The north parking lot shaded by U.S. Highway 281 next to the Pearl was filling up quickly on Saturday morning as families, couples, friends, and their dogs arrived at the restored former brewery to shop, eat, and stroll. 

But parking in the lot is no longer free — a change Pearl owners began to pilot late last year saying it would help them better manage the popular destination’s 3,000 spaces. 

So as the would-be shoppers started toward the weekend farmers market, many stopped to scan a QR code displayed on orange-painted sandwich boards in order to pay the weekend rate of $8.

Though caught off guard by the change, most who spoke to the San Antonio Report were resigned to the fact that parking was no longer free. The hassle was another story. 

Carolyn Brensinger was visiting the Pearl farmers market with friend Katy Scully, but like others who had parked in the lot, struggled to connect to the digital payment site managed by LAZ Parking. In addition, the payment tower was not working, frustrating Pearl visitors. A parking attendant in a branded vehicle said a new battery would be installed soon. 

While the attendant eventually came along and assisted Brensinger, Scully wondered aloud what the parking fees are used for. “The money should go to the farmers,” she said. 

Bob, a Pearl Ambassador, helps Carolyn Bresinger pay for parking using her phone at the Pearl Saturday. The website appeared to be malfunctioning making it difficult for some visitors to complete the payment.
Bob Jostad, a Pearl parking ambassador, helps Carolyn Brensinger pay for parking using her phone at the Pearl Saturday. The website appeared to be malfunctioning making it difficult for some visitors to complete the payment. Credit: Shari Biediger San Antonio Reoprt

Others parking in the area, including Steve and Amy Poss, who recently moved to San Antonio from Oklahoma City, didn’t realize they had to pay for parking, having last visited when it was free. They were also stymied by the slow upload speed of the online payment site. 

When they learned of available free parking spaces at the Pearl, the couple got back in their car and moved it. “That’s eight more dollars I can spend at the vendors,” Steve said. 

Some customers unable to connect and pay by phone gave up and took a chance they wouldn’t be spotted, even as a parking attendant circulated through the lots using license plate reader technology to spot car owners who hadn’t paid. 

Since November, three areas at the Pearl have been marked as “premium parking,” where spaces tend to fill quickly. 

Those are beneath the highway overpasses — property the Pearl owners lease from the Texas Department of Transportation — and in a lot between the Full Goods Building and La Gloria Pearl. See the map here.

The cost is a flat fee of $3 Monday through Thursday, and $8 Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The first 30 minutes is free, said Parking Ambassador Bob Jostad, so people who just want to stop in for a cup of coffee or to run a quick errand don’t have to pay. 

The revenue from parking fees at the Pearl goes toward improving the pedestrian experience at the Pearl, said Pearl spokeswoman Jennifer Chowning in an email. “We are working on adding green space, programming, and overall general improvements to the public spaces,” she stated.

But the majority of Pearl parking remains free.

Those spaces include the Koehler Garage at Isleta and Emma Koehler roads and the River West Parking Lot located on East Elmira, between East Myrtle and Schiller. 

San Antonio resident Heather D’Angelo shopping at the Pearl with Krissy Hess, who was visiting from Warren, Illinois, chose to park in the East Elmira lot to avoid the parking fees. It’s a habit D’Angelo developed over the last six years of visiting the Pearl. 

“A lot of people don’t know it’s back here,” she said. But if it wasn’t free, she would visit the Pearl less often. “You’re not going to pay for parking to go have an ice cream cone … I think they’re hurting their small businesses.”

Free parking itself can be a premium in many major metropolitan areas, including San Antonio. A map on the LAZ Parking website shows multiple lots throughout downtown that charge $5 to $10.

A vehicle exits the free parking lot at the Pearl Saturday.
A vehicle exits the free parking lot at the Pearl Saturday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

In downtown Dallas, near the popular Klyde Warren Park, parking garages located within a few minutes’ walk of the urban park charge $10; metered parking is also available in the area. 

Melina Cano, who was visiting from Houston, found the free Pearl lot using GPS which led her straight to East Elmira. 

“Nothing is free [in Houston]. You park there for a couple of minutes, you’ve got to pay,” Cano said. “Even Galveston, even Kemah. Everything’s crazy — pay, pay, pay, pay, pay.”

New Braunfels resident Courtney Cooke was at the Pearl on Saturday with Noah Jones, looking forward to shopping at the farmers market. “I wish it was free, but I guess people gotta make money,” Cooke said. 

Karen Burke said she visits the market every Saturday, paying for parking in the 281 North lot each time. “I don’t know where the free areas are because I’ve always parked right here,” she said. 

Many visitors to the Pearl, however, are residents of the growing number of apartments and condos in the area, and never have to look for a parking space, much less pay. 

One passerby strolling through the parking lot said she shops there almost weekly. The five-minute walk from her apartment on Broadway is easy, and free. 

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.