By KEVIN McCALLUM and CATHY BUSSEWITZ
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The 30-year run of free parking at the Santa Rosa Plaza mall will end this summer.
Officials from Simon Property Group distributed letters to merchants and city officials Thursday announcing a new controlled-parking program that will charge people up to $9 per day to park in the downtown mall’s five garages.
The program will allow shoppers to park for free for 90 minutes. Any portion of the next 90 minutes will cost $2. Four hours will cost $4, up to six hours will cost $8, and more than six hours will cost $9. Overnight parking will not be permitted.
Mall officials expect the program to free up spaces that are routinely occupied by drivers who park at the shopping center while they work downtown.
“We’ve realized that we were lacking an amenity for shoppers, and we were trying to work on a solution,” said Kelly Hartsell, regional vice president for Simon Property Group.
But some worry that eliminating the last inventory of free parking downtown will hurt employees and give people one more reason to shop elsewhere.
“I’m very, very concerned that they are making a big mistake,” said City Councilman Jake Ours. “I don’t think this is going to serve them well in any way, shape or form.”
Simon should be trying to make it as easy as possible for shoppers to come downtown, and if they charge for parking people might just head to Coddingtown, Ours said. Several mall customers and employees agreed the program would have a negative impact.
Justyn Delbridge, 21, sells appliances at Sears, and said it often takes him 90 minutes sell an appliance.
“A lot of people who come in to shop are shopping at multiple stores, they’re going to need more than 90 minutes,” he said.
On Thursday Keith Moore, 40, parked in a Plaza garage and headed to his job at Banana’s, a nearby music store. He said the mall was within its rights.
“It’s tricky. It’s their parking,” Moore said. “But we’re all going to have to find a new place to park.”
Before the mall opens at 9 a.m., hundreds of the Plaza’s parking spaces are occupied by employees of other downtown businesses, according to the letter sent to City Manager Kathy Millison.
“It’s about 400 spaces,” Hartsell said. “It’s amazing, the number of spaces that were taken.”
The Plaza has 3,000 parking spaces.
The mall studied shopping behavior and determined that shoppers spend an average of 68 minutes at the mall, so the average shopper should not be impacted by the change, Hartsell said.
A parking agreement signed in 1978 between the city and developer Ernest W. Hahn, Inc., stipulated that parking would be free for shoppers unless the mall got city approval to begin charging. But that agreement could be terminated if either the city or the mall changed its parking policy, Hartsell said.
“When the city went to paid parking years ago, that was the change in policy that made us able to move forward and terminate the agreement,” Hartsell said.
Last year, after the plan was first proposed, city officials were barraged by critics, especially downtown businesses worried about the impact on employees and customers.
Mayor Ernesto Olivares urged the Simon Property Group to hold off while the city studied the relationship between its parking policies and those of the mall.
Part of the problem has been the city’s parking rates drive people into the mall’s garages in search of free spaces, Olivares said.
“It turned out to be a confusing and complicated issue and something that we didn’t have control over,” Olivares said.
City Attorney Caroline Fowler said there is “not any contractual legal remedy for the city to stop them from moving forward with charging for parking.”
Olivares said he spoke to Hartsell Wednesday and urged her to be sensitive to what a controversial issue parking is in the city. She agreed to work with the city on days when there are large special events downtown, and to make adjustments to the program if necessary, such as to the 90 minute limit, Olivares said.
He said he didn’t share Ours’ concern about the plan being bad for business. It is just as possible that shoppers will like the increased availability of spaces near the entrances, which is the mall’s goal, he said.
“It think it’s too early to really judge what the long term impacts will be,” Olivares said.
The mall is the largest downtown employer, with 120 businesses employing about 1,500 people, according to David Gouin, the city’s director of economic development and housing.
“We want to make sure the Plaza thrives, and if their tenants feel this is the best option to manage their parking and it would be good for business, we have to trust their decision,” Gouin said.
Each retailer will receive parking access cards for their employees, and the program will begin this summer, mall manager Laura Kozup said in a letter to merchants.
Over the years, the mall unsuccessfully tried various ways to deter downtown employees from parking in the lot, such as installing chains across exits.
“We finally gave up on chains two years ago because people would get out of their car and undo the chains, or drive right over them,” Hartsell said.
The mall will install a system of gates controlling access to the garages, and shoppers will pay at kiosks or at the exits, Hartsell said.
Preliminary work should begin in March or April, she said. She declined to give a revenue projection for the program.
She noted that the per-hour rates increase the longer someone parks, making the city garages a more cost-effective option for non-shoppers.
The city charges for parking in its five garages and 10 surface lots. The rate in garages is 75 cents an hour with a maximum daily rate of $8. Monthly garage permits cost from $62 to $140.