The holiday season is a time for giving. And Simon Property Group, the company that owns Santa Rosa Plaza, is giving local shoppers what they really want this holiday season: Free parking.

The gates to the mall's parking garage in downtown Santa Rosa have been up since Dec. 1, and promotional parking days will continue throughout the holiday season. Mall managers will not say in advance exactly which days parking will be free, but some merchants said they have heard the promotional free parking days will last throughout December.

"It's just kind of a surprise," said Kim Hall, area marketing manager for Simon. "It's a little holiday treat."

The mall sometimes announces the free parking days on its Facebook page, Hall said.

Shopper Luann Ballachey, 63, an executive assistant from Healdsburg, was pleasantly surprised. Ever since the paid parking program began, the devout Macy's shopper has started her shopping trips at Coddingtown Mall. She said she only comes to the Plaza when the Macy's at Coddingtown doesn't have what she wants.

"I know a lot of people, before the holiday season, said they wouldn't shop here because they had to pay for parking," Ballachey said. "So I'm really glad it's free today."

The promotional "Gates Up" days have been a relief to merchants, many of whom reported that sales plummeted after the parking gates were installed.

Burger King in the food court saw its business decline about 20 percent, said Lupe Reyes, assistant manager. Now, business is back to normal.

"We appreciate it when they leave them up," Reyes said. "The clients can take their time. They've got time to eat something."

So far this month, business at Charleys Grilled Subs is up 23 percent compared to the same time last year, said owner Bill Lam. That strong month followed big drops in business after the parking gates were installed, Lam said.

Sales also have improved substantially at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, Peet's Coffee and H?gen-Dazs during the gates-up days, said owner Todd Reed. At the mall's holiday planning meeting, merchants complained to management about the parking situation, he said.

"Deep down, I think they're really starting to see the merchants struggling," Reed said.

Hall acknowledged that merchants complained at that meeting. The mall is working on refining the parking program, adding signs and exits, she said. But that's not why the gates have been up.

"We were always going to do promotional days," Hall said. In addition to occasional free parking, Hall is handing out free treats like a Christmas ornament or a gift card for Starbuck's to a shopper every day. "We've had some great reactions, people just being totally caught off guard."

If the mall announced in advance which days the parking would be free, that may open the floodgates for employees at other downtown businesses to park there for free, a problem the mall sought to fix by limiting free parking to 90 minutes.

"We put the program in place for a reason, not to have the downtown workers take the parking," Hall said.

You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or