As city officials prepare for a six-month test of parking meters around the Downtown Mall, residents and business representatives had the chance Wednesday to ask questions and raise concerns about the plan.
“We have employees and patrons that can’t afford to pay for parking,” said Krista Farrell, the assistant director of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library.
Farrell and around thirty others attended a meeting Wednesday held by the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville.
“Obviously, parking is of interest and concern, and we’re aware of that,” said Chris Engel, the city’s economic development director.
“The city is growing considerably,” he added, citing a population increase of nearly 13 percent since 2010. “All that activity creates challenges, and one of those challenges is parking.”
City Council agreed last April to proceed with a parking management plan that includes installing a six-month pilot program of parking meters that officials want to have in place on Aug. 1.
“Everything in this parking action plan is designed to improve business in the downtown area,” said Rick Siebert, the city’s first-ever parking manager. “Parking is a tool to support economic development.”
Siebert said the plan is designed to make it easier for people to get downtown by providing more spaces and more ways to get there.
One step is to grow the supply of parking spaces. Last year, City Council agreed to spend $2.85 million to purchase a lot at the corner of Ninth and Market streets to eventually build a parking structure.
“That is a far-sighted and terrific way to move forward,” Siebert said, adding the exact form of the garage will be determined through a public-private partnership. He said five years is a good estimate of the time it will take between planning and opening of the new structure.
The plan also charges Siebert and other city officials to seek other ways to get people downtown.
“We’ve talked about how we might be able to change some of the Charlottesville Area Transit routes to stop at park-and-ride lots within close proximity to the city,” Siebert said. Under this arrangement, parking for downtown employees could be free or cost a nominal fee.
But the most controversial aspect of the plan is the parking meters. Siebert said studies dating back to 1986 have called for an integrated plan for parking. Studies in 2008 and 2015 specifically called for parking meters that charge a higher price than structured parking.
“Parking right now on the streets around the Downtown Mall has the illusion of being for free,” Siebert said. “Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it will help me if I drive to the mall and can’t find a space and drive around and around the block.”
Under the pilot program, 99 spaces between South Street and Market Street will be metered with a rate to be set by City Council before it begins. The firm Nelson Nygaard recommended in 2015 that the price be $2 an hour.
Revenue will go into a “parking enterprise fund,” separate from the city’s general fund. Siebert said proceeds could go to pay for a number of things, including lowering the rates at city-operated garages. He estimated that $200,000 in revenue will be collected during the pilot project.
Though it won’t happen during the pilot, Siebert said another idea would be to make the first hour at the Market Street Parking Garage free.
“Rather than circle around for the spaces on the street, you would know you can go to the garage and it will be free for the first hour,” Siebert said.
“While I think it’s lovely you want to give people an hour of free parking, if you have ever taken two toddlers out of a minivan, your hour is up quickly,” said Beth Solak, one of the executive directors at the Virginia Discovery Museum. “Validation is one of the things we offer to our members.”
Colette Hall, a former president of the North Downtown Residents Association, said she is concerned that parking meters will push more cars into her neighborhood as people seek spaces they don’t have to pay for.
“People have told me that if there are parking meters, they won’t come to the downtown mall,” Hall said. “I’m not a business owner, but I support the DBAC. I would hate to see them lose business because you put parking meters.
Other businesses were concerned that adding parking meters would cause people to avoid downtown.
“From people I talk to, the parking perception is already bad,” said Cynthia Schroeder, of the Spring Street Boutique and the Downtown Mall Alliance. “I would urge efforts be put into a public relations campaign to get people to want to come here and so they don’t have the perception that it’s difficult to come down town.”
Siebert said more events like the DBAC meeting would be held to educate people about why the city is proceeding with the meters and the rest of the plan.
One of two executive directors of the Virginia Discovery Museum said they are very concerned about losing validation for both their customers and their volunteers.
Siebert said more details will need to be worked out.
“I don’t have the answers for everything today, and I know that I’m hearing your concerns, and we’ll look at these as we go forward,” Siebert said.
Kirby Hutto, the manager of the Sprint Pavilion, said that while his patrons can afford to pay for parking, the city could better manage its existing resources.
“One thing I didn’t hear talked about was the Water Street Parking Garage,” Hutto said. “Those spaces are underutilized.”
Siebert said the city and the CPC are still locked in a pair of lawsuits related to the garage. The CPC sued the city for allegedly keeping the rates at Water Street too low, and the city sued the CPC, claiming that the company illegally purchased 106 spaces that belonged to Wells Fargo.
Siebert said the two sides are trying to mediate their differences.
“I don’t exactly know where that’s going, but we will certainly address these issues in the [mediation] process and hopefully we can improve parking to benefit city, businesses and the CPC.”