It's the holiday season, a time for giving, good cheer and complaints of no parking.

But is the dearth of downtown parking more a matter of lazy shoppers than an actual shortage?Parking lot operators seem to think so.

The days before Christmas, shoppers endlessly roam the multilevel parking garages of Crossroads Plaza and ZCMI Center, apparently oblivious to the empty spaces less than a block away. (See map).

"I wouldn't say there is a shortage of parking. If you are willing to walk a block, there is plenty of parking. But there's this perception that you have to park right in the mall," said Scott Hutchison, general manager of Beehive Parking.

The parking isn't free, but compared to rates in other metropolitan markets, $1 to $2 an hour or $1 to $5 a day isn't gouging. Also, most lots accept some form of validation.

A national study on local downtown parking confirmed the anomaly of Salt Lakers unwilling to walk more than a half block to work or shop. But the study said the city's "exceptionally long" blocks are to blame.

Conducted to help Salt Lake City rewrite its zoning ordinances and master plan, the study conflicts with the view of local parking operators that there isn't a shortage. The study figured the current deficit in an 80-block area, including downtown, was 7,481 spaces. And it will only get worse as more buildings go up.

Hutchison said he hasn't read the study, but the city's depressed parking rates - which the study confirms are lower than other cities in the region - and the number of empty stalls on a given day cause him to question its conclusions.

During the Christmas season and evening events at the Salt Palace and Symphony Hall, lots do fill up, he acknowledged. But year-round parking is relatively plentiful.

Hutchison said when the new Jazz Arena adds 850 more spaces two blocks west of the Salt Palace, the city will see "a big parking depression.

"It will change the whole scope of parking here."

The study, conducted by a Michigan consulting firm, said the answer to Salt Lake City's parking question isn't building more parking.

But Hutchison and other parking operators can't take comfort in that. The study, which was supported in part by the Utah Transit Authority, recommended the city adopt policies encouraging use of mass transit.

It said increased mass transit is "inevitable" if the central business district is to grow and effectively handle increased traffic and parking demands.

Among policies the city should consider is a ceiling or limit on downtown parking development. Limiting the amount of parking will cause demand and prices to go up, forcing commuters to take light rail or the bus, the study said.

But the study said planners should provide ample short-term parking to accommodate downtown retail development. "Parking should be regulated in a manner where its use for short term is encouraged and its use for long term is discouraged.

"The most important factor for encouraging these types of developmental regulations will be to support the implementation of the light-rail transit," the study said. "If the light-rail transit system is implemented, city planners will have no problem encouraging" its use.