Santa Rosa Plaza wants to charge for parking

After nearly 30 years providing free parking, the Santa Rosa Plaza mall wants people to pay for the privilege.
The mall owner, Simon Property Group, has asked the city to allow it to begin charging for parking as a way to free up more spaces for its shoppers.

The mall estimates that 15 to 20 percent of its 3,000 parking spaces are filled by 9 a.m. on weekdays by employees of other downtown businesses taking advantage of the free parking. Many occupy prime first-floor parking spaces all day, said mall manager Laura Kozup.

It's not unusual that nearly all of our best parking spaces are taken before we open our doors in the morning, which means our shoppers are having to park farther away, Kozup said.

Several downtown businesses and special event organizers promote the mall's free parking, Kozup said in her letter to the city.

How much the mall would charge or whether validation would be offered to shoppers is unclear. Kozup called it premature to discuss such details. But she said the primary objective is to ensure our shoppers have the best parking spaces readily available whenever they visit the Plaza.

If approved, Santa Rosa would become the first of Simon's dozens of malls in the West including those in Seattle, Las Vegas and San Diego to charge for parking, said spokesman Les Morris. Several malls in urban locations the East and mid-West, including Boston, White Plains, N.Y., and Indianapolis, charge for parking, he said.

In Copley Place mall in Boston, parking is $9 for the first hour, $18 for two hours, $25 for three hours and $35 for up to 24 hours. Stores in the mall will validate parking for shoppers spending at least $10, which reduces the rate to $10 for up to three hours, according to a Copley Place representative.

Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group is the largest mall owner in the nation, with an interest in 393 shopping centers around the world.

The Plaza needs the approval of the city because an agreement dating to the late 70's states that parking at the mall was to be free unless the city allows the mall to begin charging a fee, said Cheryl Woodward, the city's deputy director of parking.

The agreement likely was struck as part of a deal to exempt the mall from fees paid by property owners within the downtown parking district, which funded the construction of city parking garages, she said. Because the mall constructed its own attached parking garages, exempting it from the district made sense, Woodward said.

The city currently is negotiating with the mall over its request, Woodward said. She declined to detail those talks but said they did not involve the city collecting revenue or enforcing parking in the garages.

Some city council members said they are amenable to the idea. John Sawyer said parking at the mall isn't really free to begin with.

There is no free parking, Sawyer said. Someone is paying to maintain and operate those spaces and if you're parking there and you're not shopping there then someone else is paying for you.

Sawyer, a former downtown retailer, said he is comfortable allowing the mall to remove that luxury.

Councilman Gary Wysocky, a bicycle advocate, said he's in favor of drivers being required to pay the true cost of operating their vehicles. For me, if you want to drive a Hummer, fine: pay your way, he said.

Both said they are unaware of the details of the negotiations with Simon, but said the city long has been interested in improving connectivity through the mall between Railroad Square and Old Courthouse Square.

Kozup's letter refers to the mall's desire to begin fee-based parking and controlled access to its five three-story parking garages. The mall contends that doing so would improve safety in the garages.

Our research shows that the number of security incidents in paid-parking facilities is typically less than the number of incidents in open-parking facilities, Kozup wrote.

The letter also suggests the city would benefit. Eliminating the only free parking in the heart of downtown would increase revenue to the city's paid garages, she wrote.

This will help drive renewals of monthly parking permits and increase the City's parking revenue from downtown events, Kozup wrote.

The city has 3,539 spaces of paid parking in five parking garages and 10 surface parking lots, Woodward said. Several are a stone's throw from the mall garages.

Signs posted at the mall garages state that the structures are private property. In smaller type the signs also state Parking for Plaza Patrons Only and Unauthorized Vehicles Towed at Owners' Expense.

Other Simon malls use security staff to enforce parking regulations. At Great Mall in Milpitas, parking is free for shoppers only, though they are not required to buy anything. One of the responsibilities of the mall's security force is to ensure people parking at the mall are shopping there, said Simon spokesman Scott Dobroski.

Woodward said the Plaza has tried to enforce those rules, including towing cars. Still, the rules were being widely ignored at the northernmost garage Thursday. Around lunchtime, a steady stream of pedestrians crossed from the garage to the opposite side of B street and headed toward Mendocino Avenue.

One of those, 19-year-old Moon Levine, acknowledged she had just parked in the garage but wasn't planning to shop at the mall.

It's like the only place to park, said Levine, who was critical of the mall's plan to begin charging. That's hella lame.
Simon Property Group, Inc
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