There is one thing everyone can agree on when it comes to the government: we want smart decisions made. Smart government is government that first and foremost understands the needs of the community, then makes data-driven, fiscally-responsible decisions that are sustainable, benefit a majority and account for short and long-term net-gains.
On August 22, 2016, Alhambra City Council members Luis Ayala, Steven Placido and Gary Yamauchi voted for the city to go forward with what is known as the "Surface Lot Expansion" parking project at Almansor Park. Let me explain why this was a big miss for the City of Alhambra, when it comes to smart government.
[Figure 1. “Surface Lot Expansion” proposed to the Alhambra City Council on August 22nd by City Staff. Councilmembers Ayala, Yamauchi and Placido voted for it.]
First, what are the current needs of the city? Let’s look at the trends in median household income in Alhambra between 2007 and 2014. Based on federally generated data, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) labels a household “low-to-moderate-income” if a household makes 80% or less of the area median income. To put this into perspective, Alhambra’s median household income was $53,011 in 2014 and 80% of that is $42,408. Alhambra is divided into 52 different regions for census tracking purposes and the city labels a region of Alhambra low-to-moderate income if greater than 51% of the households in that region are deemed low-to-moderate income by HUD. The city then creates maps of Alhambra and shades in the regions that are considered low-to-moderate income. The maps from 2007 and 2014 can be seen in Figure 2.
In 2007, 12 regions were deemed low-to-moderate income. In 2014, the number of low-moderate-income regions in Alhambra ballooned from 12 to 35. This is a nearly 300 percent increase in just 7 years, resulting in lower-income areas composing 67% of all regions in Alhambra. This is a troubling trend in our city and one that our leadership should not take lightly.
Figure 2. Map of Alhambra, Calif. in 2007 (left) and in 2014 (right). Greyed-out areas represent regions of Alhambra defined as “Low to Moderate Income Areas” with 51% or more of households classified as “low- and moderate-income.”
With the city’s sale of Fremont Plaza and the West Main Street properties it owned under its former redevelopment agency, the city recouped around $8 million of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds it sunk into the project. The purpose of CDBG funds is to help lower-income neighborhoods through various means, such as affordable housing, loans, housing rehabilitation, capital projects, and public services like police precincts, fire stations, and schools. Given the negative trend outlined above, the city was given a wonderful opportunity to use these funds in a manner that maximizes impact across Alhambra’s multicultural lower-income population.
Instead, the City Council focused all of its efforts on parking at Almansor Park. The community had to fight against the city’s usage of $7.5 million on a multi-level parking structure and eventually the multi-level parking structure was taken off the agenda. Still bent on using these funds for additional parking at Almansor Park, Councilmembers Ayala, Placido and Yamauchi voted to spend $1.7 million on the addition of 61 parking spots. Given that this would also rip up the tennis courts, the city estimated that the movement of tennis courts to some undetermined location would cost an additional $400,000. In sum total, this adds up to just over $34,000 for each additional parking space at Almansor Park. Does this seem fiscally responsible? To put this number into perspective, the most common jobs by industry in Alhambra are in the Healthcare and Social Assistance industry, which pays a median annual salary of $32,139. Is one parking space in Almansor Park worth more than what many Alhambra residents make in a year?
To be fair, Almansor Park can get busy in the evenings, so there may be some logic to considering additional parking solutions at peak hours. But to establish the need for additional parking at Almansor Park and to develop a targeted strategy towards alleviating the problem, the city would first need to conduct a yearlong study that looked at parking patterns throughout the week. The city should have investigated time-periods when the park was busy, figured out how many additional cars were in need of parking during those peak hours and considered mitigation strategies such as providing buses, incentivizing carpooling or working with Emmaus Lutheran Church and Almansor Court on parking strategies during peak hours. This is the logical first step.
The city conducted a parking-demand study between July 1 and July 21, looking at the three parking lots at Almansor Park and counting the number of cars parked in each lot at 8am, 12pm, 5pm and 8pm. Excluding July 4, which is an obvious outlier in a study of chronic parking demand, the city collected 231 data points over the three weeks.
The average occupancy over all data points was 58.8%. Over the 231 data points, there was only one instance, on July 5, when all three lots were full. One. This represents 1.3% of the time. Let me repeat that: according to the City’s own data, the lots are saturated 1.3% of the time. And for some reason, the city didn’t provide data on street parking and the hundreds of parking spaces at Almansor Court, near the golf course driving range, or directly adjacent to Almansor Park along Almansor, Los Higos and Adams streets. Does this seem like data-driven decision making?
On top of this, the Alhambra source conducted a poll of its readers asking whether additional parking was needed at Almansor Park. 86% of respondents said, “No. There are enough parking spaces.” So why is the city pushing for more parking in Almansor Park? And at what cost?
Additionally, local residents set out to gauge the opposition to the parking structure and collected around 419 signatures against the multi-level parking structure. Since the City Council’s decision on the Surface Lot Expansion project, concerned residents have collected around 178 signatures in opposition to this plan.
Sometimes political decisions can be made against the grain of data if the community demands it. In this case, there is no evidence that the community wants additional parking at Almansor Park, or that it is even needed. Yet, for those concerned about the matter, the city is addressing parking concerns at Almansor park by pursuing a lease agreement with the Emmaus Lutheran Church next door that will provide an additional 140 parking spaces for the park during peak hours. Supposing this deal is concluded, at a cost of around $220,000, to repave the parking lots, this represents a more reasonable cost of a little over $1500 per spot with non-CDBG money.
Mayor Barbara Messina and Councilmember Stephen Sham both voted against the expansion of parking at Almansor Park. I applaud them for listening to data and for considering the cost to us all. I still hope the City Council will reverse course and direct these CDBG funds towards programs and projects that better help Alhambra’s lower-income neighborhoods in a meaningful and lasting way.
Our leadership should pause to consider the negative long-term trends in the city and then make informed decisions that reverse these trends while optimally utilizing resources to address demonstrated needs. As for spending $34,000 per parking space at Almansor Park, to me, this represents a missed opportunity.