A six-month test of parking meters around Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall will resume early next year despite requests from some business owners and residents to end it.
“We need to do everything we can to make people want to come downtown and remove all the obstacles,” said John Lawrence, one of the owners of Mudhouse Coffee. “I ask the city to suspend the parking program until the Downtown Mall recovers.”
A 2015 parking study conducted by the firm Nelson Nygaard recommended adding meters as part of a comprehensive plan to manage parking downtown. The general idea of the meters is to free up on-street spaces for visitors by encouraging downtown workers to park in garages.
The City Council voted 4-1 in April 2016 to proceed, and the pilot began in early September.
“We ran it for 72 days and we suspended it on Nov. 17,” said Rick Siebert, the city’s parking manager. “There were 102 on-street spaces in the 12-block area surrounding the Downtown Mall. We used two different types of meter systems.”
In some of the spaces, motorists have to enter their license plate number before paying. In the others, money or credit cards can be inserted without having to enter information.
“The objective was by creating paid parking, which then valued those parking spaces, people would then choose other ways to get to the mall,” Siebert said. “We tried to facilitate that by making the Market Street Garage a more effective alternative.”
The meters charge $1.80 an hour to park on the street with a two-hour limit.
The first hour in the city-owned garage was offered for free, and the rate for subsequent hours was reduced from $2.50 to $1.50. Hourly rates at the Water Street Parking Garage remained the same because of a legal dispute between the city of Charlottesville and the privately owned Charlottesville Parking Center.
“We originally planned at the end of the six-month pilot to hire Nelson Nygaard to come back and do utilization studies and compare those studies to what they found in 2015,” Siebert said. “In the original study, … 86 percent to 95 percent [of spaces were occupied] in the middle of the day. We wanted to see if that changed with the meters.”
Siebert said the program will resume Jan. 2, possibly with the option for drivers to pay using a mobile app.
“We have been working with [ParkMobile] in the last few weeks and hope by Jan. 2 to be able to go live with that program,” Siebert said.
Several speakers at Monday’s council meeting said the timing is wrong for the city to experiment with the meters.
Lawrence said downtown is in competition with 5th St. Station, The Shops at Stonefield and other developments in Albemarle County. He said the “summer of hatred” has had a dampening effect that needs to be countered.
“We’ve been here for 24 years and have never seen an economic environment like it is today, not even during the Great Recession,” Lawrence said. “We’ve seen a dramatic loss in our numbers over last year.”
Jennifer Tidwell started a petition last week to demand that the meters not be turned back on.
“I did this because I have observed and listened to tons of workers, residents and business owners,” Tidwell said. “I have watched myself have to pay every time I went to pick up my paycheck. I actually feel like the timing of this was absolutely terrible.”
Tidwell said that more than 750 people have signed the petition. She urged the council to read the comments.
“We’re hearing from workers who are having trouble finding parking and are sometimes parking way out and feeling unsafe about walking home at 2 or 3 in the morning,” she said. “We’re hearing from people who have stopped going to the Downtown Mall, dozens and dozens of people who say they’re not going there anymore.”
Another downtown business owner agreed.
“What we have seen is, after August 12 and all the horrible things that happened, is that people are mad,” said Joan Fenton, president of the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville. “They’re angry. They’re mad at [the City Council]. They’re mad at downtown. They’re mad at each other. And that impact is hitting us downtown.”
The council asked University of Virginia professor Andrew Mondschein to come to the meeting to explain why the parking meters are good policy.
“The plan overall is dealing with a persistent issue that there is a shortage of access to downtown,” Mondschein said. “Why do we need to change the way we manage on-street parking? We need to think about how to provide people with more access to parking downtown.”
Mondschein, a member of the city’s PLACE Design Task Force, said the revenue can be used to pay for new infrastructure downtown. He encouraged the council to keep the program in place so it could be evaluated.
Councilor Kristin Szakos said she supports the program.
“There is a cost to having cars downtown, and this way the folks who are using that space are helping to defray that cost,” she said. “It’s also a way for us to finance a new parking garage so that we’ll have additional parking downtown.”
Szakos, whose term on the council is ending now, said the city must take steps to help downtown employees know where they can park for free. That includes the city-run satellite lot on Avon Street.
“We need to get the data that you’ve been trying to collect,” said Councilor Kathy Galvin. “To [end the pilot] right now after we’ve done so much good work would be a real mistake. We need to continue with it and also figure out ways to make it easy and seamless for the people to use it.”