PORTLAND – On weekends, customers bound for Trader Joe’s on Marginal Way often can be seen circling the grocery store’s small parking lot in search of a spot.

Some eventually disregard the reserved-parking signs in front of the nearby West Marine boating supplies business and pull into one of the spaces that are almost always available there.

That can turn a trip to the grocery into a far more expensive endeavor: Drivers may return to their car to find it immobilized with a Denver boot, and the parking attendant demanding $30 to have it removed.

Dan Hogan, a property manager with Fore River Management, which manages the building and the lot, said the fee is an enforcement tool, not a money-maker.

“It’s a lot less than the $85 minimum it would cost if the car was towed,” he said.

Furious customers have complained to police, but after looking into it, the city determined that the conflict is a civil matter, not criminal, said Trish McAllister, the police department’s neighborhood prosecutor.

“It’s their property,” she said.

Owners of many private parking lots will have cars towed if they’re not authorized to be in the lot, but won’t have them booted – something that’s long been the domain of the city’s parking enforcement division.

Warren Elsaesser, manager at West Marine, said that after Trader Joe’s opened in October 2010, West Marine’s customer count dropped 10 percent by the next year. In 2012, it dropped another 6 percent.

He said the declines probably can’t be attributed to the down economy, because revenue actually has gone up.

“We have lost quite a few of our customers,” he said, and many customers now call ahead to find out whether parking is available.

A supervisor at Trader Joe’s said no one at the store was authorized to talk to the press, and the store manager did not return a call for comment.

Elsaesser said it’s not West Marine that’s cracking down on parking, it’s Fore River Management. In fact, Elsaesser has told his employees to focus on business and not get involved in the parking issue.

Still, it’s hard when people pull up right in front of the store’s entrance, get out and walk across the lot to Trader Joe’s, he said.

Some are a little more subtle. They park, take a quick stroll through the supply store, grab a free flier, then head to Trader Joe’s.

City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said the parking lot has 140 spaces for Trader Joe’s, with nearby off-street parking along Marginal Way.

She said the city didn’t want to approve a bigger lot when the store opened, partially because there are plans for a parking garage at Chestnut and Somerset streets, which would add 200 spaces.

The idea is for people to park there and walk around the neighborhood, she said. The city also wants to encourage people to walk and bike to Bayside from other parts of the city, and bigger parking lots aren’t part of that vision.

Clegg had no comment on Trader Joe’s customers parking at neighboring businesses, saying it’s a “tenant-to-tenant issue.”

Hogan said Fore River Management has been using the boot since Trader Joe’s opened three years ago, but he hasn’t tracked the number of offenders.

Some of the signs forbidding Trader Joe’s customers from parking outside their designated spots are tongue-in-cheek, saying illegally parked cars may be towed, booted or “crushed.”

West Marine once put up a joke sign saying parking cost $50. “A few people actually came in and asked who to pay,” Elsaesser said.

Hogan said none of it has made much of a difference. “I actually think it will get worse,” he said.

On a recent Saturday morning, some Trader Joe’s shoppers sat in their cars for minutes, waiting for parking spaces to free up. With no parking attendant in sight, others took their chances with prohibited spots.

George Sprague of Bath said he didn’t know that he risked getting booted when he parked at West Marine before dashing into Trader Joe’s for a can of coffee.

“I knew I would be in and out,” he said.

Diana Simonds of North Yarmouth said she decided to take no chances, even though that meant circling the lot for awhile.

The quest for precious parking spots causes some hazards, the neighboring businesses say.

“They drive through this place like a race course,” Elsaesser said.

The property includes a Walgreens drugstore, Eastern Mountain Sports and MRG Rock Climbing Center, and Salon Centric.

“There’s increased traffic, and this sort of frenetic energy out there — a small space with a lot of people driving through it,” said Chuck Curry, who works at the rocking climbing gym. “It’s not that they’re bad drivers; it’s just a lot of cars looking for a parking space. It can get a little crazy.”

He said the gym has many members who come to climb but take a pass if the lot is full. “I think it just keeps a lot of people away,” he said.

Curry says the parking attendant hired by the management company gets a lot of abuse from people whose cars get the boot.

“People really take the stick to him,” he said. “He’s really nice to people, but he still gets the short end of the stick.”

 

– Staff Writers Leslie Bridgers and Beth Quimby contributed to this report.

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com