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The rise of Ace Parking's Jones family

Park there, pay here

People who would not cheat at solitaire, who never in their lives have made a personal long-distance telephone call from the office — think nothing of parking in an unattended lot and ignoring the slotted vertical box.
  • People who would not cheat at solitaire, who never in their lives have made a personal long-distance telephone call from the office — think nothing of parking in an unattended lot and ignoring the slotted vertical box.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

On the afternoon of the All-Star baseball game in July, Evan Jones was standing on top of one of those pedestrian towers that corkscrew up the side of San Diego Stadium. Jones is the owner and president of Ace Auto Parks and a couple of other companies that control the stadium’s lot, and most of the rest of San Diego’s publicly owned parking.

Evan Jones resembles the Don Quixote described in Richard Wilbur’s witty poem — a man with a view of success in every direction.

Evan Jones resembles the Don Quixote described in Richard Wilbur’s witty poem — a man with a view of success in every direction.

All afternoon, Jones had been spotting for the parking attendants on the ground — watching the traffic as it came off the freeways and into his section pf the stadium’s lot — then relaying his directions via walkie-talkie to other spotters on the ground, who relayed directions to the stackers, who were motioning the drivers to their parking slots. The operation flowed as smoothly as honey from a spoon.

At the community concourse, Jones installed devices to keep track of where the cars were parking.

At the community concourse, Jones installed devices to keep track of where the cars were parking.

This walkie-talkie method is one that Jones perfected at the stadium, where he has managed the parking since the lot opened in 1967. His advice has been sought at the stadiums in Dallas, Detroit, and Buffalo, as well as at Stanford University, his alma mater (poly sci. major; class of ’39).

He is sixty years old, has cold blue eyes, and just enough hair on the top of his head to string a ukulele. By the predominance of brown in his wardrobe, and by his plumpness and soft manners, Jones seems not so much a businessman as a friar, devoted to kindness, wisdom, and self-control.

Wendy Jones: “We’re all family, so we say what we want and everyone listens.”

Wendy Jones: “We’re all family, so we say what we want and everyone listens.”

He is rich. From his father, a well-to-do realtor in San Diego, Jones inherited an interest in the southwest comer of Fifth Avenue and B Street, across from the construction site of the new Bank of America building. On his own he founded the parking companies that last year earned, in gross income, about $500,000 from the stadium, Lindbergh Field, and the Sports Arena, not including the income from three parking lots in Hillcrest. seven in La Jolla, and forty in the heart of town.

Scott spotted a vacant lot next to the San Diego Repertory Theatre, at Sixth Avenue and Cedar Street, and drove to Carlsbad one day to persuade the property owner to charge theater patrons.

Scott spotted a vacant lot next to the San Diego Repertory Theatre, at Sixth Avenue and Cedar Street, and drove to Carlsbad one day to persuade the property owner to charge theater patrons.

The only people who normally get excited about parking are teen-agers. But parking itself is integral to modern transportation, the way chairs are to a dinner table. Owing to the fact that highway taxes are hidden in the price of gasoline, many people have the impression that they use highways for free. And so by extension it seems that parking should be free as well. Maybe this is why so many people hate to pay for parking. Honest people — people who would not cheat at solitaire, who never in their lives have made a personal long-distance telephone call from the office — think nothing of parking in an unattended lot and ignoring the slotted vertical box wherein they should slip fifty cents or a dollar.

Consequently, the management of parking lots has much to do with deterring cheaters. Ace Auto Parks has found that at an unattended lot, one person out of two declines to pay. But the parking lot company doesn’t pay anything, either, when it calls to have an offending car towed away. The towing company is glad to have the business, as the current charge for a passenger car is twenty-eight dollars, and the company impounds the car until the charge is paid. To its signs that say unpaid-for cars may be towed away, Ace recently added the words “Without Warning.” Jones said the addendum had a beneficial effect on his customers that was not unlike religion.

At Lindbergh Field, whose 3500 spaces are easily the busiest in town, would-be cheaters have tested Ace’s ingenuity. As at most airports, customers are charged according to the time that’s elapsed on a ticket issued to each driver upon entering the parking lot gate. Early every morning, an employee of Ace drives through the lots looking at license plates and muttering their letters and numbers into a tape recorder. The information is later transcribed and arranged into lists of license plates, identifying cars that have been in the lots for one, two, three, four, five days and longer. “Ah — I — ah lost my ticket,” a customer might say, “my parking lot ticket. you see, while I was saying good-bye to my mother, who just left on American. Anyway, I’ve been parked for only twenty minutes.” The Ace employee in the exit kiosk nods attentively at the (old) story, while reaching for the license plate lists.

Having noticed how many people hate to pay for parking, transportation planners, particularly those concerned with cleaning the atmosphere, saving fuel, or other social problems, have tried to use this trait as a lever for rolling the mass of automobiles away from the center city. In practice, the mass has rolled a little and the lever has bent a little. The federal Clean Air Act of 1972 tried to restrict parking with surcharges, which merchants quickly avoided by having Congress hold back the money for enforcing those sections of the law. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a couple of other communities got around the merchants by banning parking in certain areas for the purpose of improving the flow of traffic and not the quality of air. Now the surcharge idea is back in a different form. Those federal employees in Washington, D.C. who work for the executive branch can no longer park for free in governmental lots and garages. As of November 1, they pay a charge which will rise for three years until it matches the prevailing commercial rate. The policy does not apply to members of Congress or the Supreme Court.

The cheap cost of parking has shaped San Diego as surely as erosion has. However, there is no surety about the number of cars that will remain in downtown San Diego when the price of parking goes up. as it has already begun to do. For one thing, downtown parking is now fairly abundant. Currently, there are 39,000 spaces, about a quarter of which are on the street. San Diego is extremely generous with its on-street parking; Denver allows but a third as much. Since World War II, this city’s downtown has been fairly saturated with cars, and the car-crazed development of Mission Valley (which on some days deserves its nickname: Emission Valley) has ironically prolonged this saturation. With its teeth and fingernails, the center city hung on to the governmental and financial communities, and even while some traffic slipped away to the valley’s shopping centers, the number of parking spaces downtown increased eighty-seven percent since 1958. That was the year the city council approved the rezoning of ninety acres in the valley for construction of May Company. (The council ignored the planning department, which warned about flooding and other problems.)

The upshot is that San Diego’s downtown parking is the cheapest among the nation’s fifty largest cities, according to a report last year by Dun and Bradstreet, the stock analysts. All these years it’s been cheap parking that has kept autos, hence people, in the center city, and cheap parking is a bait that some city planners and consultants want to keep wiggling for a while after redevelopment breaks the surface.

The way it looks now. about 2000 off-street parking spaces will be bulldozed away by 1981, when the Horton Plaza retail center and nearby townhouses will be under construction. The higher prices for the remaining spaces will hardly bother business executives who park downtown, for the cost of parking is normally included in their perquisites. It’s the secretary, the bank teller, the title searcher, the sales clerk, law clerk, and just about everybody with the title of vice-president who will pay the higher monthly rates for all-day parking.

Building low-cost parking lots at the edge of the center city is the idea that a couple of consultants have offered as the way to stop cars from clogging the redevelopment area. Attracted by the price, a secretary might be persuaded to leave her (or his) car at the peripheral lot and take a shuttle bus to the office. A garage or lot at the Front Street exit of Interstate 5 would intercept traffic from the north; a lot near Harbor Drive, south of downtown, could intercept traffic from the opposite direction. And eventually, a lot near Twelfth Street or City College would put people on the trolley line that’s going to be built through downtown starting next year.

Jones opposes this idea of peripheral parkings, or properly speaking, he opposes details of it. His opposition is subdued, well mannered, pragmatic. He knows how to have his way. He chairs the redevelopment committee of San Diegans, Inc., the downtown property owners association, which sponsored a strategy session on downtown parking on November 9 at the Embarcadero Holiday Inn. It was a we-mean-business affair; coffee but no donuts; a giant screen in one comer of the room for the city planners who never appear in public without their visual aids; and next to this screen, a tape recorder on top of a card table, where a woman arrived every half hour to kneel and feed in another cassette.

Jones had been asked to speak at this meeting, along with four other men, during the midmorning session. He was wearing a blue suit, a red tie, and his oversize, wire-rimmed glasses. Sitting at one of the speakers’ tables, which was draped with a white cloth, he smiled and nodded at some of the people he knew in the audience. He’d told somebody before the meeting that he had been having some trouble in cutting his speech down to the essentials. He was empty-handed at the speakers’ table — no notes. People who know him well say that Jones is never unprepared, and that he practically memorizes the chessboard before making a move. (Chess is not Jones’s game, however. He likes to play bridge with his wife. He thinks that’s why he chose the name “ace” for his business.) Norene Dann Martin, executive vice-president of the National Parking Association, of which Jones was the president in 1966, said,. “He’s really a tough guy. A great guy to work with, because you always know where you stand. And yet he’s rather a severe person — not the kind you can joke with right away, in spite of his geniality.” When asked if she could relate an anecdote about Jones, Mrs. Martin thought for a long time. Then she said, “No. I can't think of anything. He doesn’t really lend himself to anecdotes. He’s a man with no rough edges.”

Actually, his speech at the meeting was pretty lively. He began by saying that the speakers before him had already covered the points he'd intended to make, then he stepped away from the microphone and pretended to head for his chair, drawing a few laughs. The previous speakers had covered his topic, Jones said, because their remarks and ideas converged on the goal of creating a prosperous and bustling downtown.

The speech that Jones went on to deliver was calmly optimistic — a fireside chat transposed to the convention room of a Holiday Inn, beneath a cold chandelier. He stressed cooperation, and made it clear that he himself looked forward to cooperating with everyone — the city, the Center City Development Corporation (the redevelopment agency), and the business community — and that everyone in tum needed to cooperate with one another if the common goal of redevelopment were to be achieved.

As he leaned straight-armed against the lectern, in the pose of a man of action, a football coach at a banquet, Jones seemed to one observer to be directing the attitude of the audience in the same way he’d directed the traffic on All-Star day — with an eye to avoiding a bottleneck. “Evan’s stance all along was to be cooperative with the local officials, and not have everybody standing around and arguing,” said Mrs. Martin, remembering Jones’s mildness in the early days of the NPA, in the 1950s, when most operators were aroused to stop the threat of publicly owned parking garages. At present Jones is still willing to cooperate on this question of peripheral parking lots. Maybe they’re a good idea, he told the audience. Maybe the peripheral lots will eventually draw customers by their convenience, which is the test of any parking strategy. But he left his audience with the suggestion of taking an easy, interim step toward peripheral parking — running a fleet of express shuttle buses between the center city and a daytime commuter parking lot at the stadium.

If that suggestion seemed self-serving, Jdnes had no need to apologize for it, because the original proposal would also serve his interest. By his dominance of the parking business, Jones would be likely to manage at least one of the downtown lots if the city should go ahead with them. In one way Jones resembles the Don Quixote described in Richard Wilbur’s witty poem — a man with a view of success in every direction. But Quixote, in his loftiness, declines even to choose a direction; he lets his horse select the road to glory, and Rocinante plods off to the barn.

Not so with Jones, who involves himself wherever possible in decisions on downtown transportation. When the Metropolitan Transit Development Board announced what it thought to be grand news — next year’s closure of C Street while trolley rails are being installed — Jones, in his own words, “fought like hell to keep that street open for a lane of cars.” He argued that the rush hour traffic needed an eastbound street for leaving the civic center, and MTDB finally agreed. Tom Larwin, MTDB’s general manager, said it was Jones’s personal influence, quite apart from his affiliation with San Diegans, Inc., which bore on the decision to keep one lane of C Street open.

Part of Jones’s influence derives, of course, from his being a native San Diegan with many friends and acquaintances. His father, Albert Jones, arrived in 1911 from Athens, Ohio, at the age of twenty-seven. He chose San Diego over other cities on the coast because it was among the smallest, and therefore he expected it to welcome progress. He married here and prospered, buying a house on Guy Street, Mission Hills, which had been built in 1927 for $60,000. It was his last residence. On a summery Monday night in 1946, while attending an outdoor meeting at the zoo, he collapsed of a heart attack and died. Evan then was twenty-seven, and capable of taking over his father’s real estate business. Though he had worked in the office for only seven months, he felt he’d gained his emotional maturity in Hawaii during World War II. “I learned more in those two years than I’ve ever learned in ten years since,” Jones said the other day. “You might say I grew up.”

Commissioned in the Navy after the start of the war, he attended communications school in Los Angeles, and then was transferred with nineteen other classmates to San Francisco. “All of us were told to call the dispatching office every morning at eight o'clock to get ourselves a berth on the next ship to Hawaii. So the other guys were calling at nine or ten, because they didn’t want to leave San Francisco, and I didn’t either. But hell, I was new at this; I didn’t know any better. And so I kept calling at eight.”

Because he'd been the first to call, Jones sailed to Hawaii in the stateroom of a new ship, the submarine tender Sperry (which he glimpses from time to time, these days, in San Diego harbor). And because he was the first in Hawaii, within four months he became the communications officer of the naval supply depot. As for his classmates, “Well, one came to Hawaii with me aboard the Sperry," Jones said, “but the other eighteen were sent to Midway or Palmyra, or to the naval radar station on the other part of Oahu, with nothing but the shacks and the pineapple groves. Meanwhile, I was back in Honolulu with everything you could want. I reported only to the captain, and I did whatever he wanted me to do, and consequently, whenever I wanted anything, it was not too difficult to work something out.”

Jones returned after the war and quickly went from the real estate business into parking. The lines of work are related. Some realtors operate parking lots on their vacant properties; others use parking to benefit their commercial interests, such as offices and shops. This was Jones’s intention when he bought a 150-car garage at Fourth Avenue and B Street. Then he discovered that he liked the parking business. Maybe its appeal was the service it demanded — for Jones has always valued good service. It is one of the “principles,” he said, that he learned from his father. Jones has seen to it that the words “service” and “reliability” are stenciled on the T-shirts of the 200 parking attendants he currently employs.

Beginning in 1950 with one garage, the business grew slowly as Jones acquired more garages and paved vacant properties for parking. Landlords whom he knew in his capacity as a realtor or as a friend asked him to manage the parking in their stores or office buildings. Today about half of his business derives from the management of lots and garages that somebody else owns.

In 1968 most of the local competition sold out to Jones and to a partner he had taken for the acquisition, William Dick. They bought Terminal Auto Parks, Service Auto Parks, and the U-Park Company from A. Paul Sutherland, who had started in the business about the same time as Jones. The Terminal and Service companies continue to operate under those names, and are supervised by Dick, although he and Jones split the ownership. In his own right, Jones had founded a separate company to do business with the city — the Center City Parking Corporation — in case the city forced him to accept a labor union. (Jones’s employees have unionized anyway, under Teamsters Local 411. But a starting attendant still earns only the minimum wage, $2.90 an hour.) By 1969 all these companies taken together controlled 35,000 spaces — about enough to fill a quarter of Balboa Park.

“I never knew Jones was so strong in this town," said Mark Battaglia, twenty-nine years old, the owner of the local franchise of Parking Company of America. An athletic-looking man. he wears a sleek moustache and a Frankie Avalon hairstyle. “When I came here in 1976, from Denver, I was just looking to get out of the snow. I saw San Diego's population — second largest in the state — I saw the climate. I came.” When he arrived, his franchise consisted of three parking lots; today it numbers forty-three. Many of these he acquired by looking through the county records for the owners of vacant lots downtown and offering each owner a contract with his company. At the same time, he looked to see who managed lots owned by the city, county, and the Unified Port District.

Battaglia noticed that Jones and his companies had been holding leases on publicly owned parking lots for years, with no chance for outside operators to offer the public another deal. For thirteen years Jones had operated the 1000-car garage at the community concourse after winning the original five-year contract. The same thing had occurred at Lindbergh Field, which is run by the port district. Jones had held a year-to-year contract since 1967. He had won it in that year and it had never again been up for competitive bidding. Of course, Jones isn’t responsible for putting the contracts up for bid — the city and port district are. But Jones, for his part, benefited from circumstances beyond his control, and within it.

At the community concourse, Jones and the city had made an agreement: before his first contract expired, Jones installed, at his own expense, devices to improve the operation of the garage by keeping track of where the cars were parking. He donated these devices to the city in exchange for the renewal of his five-year contract. This done, the city later extended the contract for three more years to compensate Jones for closing part of the garage when the Security Pacific building was constructed next door. Finally, the contract expired, and Jones won it again in 1977, underbidding Battaglia.

At the airport, Jones’s lease kept getting extended every year because the port district was uncertain about the construction of the west terminal and didn’t want an inexperienced operator on the parking lots when the roads around them were torn up. The project was stalled for years by opponents who wanted the Coast Regional Commission to reject it. (Jones, whom Governor Reagan had appointed to the commission, abstained from votes regarding the airport. He left the commission in 1968 to serve as president of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce.) Now that the terminal has been built, a spokesman for the district said the parking contract may be open for bidding in 1980.

Last, Battaglia learned that Jones had been running a county parking lot for six years at the same rent, taking advantage of an expired contract. He notified Supervisor Jim Bates, who brought the contract up for review. Jones pointed out that the contract had been allowed to expire because the parking lot at Front and B streets, next to the law library, was the site for a new office building proposed by the county. Nonetheless, the contract was put up for bid, and Jones won it again by offering to raise his monthly rent from $2400 to $8000. The issue led the county to review its leases periodically. “Before I came to town, there was nobody even looking at these leases,” said Battaglia, standing on the blood-colored rug in his office. “If anybody deserves a medal around here, it’s me.”

Something about Battaglia's situation suggests the heroic, or at least the tinge of a purple heart. However aggressive Battaglia may be, it's only himself, one employee, and a Brandt coin-sorting machine against Jones, his companies, and his San Diego heritage. Even Battaglia's most precious asset, his youth, cannot overpower Jones, whose children are all in the parking business.

Wendy Jones, twenty-five years old, dropped out of Stanford to manage Ace’s business with the airport. She had majored in clinical psychology, a field more useful in parking than one would imagine. “Everybody needs to be creative,” she said, referring to the way she likes to encourage good work from parking lot supervisors.

Steven Jones, an attorney in San Diego, went into business with two friends from the University of Utah’s law school. They manage the parking lots of the Salt Dome arena in Salt Lake City, as well as the garages for the Zion Cooperative Mercantile Institute, the department store for the Mormon Church. (Jones himself is not a Mormon.)

Scott Jones was the first to enter his father’s business. He had no career in mind after graduating from Stanford, and took the job that was available. And now, thirty years old. he's taking all the responsibility that he can lay a hand on. “It's a good arrangement all around,” said Wendy, dropping into an analytical tone. “When we talk about a business decision, we’re all family, so we say what we want and everyone listens.”

Steven said that Scott and his father don’t agree on how fast Ace should grow. “Dad would have been content to leave the business alone for a while and not go out on a tangent. Meanwhile, Scott was going out and looking for ways to enlarge the company.” It was Scott who spotted a vacant lot next to the San Diego Repertory Theatre, at Sixth Avenue and Cedar Street, and drove to Carlsbad one day to persuade the property owner that an extra income could be hers if she allowed Ace to charge theater patrons a dollar in coin. The owner agreed, and ever since, at almost every performance, a patron asks the manager of the theater if it's all right to park in the lot next door without putting money in the company’s box.

Scott shakes his head when he hears of this, wagging his longish hair. He says he’s always amazed to learn of people who ignore the rights and the value of property. These words may seem odd from one who went to a liberal college in the late 1960s. And though it can t be a surprise to anyone that longish hair, bellbottoms, and other stylish traces of the last decade have no relation anymore to one’s social views, Scott seems an unusually odd mixture of the liberal and conservative. One minute he says that he’s repelled at the surliness of waiters who ought to be glad for having a job, and then he says, with conviction, that his parking lot attendants need more than money; they need attention, or the sense that their employer cares for the way they feel.

One trait Scott and his father share is the way they like to appear spontaneous, though they are as deliberate as alarm clocks. Scott and his girlfriend eloped to Switzerland. But then, Scott and Cathleen Burnham were neighbors, and had known each other since Scott was fifteen. His father's spontaneity is surprising and funny. A Chinese merchant comes to mind when one sees Jones in his office. He’s seated behind his desk, having pulled a lower drawer out as a footrest. Solid and bland, he seems to have been there forever. He is talking about his friends; that is, “my friend” precedes the name of many of the people he mentions, itr whatever context: “Some of my more political friends”. . .“My friends at the police department”. . . “The people at city hall are a pretty good bunch of guys. ” And on this very night, when he drives home to his wife, Sally, he may stop off and buy a new car.

“He likes to pull around the corner and surprise everybody,” said Wendy. “It doesn’t happen very often. And he’s obviously thought about what kind of car he’s going to buy because he ends up keeping the thing for six or eight years before he gets rid of it.

“I remember once we all went out to the beach — everyone except Dad — and we waited and waited for him to come. He’s never late. And then he shows up in this new car. That's one thing about him I always thought was great.”

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