Thanks to “seasonal adjustments” approved by the City Commission, during peak periods, valet parking can absorb as many as half of the parking spaces on the Bay front.

Let’s all meet at O’Leary’s at noon on Sunday, like we usually do. That’s what Adam Lawall, a native of Germany and 23 years a Michigan/Sarasota snowbird, told a dozen friends — from Sarasota, Tampa, California and Germany — who were all in town for the season and eager for their annual reunion at the popular tiki bar and grill on the bayfront.

As he drove along U.S. 41 to the rendezvous, Lawall glanced at the parking lot that runs from Marina Jack to O’Leary’s and saw it was nearly empty.

“Great!” he thought. “Plenty of room. We beat the rush.”

But after turning west at the Marina Jack entrance and left again toward the vacant spaces, he was halted by a car parked horizontally that barred access and a striped barrier with a sign reading “Valet Parking Only.”

Fortunately, Lawall saw a car pulling out of the completely full lot on the other side of the barrier, and quickly snagged the spot, as a line of other vehicles drove in circles, waiting for a similar lucky break.

His lunch companions weren’t as fortunate. It was 1 p.m. before the group finally assembled; several people had been forced to park on the other side of 41.

“I’m upset,” said Lawall in an email asking me to look into problem. “It’s a public area supposedly, and we pay taxes for that. But Marina Jack makes it their own, and the city condones it and gives them special privileges.”

I knew Marina Jack leased its property from the city in what some have called a “sweetheart” deal, but I wasn’t sure what the parking agreement was. And since I’d experienced the same frustration on occasion, I decided to call Mark Lyons, who officially is the city’s parking division manager, but is more often referred to as Sarasota’s “parking czar.”

“This comes up every year about this time,” Lyons sighed. “Recently we’ve had more people coming into the area, and this is one of the most used parking lots in the city. Old-timers think Marina Jack got this great deal and we’re losing out, but they do a great job and produce a lot revenue for the city, and all of this serves the community.”

According to Lyons, Marina Jack’s lease with the city gives it the right to use 82 parking spaces for valet parking — those lining the driveway to the restaurant entrance and in the front section of the lot to the south. But about a decade ago, as the recession receded and there was a marked uptick in traffic, it petitioned the City Commission for “seasonal adjustments” to boost the available spaces for valet service during winter months, and the request was granted.

Ever since, every six months, Marina Jack files a space request with the city, meant to apply during specified peak hours. The agreement dated last Dec. 19 gives the valet operator an additional 59 spaces (for 141 total) on Mondays and Tuesdays — the entire front lot along 41 from Marina Jack to O’Leary’s — and an additional 93 spaces (for a total of 175) north of the entrance on Wednesdays through Sundays.

For a special event, like the weeklong Suncoast Boat Show in April, the total jumps to 225. The maximum is never to exceed 275, Lyons added.

“As time has gone on, demand for valet has increased because Marina Jack’s has done a good job of keeping their restaurants relevant and very popular,” he said. “They’ve gotten so good it increases the demand, which makes this a bigger issue for us. The point I’d like to make is there about 600 parking spaces in the entire area and under the plan Marina Jack never exceeds well under half.”

When the public sees empty spaces, Lyons said, they’re not understanding that the valet operators have to block the area off early, in order to insure the spaces will be available when peak demand actually hits. He said the city attempts to monitor the situation “as close as we possibly can.”

“They might put the cones out there before the actual need, which gives the perception that it is underutilized and needs to be surrendered,” he said. “But for the most part it functions really well.”

Lyons pointed out the Marina Jack valet — like every valet operator in the city — is required to serve whoever comes to its stand, not just restaurant patrons. Lawall and his friends could have paid the $1 per vehicle required to valet park (a tip is nonobligatory, but nothing earmarks you faster as a skinflint than not leaving one) and then walked the length of the lot to O’Leary’s, he suggested.

When I mentioned that seemed counterintuitive — wasn’t the whole point of paying for parking to gain closer access? — he insisted the whole idea of using valets in the first place is “to minimize impact on public parking spaces.” (I’m still trying to figure that one out.)

As for Lawall and his friends, they decided to meet up again once more before everyone left town. But this time they opted for the University Park area.

“Parking was no problem, and it was a beautiful spot,” he said. “That’s our place from now on.”

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