WALNUT CREEK -- Parking meters are starting to sprout up in private downtown parking garages.

Meters have gone in at Plaza Escuela, the home of Cheesecake Factory and Forever 21, but parking managers for the private lots say the meters are meant to push employees to park on the upper levels of the garages. In fact, 85 percent of the parking will remain free, according to Walnut Creek parking giant Regional Parking.

The meters were put in last month.

Before that, "It was a mess and people couldn't even get a quick takeout burrito," said Robert Power, owner of Regional Parking, which manages the garages. "The intent with the meters is to open up the ground level."

These garages are not city-owned. The meters charge $2 an hour, the same as the city may soon charge at its downtown street meters. The city-owned garages charge 50 cents an hour and are underutilized, according to city officials.

The Regional Parking garages, including Broadway Pointe (where Il Fornaio is located), is a parking option customers are used to being free. But to have the entire garage free was affecting businesses -- especially places suck as Ike's, Starbucks and Chipolte, which rely on quick in-and-out customers, Power said -- because customers won't go to a lot if they feel they never can find a spot there.

One of the biggest problems is downtown employees parking on the lower levels of the downtown garages. Aerial shots of downtown Walnut Creek often show plenty of parking on the roofs of the various parking garages, he said.

For years Regional Parking has strived to have an 85 percent occupancy rate in its garages, with 15 percent availability. This parking management strategy is also what Walnut Creek officials have sought, and they may make some major changes -- like increasing rates and changing meter hours -- to get to that 85 percent.

"Plaza Escuela is the first downtown retail parking garage to charge for parking," said Matt Huffaker, who oversees parking for the city. "We have received questions from the public regarding why the meters were installed."

Power understands that the new meters may irritate some, and in fact people are speaking out on local blogs angry about the changes. Power stresses that the other levels of the garages will remain free. And the revenue from the meters will be used to help beautify the property such as new lightening to brighten up the garages and the addition of music and flowers, he said. There are also plans to install a space counter, so drivers know how many spaces are available, Power said.

"We want to add ambience and make it more inviting ... more like you are arriving at a five-star restaurant," he said.

And don't be surprised if meters also come to the small lower level at Broadway Pointe; that may happen soon. Besides the city garages and Regional, the other garages such as those owned by Broadway Plaza are still completely free.

As for whether this will help push people into the city's underutilized garages, Huffaker is unsure.

"The city purposefully charges a low rate ... in our city garages to encourage people to use them," he said. "If more people park in the city garages and free-up prime downtown parking spaces, we see that as a good thing."

These private metered garages are likely not the only change Walnut Creek parkers will see in the near future.

On Friday at a Walnut Creek City Council retreat, city leaders will discuss parking changes, including rate hikes, free one-hour parking in the Broadway garage and expanding on-street parking meter hours, to 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The council will also discuss the use of parking revenue to be used for downtown improvements, enhanced downtown police services and Lesher Center programming. Parking money going toward the Lesher Center has not been supported by the Transportation Commission.

Depending on council direction, all of that would come back to a regular City Council meeting for approval in December.

Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.

---