Mission Meridian Village has an incredibly high Walk Score (94 out of 100), a New Urbanist pedigree second to none, and is a beautiful collection of buildings in a quaint and prosperous small town – but like most places in America, it cannot pay its own bills. The reason for that funding shortfall? As in most cases, it has to do with “free” and “low cost” car parking.
It took $25 million and 385 parking spaces but, right around the turn of the 20th century, South Pasadena got the holy grail of “Transit Oriented Development” (TOD) plopped right into the middle of its downtown.
The Mission Meridian Village has been praised for a New Urbanist design. It has allowed young couples and older folks to find a place to live in this quaint old town that fits their budgets and needs where single family houses did not. It opened up a car-locked village to the metropolis it finds itself surrounded by.
The Mission Meridian Village also lost the City of South Pasadena money, and continues to do so. Not a lot, as these things go, but a nice chunk of change every year that isn’t going to parks, police, fire protection, sewer line reconstruction, library books, or any other civic purposes.
How could a nice new development, following all the best ideas of urbanist thinking, underwritten by massive piles of outside dollars, turn into a revenue loser for South Pasadena? Didn’t they just get a practically “free” building?
Sure, the building, the construction, the utilities, the pavement improvements around the site – all of this was mostly provided for by outside dollars for construction. The catch is that there was no pot of money set aside for maintenance. The 385-space parking garage underneath this fantastic new development is at the heart of why Mission Meridian Village is going to continue to be a drain on South Pasadena’s budget for years to come.
Now, before we start marching on the parking garage in South Pasadena in protest, it is important to remember that the situation South Pasadena finds itself in with this parking garage is not unique in the region. In fact, most American cities find themselves in similar situations these days – with large public projects constructed with outside funds now looming as massive financial burdens.
Why does the City of South Pasadena find itself where so many other cities do with these large pieces of infrastructure? They cannot and, in fact, never could make up the maintenance costs of this parking garage by selling parking passes. Now, the machines that collect the money have broken and replacing them will cost more money than will be collected in recently increased pass prices.
“It costs a lot of money to maintain [the garage],” said Dennis Woods, Transportation Manager for the City of South Pasadena, “Association fees, lighting, police, sweeping, cleaning. It all adds up.”
South Pasadena loses $20,000 to $80,000 annually to operate and maintain the Mission Meridian Parking Garage. The MTA pitches in some cash, and parking fees were recently raised from $2 to $5 (cost of new ticket vending machines notwithstanding), but none of that money closes the gap.
How can the city afford to underwrite this parking garage? South Pasadena provides its own fire, police, library, and sewer services (amongst other things) – a full service city, which means there is no wiggle room in the budget most years. The City also had to borrow heavily to replace large portions of its sewers. Keeping up with bond payments for maintenance on their sewer system is a huge financial burden on a city with such a tiny tax base.
“Everything in a city is not about cost recovery,” said Woods, adding, “The garage is filled and is being used, keeping cars off the streets. We want people to use the garage and not park on the streets.”
Compared to many cities in the region, South Pasadena is doing pretty well to maintain services and keep a big stack of cash, 20% of an annual budget, in a reserve fund. Still, the city walks a tight rope every year with salary and pension obligations, infrastructure maintenance, and services – and $20,000 to $80,000 can be made to go long way.
With the city’s recently passed Bike Plan, that money could go to maintenance of the planned “green lane” that is set to be installed on Mission Street. The concept of a green lane was first executed locally by the City of Long Beach in their Belmont Shore neighborhood. A green lane is a wide stripe of green paint in the right hand car lane.
“Once we put in the green lane, maintenance is a big concern,” said Woods. In light of Los Angeles’ trouble with the green paint on their recently installed Spring Street green lane, it is clear that maintaining these bike lanes does require some extra money and resources.
Most Americans would consider themselves lucky to live in one of the units at Mission Meridian Village (naysayers need to take a visit!), but few of us would want to pay through the nose for a parking garage that can’t pay for itself.
As compared to some of the more bizarre expenditures made in cities across the U.S. that have driven them to bankruptcy, Mission Meridian Village is actually a great type of project for a city to lose money on – but it is still losing money. There are bigger projects and problems in South Pasadena, but this is one I think deserves a thoughtful look by the citizens of this fair town – your city could be $80,000 richer every year if you can figure out a way to make car parking pay for itself.