Car-toting thieves seek ‘free’ parking spots in San Francisco

By Jackie Wattles , CNN Written by

If it’s a surprise receipt you’ve been searching for after a long day of work, fear not: it’s just a thief stealing your lunch. And maybe you can avoid paying for a green slot in the afternoon.

This type of shady behavior, known as garage fraud, is not new in the US — but an artful sign at a soon-to-be-complete community complex in San Francisco is helping to further curb fraud and discourage illegal residents.

By advertising that the pay lots you use are “free,” fillings such as these advertise that a “green slot” is “Free Parking during open business hours only.”

“The sign says ‘you’ve got to work for it.'” San Francisco public works director Mohammed Nuru says. “That kind of catches people’s attention when they’re driving out.

“Why would you drive out into the streets and park for 20 or 30 minutes, have lunch and then come back and do it all over again. It’s silly.”

Nuru led the effort to create the 1,120-space community-owned garages that dot the edges of San Francisco’s iconic Green P parcel in Pacific Heights. It’s a prime spot to park on a sunny afternoon in the summertime. The city spent $650 million to construct the community garages as part of a redevelopment effort aimed at replacing blighted, privately owned spaces with new, public spaces.

‘Stupid, illegal thing’

Stolen bikes are a big issue in San Francisco. Oakland has about 500 bike thefts per week, many of which occur on city streets. Meanwhile, drivers there were paying $63 million a year in parking fees. Adding the 60-plus Bayview-Hunters Point and Hunters Point neighborhoods onto that, as well as the Green P lot, would have cost taxpayers an additional $12 million. The city council voted unanimously to approve a revitalization plan for the area.

Ramon Amaya, San Francisco’s deputy director of planning and community development, says most of the parking lots are just as easily breached as those in Oakland, requiring more elaborate signs to deter the problem.

“The trick is that Green P lots are an especially sensitive issue for this sort of thing. We need to be sure that people are really understanding and actually protecting their pockets.

“People are out of those spaces. There’s parking out there. Most of the time, people just leave them there and that’s what’s unusual about a lot like this,” he says.

One of the signs in the park where Gloria Harnisch bought an HDTV is part of that strategy. Harnisch thinks of the garage lot as a “space for service, not for free parking.”

“It’s a stupid, illegal thing to be doing out there. When you find parking there, you just pay. It’s an unfair situation.”

The green circles embedded in the curbs have already begun to attract operators looking to organize cyclists around their shared concern for green spaces.

Amaya says the typical thief driving on the streets is likely an older, local who wouldn’t be targeting the types of parking spaces provided in the new community lot.

“Our crime statistics in the city are pretty consistent,” he says. “They tend to be older; they tend to be on fixed incomes; they tend to be the occasional car thief that people don’t notice.”

The signs, designating spots as “free” or “limited time slots,” will likely soon be retired from the lot, once the new ones are up. The number of garage fraud incidents has been dropping throughout the city, Amaya says.

“Our crime statistics on the garage fraud and car theft are down a lot. We’re feeling very good about being in a better place.”

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