You're navigating downtown traffic, with minutes to spare to make a meeting. Street parking is hopeless, so you head for a central garage, resigned to paying a small fortune for a cramped patch of pavement.
Then, disaster: A "lot full" sign blocks the entrance, like a callous maitre d' turning away all but the dining elite. Even worse, other nearby garages are packed too.
Parking in downtown Boston has always been a headache, but the quest for a space during prime time, middays between Tuesday and Thursday, has become tougher than ever. Blame an improving economy and the loss of acres of cheap parking on the waterfront -- garage executives say Boston is experiencing a full-blown parking shortage.
"My staff has seen people in tears. I think they would give their car away,'' said Pam Messenger, general manager of the Friends of Post Office Square, which owns the popular Garage at Post Office Square.
With 1,400 spaces on seven underground floors, the garage started filling up on busy days as much as a year ago, Messenger said. Summer was somewhat lighter, she said, but the throngs returned after Labor Day.
"It's the new normal,'' said Messenger, noting she has more than 80 people on a wait list to secure a monthly spot. "I personally try never to schedule meetings where people are coming to see me on those three midweek days.''
Jammed parking lots are symptoms of a healthy business climate. They signal that employment is up and tenants are occupying downtown office buildings. But with executives shelling out $475 a month and more to secure daily spots for their BMWs and Lexus SUVs, there are fewer spaces for people in town for meetings, meals or tourism.
Boston's current parking crunch is the product of conflicting ambitions. City planners placed parking caps on downtown and South Boston years ago, hoping to reduce pollution and encourage the use of public transportation, while mayors and developers pressed for business and residential expansion.
James Gillooly, interim commissioner of the Boston Transportation Department, estimates about 3,000 spaces have been eliminated in the Seaport area over the past several years, as offices, condos and hotels have replaced open lots.
Some of the new buildings allow public parking, and other, more expensive lots have surfaced. But the landscape has changed dramatically for hundreds of people who once parked on the waterfront and walked to work downtown.
“As this neighborhood grows,’’ said Gillooly, “there will be spaces that used to be used by people in the financial district, who now have to come up with a new strategy of how to come and go from work.’’
Gillooly suggested a ride on the MBTA, followed by a walk from South Station, or perhaps a short pedal on a Hubway bike. "It's time for a recalibration of their thinking," he said.
Bostonians stubbornly love their cars, especially in bad weather. But they must deal with two hard and fast numbers: a downtown "parking freeze" that caps public parking places in commercial facilities at 35,556; and the South Boston limit, frozen at about 30,389, according to the city's Air Pollution Control Commission.
The downtown freeze, in place since 1978 and amended in 2006, specifically limits parking available to the general pubic in commercial buildings. It doesn't apply to residential buildings, which can install spots for tenants and guests. New commercial buildings also can offer parking for their business tenants -- but not for the public.
New buildings can include parking for the general public only if there are spots available in the freeze "bank," given up by some other property.
"At the moment there are zero spaces in the bank,'' said Carl Spector, Boston's director of climate and environmental planning. In fact, there have been no spaces available since December.
In South Boston, the rules are slightly different. Even commercial buildings creating tenant parking must apply to the bank, and spaces are going fast. There are 1,325 spots in the South Boston parking bank, for which new developments can apply.
Now, a commercial building boom promises to bring new skyscrapers and even more people to the city. But there won't be a comparable increase in public parking.
"It's a nightmare. I take the T now as much as I can,'' said Sheryl Marshall, a consultant to private equity funds and an overseer at the Institute of Contemporary Art who recalls the days of ample waterfront parking. "Now you can't find a space anywhere," she said. "And it's only going to get worse."
Several of the lots near the South Boston waterfront are 90 percent to 100 percent full during peak hours, according to a report in August that the Boston Redevelopment Authority helped produce. Some of the parking areas let drivers reserve spots in advance, online, as demand has grown in 43 Seaport area lots.
Meanwhile, garages all over town are experiencing the "temporarily full" phenomenon. In recent days, in addition to Post Office Square, the 75 State Street lot, also central to downtown, was turning away all but monthly parkers. In the Back Bay, the Dartmouth Street Garage, once a less costly alternative to hotel lots, is often fully subscribed. Motorists hoping to park in the Prudential building garage often drive in an underground maze on the hunt for a rare open spot.
Even the large garage under the Boston Common, with 1,362spots -- convenient to Beacon Hill, and to residents and tourists alike -- must often turn away drivers seeking a space.
"Usually it's just for a few hours,'' said Katie Hauser, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which owns the garage. "It's definitely a challenge that we've been experiencing more and more lately."
Fifteen times since July, the garage has been closed for periods of the day, she said. And in the year from July 2013 through June 2014, it closed temporarily 221 times.
Garage managers say they hate having to turn people away to the competition. For drivers, the parking jam can mean delayed appointments, long walks in inclement weather or valets charging $30 to $47.
"You don't want to send people away,'' said Messenger of Post Office Square. It's bad for the city and for businesses if people can't easily park, she said. "That would hurt the economy."