San Diego Repertory Theatre just wrapped its bestselling show of all time. Thousands of people packed the Lyceum Theatre at the foot of downtown’s Horton Plaza shopping center to see actor Hershey Felder’s one-man show, “Maestro.”
For the theater, the show’s success is bittersweet.
Late last month, Horton Plaza owner Westfield changed its parking policy, yanking its popular free three-hour parking option and replacing it with just one hour of complimentary parking.
For decades, Lyceum attendees enjoyed up to four hours of free parking at Horton Plaza. Those who saw “Maestro” suddenly faced a $24 fee.
San Diego Rep felt so badly for its patrons that the nonprofit covered their parking costs.
Larry Alldredge, San Diego Rep’s managing director, said the organization spent about $24,000 on parking passes for attendees.
“This is really a choice we made,” Alldredge said. “Since the parking policy changed so quickly we felt like the customers had bought their tickets with the expectation of having the free parking, which we’ve had for 30 years.”
Alldredge understands Westfield’s move to curb free parking – every other garage downtown charges, and its new fees are competitive. But he wishes the company would have given San Diego Rep advance warning so it could have prepared.
Plus, he thinks the theater deserves a special parking deal.
“I would have liked more time to talk through what was possible,” he said. “It was a very sudden rollout. We got the memo and that day was the day the new policy started.”
A movie theater and gym at Horton Plaza still offer three-hour validation for their customers, based on deals they have with Wesfield. Alldredge said San Diego Rep is negotiating for a similar agreement. Meanwhile, the Balboa Theatre at Horton Plaza – owned by the city, not Westfield – worked out its own deal and is offering patrons $10 parking passes.
In a statement, a Horton Plaza spokesperson said the Lyceum Theater provides a meaningful service, and it’s working with the theater to find a cost-effective parking solution.
Alldredge said he’ll argue the Lyceum is different than retail space. He’s OK with the $10 deal Balboa Theatre has, but he’d rather get to four free hours of parking.
Many arts organizations stage low-budget shows with cheap tickets at the Lyceum, he said. The cost of the ticket might not be much more than the $10 parking price. Free parking helped those shows succeed.
Lyceum Theatre is meant to be a public theater – the city leases the space, and San Diego Rep manages it for the city. That means it’s supposed to run on civic-minded goals like making the space accessible to a diverse range of audiences, presenters and users. Horton Plaza Theatres Foundation, the city-created nonprofit that oversees the theater, offers funding assistance to local nonprofit groups to use the space.
The funding assistance program aims to help it achieve that diversity. And the same arts groups that receive that funding also relied on the free parking – it’s a delicate equation that lets low-budget shows exist in a downtown venue. Losing the free parking could undermine the Lyceum’s goals for inclusivity and diversity.
Horton Plaza itself is on city-owned land. The city let the developer The Hahn Company build the retail center, hoping to spur nearby development, along with certain requirements and restrictions. For instance, the city got a share of parking revenue. Westfield took over the agreement with the city from Hahn in the ‘90s.
That agreement changed, however, in 2011 when the city and Westfield struck a deal to build the new Horton Plaza Park. The city gave up its share of parking revenue in exchange for property that housed the former Robinsons-May building turned into a park.
Westfield still has to adhere to the original spirit of the redevelopment deal. For instance, the property needs to remain a regional shopping center with no less than 600,000 square feet of retail space.
Alldredge said he wished he could wind back the clock and sit at the table with the city as it signed the lease for the Lyceum.
“Whoever negotiated the lease didn’t put in any parking protections,” Alldredge said. “I don’t know why parking is not part of that lease – I’ve wished many times that it had been.”
Now he says he’d like to see city leaders help ensure the future success of the Lyceum by stepping in to help negotiate a better parking deal.
“I think the city ought to at least be involved,” he said.