Free parking is coming to downtown Santa Rosa sooner than expected, an effort to help merchants who have suffered sales drops since last month’s wildfires.

As part of a broader parking policy change, the city had been planning to roll out free parking for the first hour and lower rates thereafter beginning Jan. 1 in two of the largest but underutilized parking garages.

But wildfires that made downtown Santa Rosa a ghost town for several days in mid-October caused city officials to move up the free parking date to Friday Nov. 24, the day after Thanksgiving and the traditional start of the holiday shopping season.

“We felt it was the right thing to do because we are getting a lot of merchants saying that there are fewer people downtown,” said Debbi Lauchner, the city’s chief financial officer. “It’s a goodwill gesture.”

Making parking free for the first hour and lowering the garage rate from 75 cents per hour to 50 cents are designed to encourage people to use Garage 1 on Seventh Street and Garage 12 on First Street, which are several blocks from the busiest downtown commercial area along Fourth Street.

The rate reduction in underutilized garages was originally envisioned to be paired with a rate increase in high-demand areas, a concept known as demand-based pricing or progressive parking

Those busiest areas in the downtown core are slated to receive a parking rate increase for meters from $1 to $1.50 per hour and extended collection periods by two hours to 8 p.m.

Those rate increases are still set to go into effect in Jan. 1, but there has been some pushback by some prominent downtown retailers.

Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner of Russian River Brewing Company on Fourth Street, said she’s asked the City Council to postpone the Jan. 1 rate changes. Her business hasn’t recovered from reunification of Old Courthouse Square, which she says has steered traffic away from downtown, and the fires have only exacerbated the sales drop. Her October sales are off 30 percent from last year, she said.

“After the fires tourism died,” Cilurzo said. “It just dried up.”

Now she hopes the city will postpone the new demand-based parking program to avoid what she worries will make an already confusing and inconsistent parking policy even worse. Her customers aren’t going to walk to a parking garage four blocks away with a box of beer and a half-eaten pizza, so they’ll see the rate increase and extension of collection hours as one more reason to avoid downtown, she said.

“It’s not about the money,” Cilurzo said. “It’s just about the principle of it all.”

The City Council takes up the new rates for the two garages at its Tuesday meeting, which starts at 4 p.m. at City Hall.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.