Noe Valley Voice September 2001

A Tempest in a Walgreen's Parking Lot

By Kathy Dalle Molle

It looked as if Noe Valley was heading for parking-lot Armageddon during the first few days of August, after the Walgreen's drugstore at the corner of Castro and Jersey unveiled a new pay-for-parking policy at its adjacent lot.

On the morning of Aug. 1, a sign appeared at the lot entrance stating that "customer parking while shopping" was "free with validation," but otherwise the charge would be $2 per 20 minutes, with a $14 maximum. A man in uniform stood nearby, handing out time-stamped tickets. By noon, a line of cars was blocking the sidewalk, and cranky drivers were collaring the lot attendant, demanding to know what gives.

Many were longtime residents who wondered whether Walgreen's had forgotten the agreement it made 13 years ago with Friends of Noe Valley. In the late 1980s, the neighborhood group had strongly protested the chain store's opening in Noe Valley (Walgreen's was replacing Little Bell, a mid-size grocery store with San Francisco roots). To win Friends' approval, Walgreen's consented to let anyone, whether they shopped at the drugstore or not, park free in the lot, for up to 60 minutes.

Now, Walgreen's appeared to be reneging. And Noe Valley's Old Guard was on the warpath.

"I am totally horrified," declared one irate woman in a phone message to the Voice. "When I was complaining to the attendant, someone else was there freaking out, too."

"Walgreen's is going back on its agreement with the neighborhood," another one railed. "This is all about money. Walgreen's is a big corporation, and its bottom line is about making money."

On Aug. 2, the second day of the new policy, Walgreen's assistant store manager, Darathy Bernardo, was outside waving an olive branch. She reassured customers that the store was not backing out of its longstanding agreement and noted that the confusion lay in the sign used by the lot attendant, Tower Valet Parking. Tower had been contracted to monitor the busy Noe Valley lot along with two other heavily congested Walgreen's lots, one on Lombard and another on Polk Street. But the local attendant had not been made aware of the special policy for the Noe Valley store. (The other two lots limit parking to 30 minutes, for Walgreen's shoppers only.)

That afternoon, Bernardo pasted a white sheet of paper that read "Free Parking for One Hour" over part of Tower's sign. She also taped similar signs on the walls of the building and asked Medet Zira, owner of Tower, to install a new sign telling shoppers they could still park at Walgreen's even if they didn't enter the store.

"This store has a special agreement with the neighborhood," Bernardo explained to Zira as a small crowd of neighbors gathered around to eavesdrop on their conversation.

"This is a policy from a long time ago, and we weren't aware of it," Zira responded. "All we knew was that people were abusing the lot and we were supposed to be here to help."

While Zira was happy to comply with Bernardo's request to change his sign, he was taken aback by the neighborhood's angry attitude.

"We've been working at the other two Walgreen's lots since late spring," he said, "and there have been absolutely no problems. Everything went smoothly right from the start. Customers were thrilled that they could now find a place to park when they came to shop, because before, a lot of people were parking for longer than the allotted time and then going someplace else."

But Bernardo defended the neighborhood. "Our customers who understand the new policy are glad about it," she said. "It's just that the sign was confusing, so a lot of people thought they had to pay to park."

Pay $8 If You Go Over an Hour

Actually, they will have to pay if they stay too long. According to Bernardo and fellow assistant manager Ming Fang, the only real change in their store's parking policy is that people who park in the lot for more than an hour will now be charged a fee of $8. (The $2 to $14 rate is now obsolete.)

Until last month, Fang said, the Walgreen's policy had been to tow cars that abused the one-hour parking privilege. But the lot was rarely monitored, so few cars were actually towed.

"Customers have been complaining a lot about not being able to get a space, so we wanted to be able to control the parking situation a bit more than we'd been able to in the past," said Fang. "This is a nice neighborhood. It's not our intention to make everybody mad. This [new policy] is about doing a better job of monitoring the lot, so customers will have a place to park when they need it."

Walgreen's spokesperson Michael Polzin, based at the chain's corporate headquarters in Deerfield, Ill., confirmed Fang's explanation. "A lot of people were parking in the lot and heading off to work downtown and taking the spaces all day. Posting signs with the hour limit was not enough, so we hired Tower to enforce the one-hour policy."

Walgreen's also wants Noe Valley residents to know that the new policy is not a way to put more money into the chain's corporate pockets. "Walgreen's absolutely does not receive any income from the lot," said Polzin.

"The money goes to Tower," said Fang. "Walgreen's is not making a profit off the lot. That would not be right. Even though this is a private lot, we have an agreement with the neighborhood, and we are going to stick by it."

Added Zira of Tower, "The point is not the money. It's about getting people to park here for no more than an hour."

Lot Attendant Almost Quits

In fact, parking attendant Oktay Turan told the Voice that in the first week of operation, while issuing some 350 to 400 tickets a day, he had collected a total of $8 from just one driver. He noted that one delinquent shopper offered to pay $2, but he refused the money.

"It's really at my discretion about charging people," Turan said. "Yesterday, an older woman parked here for two hours, but she didn't understand the policy, so I didn't charge her. I explained that from now on, she could park an hour for free, but if she stayed longer she would have to pay."

Turan also said that if he saw someone get out of a car, "having a really hard time walking," he wouldn't burden them with a ticket. He also allows disabled people to park in the blue zone in the lot and doesn't issue them a ticket.

But Turan admitted that his first few days on the job were so rough, dealing with angry people, that he pondered quitting.

"People were really giving me a hard time," he explained. "They were hounding me. They told me, 'I don't like this,' and so I asked why. They said, 'You figure it out,' and would turn their head up and walk away. I explained to them that we needed to do this. Otherwise, people would never leave the lot."

By the second week of operation, however, with a new sign installed, things had quieted down considerably. "People have calmed down," Turan said. "There hasn't been as much complaining. Only a few people say, 'This is ridiculous. I don't want to carry a ticket.'"

Some have even found their manners. "About 60 people have said, 'Thank you -- it's about time something was done,'" Turan said.

Indeed, several shoppers the Voice questioned on Aug. 7 were reacting positively to the change.

"The policy seems fair," said Susie Korn, who lives in the Castro. "People have an hour to park and do their shopping on 24th Street. That seems like plenty of time."

"Some people had been abusing the lot, and that's wrong," said Victor Dedini, who was at Walgreen's to pick up a prescription. "I have no problem with getting a ticket from a parking attendant."

"Things do seem to be better now," concurred Walgreen's Ming Fang. "People got paranoid because of the sign."

Still, this is Noe Valley, where parking is so scarce, any shift in parking policy can cause anxiety. Carolyn Ellingson, a former Noe Valley resident who now lives in the Sunset but continues to shop on 24th Street, remains wary.

"I'm afraid I'm now going to come to the lot and not be able to get in, because people are going to pay $8 and stay for hours," said Ellingson. "This was a place where I could park quickly, run in to stores, and then dash out and leave. There was such great turnover in the lot that I could always find a space. Now, if I get parked out of the lot, what good is this new policy?"

Walgreen's free one-hour parking policy, with an $8 fee after one hour, is enforced from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday and from 9 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.