Tenfold increase

Posted: April 02, 2013

A HOT STRAWBERRY-BLOND PR gal, Lori, is driving her hot T-Bird convertible north on La Cienega to the hottest restaurant in L.A. I am in the shotgun seat.

The orange sun hasn't dipped into the blue Pacific. We're early. The wide street is empty. Lori passes 100 yards of clear curb and stops in front of the valet.

I offer a news flash. "Lori, there are a million parking spaces."

She smiles sweetly and says, "Stu, in L.A. everyone valets," making a verb out of a noun.

Years later, in Philly, owners of businesses - mostly restaurants and hotels - that ordered up "reserved-for-valet" parking spaces from the city got a severe case of sticker shock.

The fee for each 20-foot space, which had been $250, exploded to $2,500. That's for holding curb space on four or more nights.

For the tenfold increase, thank cooperation between City Councilman Jim Kenney, who introduced the fee-readjustment bill in City Council, and the Philadelphia Parking Authority. (The fee for users of spaces for three or fewer nights increased to $1,500.)

None of this affects the valet customer who uses the service, which charges $18-20 in Center City depending on the night. With rates so high and with some Center City restaurants having suburban branches with free parking, that's another excuse for suburbanites to steer clear of Center City. The city should make it easier for motorists, not harder, one restaurant general manager told me. But, as I've said before, the city prefers to discourage motorists. Not "green." Doesn't like them.

Another GM told me that nightly valet rates are set by "a collaboration among peers," meaning restaurants talk with each other to avoid a valet-fee price war. Sounds a little like price-fixing, but that's a different topic.

Businesses wanting reserved valet-parking spaces pay the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which sends the city the portion of the fee not spent on enforcement. Anything that sends money Philly's way is a plus, I think.

In the current fiscal year, valet-parking-zone fees come to some $382,000, with about $350,000 going to the city, says PPA spokesman Marty O'Rourke, who admits to a "slight reduction" in the number of valet zones following the tenfold increase.

"The fee was based on the amount of money a meter would make in a year," Kenney told me, and he also wanted PPA to "crack down on valet guys who hog legal spaces."

Yes, it happens. You hand your car to a valet and instead of taking your car to a lot or garage, he sometimes parks at a metered space (if available), and if your car gets a ticket, he ditches it and you get the bill a few weeks later.

Lots of restaurateurs bitched anonymously to me about the fee increase.

One who went on the record was Garth Weldon, owner of the Prime Rib in the Warwick Hotel, who quit his three spaces on Locust west of 17th rather than shell out $7,500 a year for the "amenity" for his customers.

George Thompson, general manager of Ruth's Chris, uses only one space but called the increase "quite shocking from a bottom-line perspective."

Hard to disagree.

Granted anonymity, another GM complained that being hammered with a huge fee increase is another way Philly gives the back of its hand to business.

Kenney disagrees, saying businesses had been undercharged but are now rightly charged.

Each side has a point, but I don't have a horse in this race. This isn't "park-to-impress" L.A. In Philly, I think valets are for the infirm or lazy elitists.

Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Columns: philly.com/Byko

Blog: philly.com/stuniversity

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