Charlottesville officials are continuing their efforts to manage downtown parking despite a decision by the City Council in early January to terminate a parking meter program before its six-month pilot program ended.
“There is an existing plan that has certain recommendations in place that included the on-street meters but are much more than that,” said Andrew Mondschein, a University of Virginia School of Architecture professor and member of the PLACE Design Task Force.
Mondschein invited Rick Siebert, the city’s parking manager, to brief the task force Thursday on the status of the program following the council’s decision to end the program after many downtown merchants argued that meters were bad for business.
“Nobody decides to take their car and go somewhere because they really want it there,” Siebert said. “Parking is not an objective. Parking is, unfortunately, what you have to do if you choose to use an automobile.”
Siebert said there are costs associated with providing parking in desirable areas.
“There are lost opportunity costs when you use land for parking when you could be using it for something else,” Siebert said. “Simply adding more parking is generally not the best solution. The best solution would be to use as little as parking as necessary to generate economic development.”
Siebert said multiple studies since 1986 have recommended that the city charge for on-street parking. A 2015 report from Nelson Nygaard suggested lowering rates in garages while charging for on-street spaces. The idea was to free up the number of unoccupied spaces on the street to attract customers and other people to downtown businesses and restaurants.
Another aspect of the plan includes a park-and-ride lot on Avon Street that’s on Charlottesville Area Transit’s Route 2.
“The more we get people not to use single-occupancy vehicle trips to go somewhere, the less parking we need,” Siebert said. “We need to do things to encourage the use of the bus system here in Charlottesville.”
Another is a special daily rate in the Market Street Parking Garage of $6.50 for downtown employees.
Siebert said one reason for the pilot was to see if the meters did in fact free up spaces.
“One of the problems that had been noted in the parking study was that there was a lot of circling going on where people were driving around looking for that free parking space,” Siebert said.
Another item to be studied was whether the meters had an effect on business.
“We were going to compare sales tax for the six months during the pilot to the six months of the prior year and the year before,” Siebert said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get very far with that.”
Proceeds from the meters were to have gone into a special enterprise fund within the city’s budget. Siebert said the idea was to use this money to increase the parking supply as well as pay for infrastructure improvements downtown.
The program lasted just 72 days, resulting in an incomplete data set.
“I can tell you anecdotally just from walking down the street that there seemed to be a lot more turnover and there seemed to be a lot more empty spaces,” Siebert said. “I think the idea that the meter was there and you had to pay it, it was a disincentive for the car shuffling.”
Siebert said many downtown businesses want at least two hours of free parking so they can compete with Barracks Road Shopping Center, 5th Street Station, Stonefield and other destinations.
As part of the plan, the hourly rate at the Market Street Parking Garage was lowered from $2.50 to $1.50, a tariff that is still in place. The first hour also remains free.
The rate at the Water Street Parking Garage, which is managed by the Charlottesville Parking Center, is $2 an hour. The city and CPC still are locked in legal disputes over rates and other issues.
“The city is, however, still negotiating with CPC to try to come to an agreement where we can operate the Water Street garage more in tandem with the Market Street garage,” Siebert said.
Siebert acknowledged the city could have rolled out the program differently. For instance, the city of Roanoke began a metering pilot program in July that took one-hour spaces and converted them to three-hour spaces.
“You can park for the first hour for free in the city of Roanoke and don’t have to buy the second hour,” Siebert said. “All you have to do is put you license plate in and ask for an hour and it says no charge.”
The fund also was to have been used in part to help the city pay for a new parking garage at the corner of Ninth and Market streets. The City Council in November 2016 opted to purchase the property where the Lucky 7 convenience store and a Guadalajara restaurant currently operate for $2.85 million.
However, if that lot was to be combined with an existing 63-space surface lot on Market Street, a deal would need to be negotiated with Albemarle County, as that jurisdiction is a joint owner.
Siebert said a decision would need to be made whether the potential future garage would be devoted exclusively to parking or whether additional uses would be involved. However, he added there will need to be a resolution between the city and county regarding the future of courts facilities downtown before the vision for that project’s future can become clearer.