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Angry customers. Slumping sales. Lines of cars waiting to exit the garage.

That's how merchants described the atmosphere at Santa Rosa Plaza, nearly one month after the downtown mall began charging customers who park for more than 90 minutes at the shopping center.

Fewer people are hanging out at the mall and killing time, a social activity that used to lead to impulse buying, retailers said. And shoppers feel too rushed to linger over a possible purchase, because they want to get in and out of the mall in less than 90 minutes to avoid paying for parking, they said.

"If nothing changes, I'm not going to be able to pay my rent," said Fahim Adel, owner of Bayside Watch. "I've been here 15 years, I'd love to stay here. I have my son in school."

Since the parking program began, sales at Bayside Watch have dropped 30 to 35 percent on the weekends, and 15 to 20 percent during the week, Adel said.

Under the new policy, enacted Aug. 22, mall visitors enjoy free parking for their first 90 minutes in the garage. Longer visits cost $2 for up to three hours, $4 for three to four hours, $8 for four to six hours and $9 for up to 24 hours.

Plaza officials have said the changes were necessary to free up parking spaces for shoppers. About 400 of the mall's 3,000 spaces were taken by downtown workers, occupying prime parking spots, the mall said.

The majority of shoppers have been able to park for free, mall manager Laura Kozup said in a statement issued by the Plaza's public relations firm. She did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

"We've received many positive comments from both our retailers and our shoppers about the program. We have received feedback that our exit times are longer than desirable, and we are addressing those concerns. We intend to have all improvements made in advance of the holiday season," the statement said.

It's not clear if every retailer was negatively impacted by the decision to charge for parking. Macy's and Sears, which anchor the northern and southern ends of the mall, declined to comment Tuesday.

But the vast majority of retailers interviewed this week reported declines in traffic or revenues, and increases in customer complaints.

Employees at national chain stores reported drops in business around 20 to 30 percent since the new parking program began. The employees, who mostly spoke on condition of anonymity because they were concerned about retribution, said their regional managers have been calling and asking why they're not making their numbers.

"They (shoppers) say they have to be in a rush all the time, and they can't do the shopping the way they used to, because they don't want to pay for parking," said Jasmine Ballesteros, assistant manager at Gap Kids.

"It's not so much the money, it's the hassle," said Dan Pengra, 61, an engineer at Agilent Technologies. "I don't care how convenient they say they're making it, it's a hassle."

Some shoppers noticed an increase in available parking spaces on the ground floor, like Jeanne Peterson, 74 of Santa Rosa, who was getting a manicure at Elegant Nails.

"I don't really think it has had such a terrible impact," Peterson said. "It's easier to park than it was before."

Merchants were informed in a short letter this week that a new voucher program is in the works, which will allow participating retailers to validate parking for customers. Details about how the program will work and what it will cost retailers were not included in the letter.

On a recent Sunday, 26 people visited GNC, the nutrition products store, instead of the usual 50 or 60, said employee Yasmin Guillen. On a recent Friday night, usually a strong night for sales, the mall was nearly deserted, she said.

"A lot of customers have yelled at me and said they're not going to shop at this mall," Guillen said.

Food vendors feel they're among the hardest hit by the change. Customers who used to indulge in a cookie or an ice cream are more likely to skip it to reduce the length of their stay, they said.

"People are going to come in for their Apple products. But are they going to come in for their Peet's?" asked Todd Reed, owner of Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, Peet's Coffee and H?gen-Dazs in the mall. "There's not a mall in the North Bay that charges for parking right now. They're putting in face painters and jugglers because they're trying to compete with the Internet, and they're trying to keep people longer."

Business dropped drastically at Charley's Grilled Subs in the food court since parking changes began, said owner Bill Lam.

"The downtown employees, some of them would go up to the food court and take dinner to go," Lam said. "I don't have a dinner rush anymore."

But the people who are actually shopping and buying items are still coming to the center, said Edward Essayan, owner of A Child's Dream.

"The way it is set up now, I am an absolute supporter," Essayan said. "Too many people were parking, and they wouldn't even spend an hour in the mall. We may have less people coming in to waste their day, but we don't care. Our sales have maintained the same level, that's what matters."

Although he hadn't yet learned the details of the parking validation program, Essayan said his shop would probably participate.

Customers of Brow Art, which offers hair removal, henna and makeup sessions, have largely shifted over to the salon's Coddingtown Mall location, said employee Jaswinda Kaur. On Monday, the shop had three clients, down from its usual 15 or 20.

"Business is really down," Kaur said. "There are no customers here."

In the parking garages, drivers sometimes have sat in lines to exit, a delay that unexpectedly pushed some shoppers' stays past 90 minutes, they said. Signs explaining new parking and exit procedures are not translated into Spanish, deterring some clients, Adel said.

"Several customers said that they will boycott the mall, and go to Coddingtown or San Francisco," said Alex Garcia, store manager at Tilly's. "It's not even so much that they have to pay. It's that they have to wait when they get in and wait when they get out."

That's led to concern among retailers about what will happen on Black Friday and other busy shopping days throughout the holiday season. Some suggested the gates could be opened for free parking on weekends.

"With this kind of economic situation, we have to have easier access for customers to come and shop," Adel said. "Customers are saying, 'I don't feel like coming here to shop anymore.' "

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@ pressdemocrat.com.

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