues like this."
Thomas Carroll, executive director of the 3rd Street Development Corp., said he was pleased with the decision.
The meters will "shift the tax burden from the office people to everybody," he said.
Free parking has been allowed for up to three hours in the garages. City officials hope to have the meters installed by the first week of October.
The vote followed a 45-minute public discussion between business people who supported the meters and residents and non-residents who opposed it.
"I've always thought the six free parking lots were offered by Santa Monica for its people," said Sylvia Shniad , a Santa Monica resident who said meters will discourage the poor and elderly from shopping downtown. "Surely we must be concerned that a portion of our population will be kept away."
Norma Gonzales, president of the Santa Monica Area Chamber of Commerce, said, however, that shoppers "from out of the city . . . are using the structure at the expense of local merchants."
But Melva Colter of West Los Angeles said she contributes to the local economy by shopping downtown and that installing the meters will be a mistake.
"It's really a nice feeling to be welcomed to Santa Monica by free parking," she said.
Councilwoman Christine Reed, who voted against the meters, said they "will not be beneficial in the long term.
"I think this would be a disservice to the community of Santa Monica that has for 15 years benefited from the three hours of free parking."
Reed said placing meters in the city structures will cause overcrowding in the three free shopping center parking garages nearby.
Carroll disagreed, saying that he saw no relation between free parking and the number of shoppers an area attracts.
"We're the only area in Santa Monica that has free parking and we're the only area that is having financial problems," he said.
He said that by putting different time limits on the meters the city will be able to manage the structures so that all-day parkers will use the top floors, leaving the more attractive bottom floors for shoppers.
"We think we'll get even more customers," he said. Purchasing and installing the 1,734 meters will cost the city about $737,000, according to a staff report. The meters are expected to earn about $500,000 during fiscal year 1987-88 and nearly $700,000 the next year, when all the meters are in place.
Mayor James Conn and council members William Jennings, Herb Katz and Zane voted for the meters, while Reed and Councilman Alan Katz voted against the plan. Councilman David Finkel said he owns a business in the district and abstained to avoid a conflict of interest.