Some San Diego valet companies, paid for convenience, are taking advantage of loose regulations, monopolizing street parking and violating city traffic codes, an NBC 7 Investigates undercover investigation found.
Most nights, it's stiff competition for free street parking downtown. Using undercover cameras, NBC 7 Investigates followed valets in downtown hotspots, where parking is at a premium.
The investigation found it's not just the visitors in the Gaslamp Quarter and Little Italy vying for the spots. Valets are too. Something a City of San Diego spokesman confirms is a violation of city traffic code.
Bunnie Rambo is a frequent visitor to Little Italy. She said she never self-parks. Instead, she always pays a $9 valet fee to the Little Italy Association to have them park her car.
“I feel safer when I just get my car from the valet and then also it is easier to find parking,” Rambo said.
With NBC 7 Investigates cameras rolling, Rambo's Toyota was tracked to a metered parking space, directly across the street from the Little Italy valet stand where she left it. A violation, according to the city’s valet permit requirements, which prohibits valet companies from storing cars in the public right of way.
“So, I paid them and they just parked across the street? Wow! I could have done that for free,” Rambo said.
Rambo's experience is not unique. For six weekends NBC 7 Investigates documented valet municipal code violations apparently going unchecked.
By using free public spaces, spaces the public would otherwise be using, valet companies can hold down their costs associated with paying for lots and garages.
NBC 7 Investigates' undercover video shows Parkway Valet, located in the Gaslamp Quarter, doing just that.
According to its permit application, company owner, Joshua Baker is renting parking spaces from Ace Parking's Broadway garage.
After handing over the keys to an NBC news car, NBC 7 Investigates used GPS to track where the Parkway Valet attendant took the vehicle.
Identified by the number “81” on the bumper, the news car was driven in the opposite direction of the Broadway garage. It was found parked on 2nd Avenue just south of Market Street. It did not have a valet tag on the window and it was parked in a red zone, meaning it could have been towed at the owner's expense.
The valet attendant tried to retrieve the car twice. The first time, he denied he parked the car there and ran away. The attendant returned less than 10 minutes later using his uniform to cover his face. He ignored NBC 7 Investigates' questions.
NBC 7 Investigates attempted to speak with Baker multiple times. He agreed to an interview but then didn’t show up. A visit to the address listed on Parkway Valet’s city permit found a vacant lot. In a phone conversation, Baker said he is between offices and was planning on getting out of the valet business.
In an email, Anthony Santacroce, a public information officer for the City of San Diego said, the city is asking Parkway Valet for "a valid Business Tax Certificate as a condition of maintaining its permit with the City...Should the company fail to provide that proof as requested, its permit will be suspended and the Police Department will be notified that the company must cease operations."
In Little Italy, NBC 7 Investigates parked cars twice using the Little Italy Association valet service.
The first time, the news car was parked for 45 minutes in a metered space marked with a “Free after 6pm” sign. The parking spot was directly across the street from one of three off-street parking lots the Little Italy Association designates for valet, according to its city permit.
Little Italy Association District Manager Christopher Gomez oversees the company's valet service. He said he couldn't be more disappointed with the undercover video NBC 7 Investigates showed him.
“The intent with the valet program, is to pull vehicles off the street,” he said. “It's not to relocate them to a public space number one, it's part of the agreement. That's what we sign off on.”
Valet attendants store another news car for just under 15 minutes in the valet's designated drop-off zone. A violation of city code, the city confirms, which prohibits valet companies from parking cars in drop-off zones for more than three minutes.
Gabriella Merchant lives directly across from where the car was parked. So frustrated with losing spaces to valet attendants on weekends she says she now travels only on foot.
“It's not fair especially when you are paying rent to live here and we don't have a designated spot,” Merchant said.
There appears to be no sacred space on Merchant's street.
NBC 7 Investigates cameras recorded attendants parking cars in the loading zone two doors up.
One time it took two valets to squeeze a vehicle in the spot.
“There is definitely a break in communication where staff is not following protocol and that is something we cannot stand for,” Gomez said.
Parking in public spaces didn't happen one night but every night NBC 7 Investigates was watching. Tiny Little Italy Association valet stubs could be found tucked under the wipers of cars parked in places their permits and the city code says they’re not supposed to be.
“They're taking a public parking space and making you pay for it, “Rambo said.
San Diego traffic patrols are responsible for policing the parking in these downtown neighborhoods. Breaking the rules, can mean a ticket.
Not for valets. City of San Diego spokesman Bill Harris confirmed that, to date, valets have never been cited.
Harris declined a request for an on-camera interview but in an email confirmed the descriptions of what NBC 7 Investigates found would be violations of city code.
After viewing the undercover video, a Little Italy Association representative sent an email to NBC 7 Investigates and said, the association “called a valet employee meeting to reiterate all parking and street regulations of employee's original contracts.”
The association also “created an additional agreement stating valet employees will be terminated if they violate any parking and street regulations - all agreements have been signed by valet employees. Whenever a problem is brought to the Little Italy Association's attention it is our number one priority to resolve it as quickly as possible.”
UPDATE: Through the California Public Records Act, NBC 7 Investigates learned how much the Little Italy Association pays the San Diego Unified School District to park vehicles in the Washington Elementary parking lot. The cars are parked at the elementary school after school hours Monday through Saturday.
According to the documents, Little Italy was originally charged $1,700 a month ($1,690 for parking and $11 for a monthly permit.) That amount was increased to $3,390 a month in October 2016 when the valet company wanted to increase the number of days they park cars from three to six.
To view payment details for this agreement for 2016 and early 2017, click here.