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Shopping Maul Parking : The Holiday Spirit Often Turns Ugly in the Hunt for Much-Coveted Spaces


They're a thriving urban species lurking in shopping mall parking lots across Southern California. They're ruthless. They possess well-honed hunting senses. And they strike way, way before they can see the whites of your eyes.

They're parking sharks.

Ronny Stevenson, who works for a firm that manages 200 parking lots throughout Los Angeles, has seen them at work. She can almost hear the theme from "Jaws" playing in the background these days. Because, like icy predators from the deep, the parking sharks stalk crowded lots, moving slowly, scoping out the package-laden pedestrians who will lead them back to that much-sought-after prize of the holiday shopping season:

The mall parking spot.

"It's Christmas. It's the season to be aggressive," said Stevenson, parking director for Century Parking Inc. which also manages the parking structure at the Sherman Oaks Galleria. "And what better place to take out your aggressions than your local mall parking garage?"

Stevenson knows all their moves. There are the predators who think nothing of going the wrong way down busy traffic lanes, thrashing in front of some unsuspecting law-abider to capture a precious spot. Then there are the lowest of the low-down dirty sharks who slip into handicapped spaces.

"Angry motorists ram other cars who have beaten them to spaces," said Stevenson, a veteran of 15 holiday seasons. "People have gotten out of cars. Threats have been made. Punches have been thrown."

Shopper Roger Garrett arrived early enough at the Galleria on Saturday to avoid those who later in the day would have beaten him to spots and then laughed in his face. "While it's an uncivilized way to act, I don't jump out and confront them," Garrett said. "It's not worth my life."

So much for Christmas cheer.

As the crowds surge at local malls, leading proprietors have devised some ingenious ways to deal with the sudden glut of cars, trucks and kiddie-laden minivans.

At some of the busiest malls, smiling valets will park your car for free. Other shopping malls have asked employees to park in off-site lots to open more spaces for customers.

And at the Glendale Galleria, parking is a zoo. Literally.

Shoppers there have the option of parking at the nearby Los Angeles Zoo and taking regular shuttles to and from the mall. "Our mall is no different than any other during the holidays," said Glendale Galleria marketing director Deborah Blackford. "You never have enough spaces."

Most mall developers make costly studies on reaching just the right customer-parking space ratios. Still, when the mall is completed, there often remains a curious car conundrum: If you have enough parking spaces during the Christmas season, the lot looks empty the rest of the year--not exactly an incentive for customers.

"Really, this is a problem you like to have in the mall business," said Mark Shoifet, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. "It means that your mall is a success."

But yet, said Joy DeBacker, a vice president of Sherman Oaks Galleria, along with the crowds come the caustic moments.

"People are stressed," she said. "They have a lot of items to be gotten at multiple malls, and each one presents a new parking challenge."

On Saturday, Bart Hall limped back to his car with the use of a cane. He says a recent injury has given him a curious vantage point to the mall parking scene.

"People cut in front of you for a spot, then when they see your cane, they roll down their window and say, 'Gee, sorry I cut in front of you.' But they don't offer the spot back," he said.

Hall, a towering Calabasas resident, says that his size is no advantage in the battle for spaces. "Ladies cut in front of you like it's their right. . . . If you get angry and get out of your car, you're a masher."

Hall said he has seen parking structure creatures who do their part to make the holidays tense: Like those who take two spaces so no one will dent the doors of their Porsche. Or the the ones who move in slow motion as they load their packages in the trunk, unlock the door and settle behind the wheel.

But no mall situation is more charged as when two shoppers arrive at the same space at the same time.

Northridge Fashion Square marketing director Annette Bethers recalls the day security guards had to play negotiator to solve one such shopper standoff. "Both women had their noses in the same space and neither would back off," she recalled.

"Our security people had to talk them through it. We had to find one woman a guaranteed space before we could pull them apart."

At the Sherman Oaks Galleria on Saturday, shopper Phyllis Steinberg recalled the Sherman Oaks customer who came charging out of nowhere, cutting her off to grab her space. "I couldn't believe it," she said. "I told her, 'Hey, I was going to pull into that space! That's my space!' She just got out of her car, gave me a look to kill and said, 'I don't see your name on it.' "

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