Federal court clerk Chris Sawyer gave up parking in his favorite lot near Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles last summer when the monthly rate jumped to $100 from $55.
"I couldn't afford it," he said, "so I had to go back to Chinatown." But that's where his Jeep had been broken into, and his walk to the courthouse takes twice as long from there. Soon the price at his Chinatown lot climbed from about $60 to $80 a month.
Cheap, convenient parking -- as Southern Californians have long known and expected it -- is getting harder to find, particularly in high-density places such as Hollywood, Santa Monica and downtown Los Angeles.
Two hours in an office building garage in Century City can set you back $28, more than twice what it cost in the early 1990s. Club hopping in Hollywood? It could cost $60 before you even tip the valet.
Commuters who paid as little as $80 a month in downtown Los Angeles in the early 1990s are being hit up for as much as $300 for unreserved spaces. Prefer a prime slot with your name on it? Be prepared to write a check for more than $500 a month.
Basic economics -- rising demand and declining supply -- explain the parking price surge.
With five years of economic growth adding a stream of new buildings and residents, many lots and garages are filling up or disappearing. Housing developers in particular have converted downtown and Hollywood lots into residential buildings. With downtown land prices now surpassing $300 a square foot, it doesn't make economic sense to buy land just to use it for parking, consultants say.
The rise in prices also underscores the region's transformation from an extended suburbia into a more densely occupied urban center with the kind of parking challenges more common in major metropolises such as New York or Chicago.
Nowhere is the shift more evident than in downtown Los Angeles, where acres of asphalt are giving way to housing, stores and other attractions that people want to visit -- by car, of course.
Downtown prices are rising not only on standard surface lots, but also in the garages of fancy high-rise office towers as the buildings finally begin to fill with workers after many years of low occupancy.
The expectation of cheap parking has been kicked to the curb in parts of Hollywood, especially during peak weekend hours for the district's popular nightspots. With 55 clubs in the area, parking lots intended to serve them are frequently overbooked.
"It costs $5 during the day, then $25, $40 or $50 after dark," said Tricia LaBelle, owner of Boardner's, a Cherokee Avenue watering hole since 1942. The scale often slides, she says, because some lot operators charge what they find the market will bear hour by hour.
Sometimes the price even hits $100 to secure prompt valet service, club operator Elizabeth Peterson said, "but $60 is usually about the most on a weekend."
There aren't nearly enough high rollers to go around, though, and business owners worry that high parking costs will drive away the average clubbers who have been flocking to Hollywood.
"We have seen a dip in business at many clubs because people can't get in here," LaBelle said. "After years of dramatic increases, business is leveling off."
Hollywood nightclub owner and restaurateur David Gajda called the high parking prices "an absolute mess."
"People are going to be so frustrated they are not going to come," he said.
Eagle Rock residents Jacob Calvache and Angie Garcia got off comparatively easy late last Friday night, paying $20 to park next to the club Avalon at Hollywood and Vine.
"Everybody needs to make a profit, I guess," Calvache said sarcastically. "It's a little outrageous, but it's not unexpected."
Such price pressures could stunt Southern Californians' storied love affair with their cars, some experts suggest, though most evidence of changes in behavior is anecdotal. Public transportation advocates say that rising costs of driving will push motorists into mass transit, especially if employers stop subsidizing their workers' parking habits.
"People are shifting," said Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition, a nonprofit organization based in Sylmar. "They don't like to pay for parking. If transit can replace that need, people will choose it."
Thousands of Los Angeles County commuters already ditch their cars at Metro Rail stations every weekday so they can hop a train to work. Although general parking is free, some stops are so crowded that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority offers reserved parking for a price.
Higher prices are translating into fatter profits for parking lot owners. Each stall on the average downtown lot grosses about $10,000 a year, said industry expert Bill Francis of Walker Parking Consultants. So a lot with 100 parking spots would bring in $1 million with very little operating costs.
"Now is a good time to be a parking operator," Francis said.