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Downtown Santa Rosa parking rates are headed up

Drivers exit the Santa Rosa Plaza parking garage in Santa Rosa on Thursday, July 20, 2017. (ALVIN JORNADA/ PD)

ROBERT DIGITALE,

Parking just got more expensive at Santa Rosa’s downtown shopping center, and early next year the rates will rise at street meters and in public lots within the city’s core.

Not everyone relishes such changes, but representatives for both the Santa Rosa Plaza and the city defend the moves.

For the plaza, ending 90 minutes of free parking earlier this month will provide new funds to help cover garage maintenance and improvements, a representative said. Further, the shopping center has kept garage rates unchanged for five years and even now offers the cheapest price to park downtown for the first two hours, a cost of $1.

For the city, officials are hoping that higher rates in the heart of downtown will free up parking spaces on crowded streets by encouraging value-conscious motorists to park a little farther away in less-used public garages. Starting in January, those who do so will be rewarded with a free hour of parking and lower rates thereafter.

Also, low-wage downtown workers will be able to purchase a monthly pass for half price at garages on the fringe.

“It will cost you more to park in the premium places,” said Mayor Chris Coursey. However, motorists will pay less to use a garage on the edge of the commercial center.

Coursey brought up the January parking rate increases when asked for a reaction to the shopping center doing away with the 90 minutes of free parking for shoppers.

“Just to be fair,” he said, “the plaza’s not the only one changing the deal.”

Parking was free at the plaza garages for nearly three decades. But five years ago the mall installed a system of parking ticket dispenser machines and metal arm gates.

Some shoppers and merchants panned the idea, even with 90 minutes of free parking. But mall officials said a change was needed because roughly 400 downtown workers were taking up prime parking all day among the plaza’s 3,000 spaces.

The new parking plans come in a year of change for downtown. The city’s central gathering space, Old Courthouse Square, has been reunited into one area. Also, the SMART train is slated to start service soon in Marin and Sonoma counties, with stops at the historic station in Railroad Square.

Civic leaders hope both changes will bring more people downtown, some of whom will want to use the 4,600 public parking spaces on streets and in lots and garages there.

The changing nature of downtown was cited by a plaza representative when noting that the new parking rates will support garage maintenance and improvements.

“The introduction of the SMART train and other growth in the city’s core will add additional strain on limited downtown parking,” Kate Hudson, a spokeswoman for mall owner Simon Property Group, wrote in an email.

The plaza now charges $1 for the first two hours, and a maximum of $9. Parking will be free for those who enter and exit daily between noon and 1 p.m. That accommodation, said Hudson, allows those to park free who “have a quick errand to run or want to grab a quick bite to eat.”

Under the city’s new plan, rates next year will increase to $1.50 an hour on streets and in parking lots near the core area — essentially Third to Fifth streets and E Street to the rail station. Street parking meters outside the premium area will remain at $1 an hour.

Meanwhile, the First and Seventh street garages each will offer an hour of free parking and a rate of 50 cents each hour thereafter. The current rate at all public garages is 75 cents an hour.

“In the last five years we’ve seen a steady increase (in demand) for parking,” said Kim Nadeau, the city’s parking manager.

The new rates, she said, seek to shift use in ways that “make it easier for people to find a place to park” in the heart of downtown, provided they are willing to pay a little more for the convenience.

Stopping by the plaza’s B Street entrance Thursday, resident Larry Martin said the various changes in parking won’t affect him because he walks downtown from his home north of Railroad Square. But friends already have expressed frustration about the change in the plaza’s parking rates.

“I heard a lot of complaints,” he said, including from friends who formerly parked at the plaza for free for 90 minutes in order to use a downtown gym. Martin acknowledged the gym was outside the shopping center, but he said the mall still benefited whenever those working out popped into a store afterward.

Santa Rosa resident Victoria Flores parked at the plaza Thursday and observed, “I’ve never seen the garage so empty.”

Flores said she would prefer a system where the shopping center validated parking tickets when a patron made a typical purchase. The plaza does validate tickets, but only for purchases of $200 or more.

Both Martin and Flores said a parking charge of $1 doesn’t sound like much, but it can affect shoppers’ behavior.

Flores noted the plaza has one of the city’s two Macy’s stores, with the second at the Coddingtown shopping center west of Highway 101.

With the new parking rates, she said, “If I need to go to Macy’s, I’ll go to Coddingtown.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.