Management issue(s): Mark Brown says city in default on Water Street Garage

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Mark Brown says he’s not angry the city rebuffed scenarios to settle the Water Street Garage litigation, but he is selling the Main Street Arena and looking for more hospitable municipalities.

Photo Jackson Smith Mark Brown says he’s not angry the city rebuffed scenarios to settle the Water Street Garage litigation, but he is selling the Main Street Arena and looking for more hospitable municipalities. Photo Jackson Smith

 

The battle between Charlottesville Parking Center owner Mark Brown and the city got more heated with an April 6 letter from Brown that said the entity that runs the Water Street Garage is in default and one of his remedies is to terminate the complicated agreement between the parking center and the city and to stop running the garage.

Relations between Brown and the city were already tense, thanks to Brown’s March 14 lawsuit that alleges the city is forcing him to run the garage below market rate.

It probably didn’t help that Mayor Mike Signer publicly reprimanded former CPC general manager/Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville co-chair Bob Stroh for his grammar, according to a Newsplex report. Within weeks, 40-year parking veteran and respected downtown booster Stroh decided to retire.

Brown announced March 28 he was hiring former mayor Dave Norris to succeed Stroh. Besides serving eight years on City Council, Norris has been the executive director of a couple of local nonprofits, including Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Central Blue Ridge, and most recently worked as the director of community impact for the United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg.

In the next volley, Chris Engel, Charlottesville director of economic development, sent a letter April 4 to Brown questioning the qualifications of Norris to run the CPC, a move pretty much unprecedented in recent city history, at least officially.

Engel’s letter noted that the contract between the city and CPC requires that the general manager must have a minimum of six months successful parking management experience and three years service management experience. He requested Brown send a statement of Norris’ qualifications.

Brown declined to comment on the letter, and Norris says he hopes the differences between the city and CPC can be resolved before he starts the job.

“I am not going to get in the mud with Mike Signer and [City Manager] Maurice Jones,” says Norris. ”I am looking forward to starting this new job in June and working with all the key stakeholders to make the downtown a good place to live, work, play and run a business.”

Ironically, Jones faced some skepticism about his own qualifications when he applied for the city manager’s job in 2010. A former sports reporter for NBC29 who started work with the city as director of communications, Jones did not have the master’s degree the city job posting said it preferred, nor did he live in the city. Norris, who was mayor at that time, was an advocate for Jones getting the job.

City Council regular Louis Schultz says he finds the issue “hysterical,” and that Engel would not have sent the letter without Jones’ approval. “If the city manager doesn’t understand that being mayor is working in the ‘service industry,’ it’s no wonder we have such an unresponsive city government,” he says.

Brown replied to the city April 7 with a letter detailing Norris’ experience with parking issues, including serving on the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which deals with long-term transportation and parking issues for the region. He also notes that Stroh assembled a strong team to run the parking garages and will continue to serve as a consultant.

Should that not suffice for the city, says Brown, Norris will be named president of the Charlottesville Parking Center and Brown will assume the job of general manager at the higher salary commanded by the more experienced Stroh, resulting in higher operating costs for the management of the city’s Market Street Garage.

In a related move, Brown’s April 6 letter serves notice to the Water Street Parking Garage Condominium Association, which owns the structure, that it is in default of its agreement with the parking center by not having a 2016 annual budget.

To further complicate matters, the eight-member condo association is made up of four city employees and four CPC seats, including Brown, which means he also is a member of the association he says is in default. Six association members have to agree to pass the budget, and that didn’t happen because the city refused to approve the rates Brown wants.

Miriam Dickler, city spokesperson, declined to comment on the letter announcing the condo association is in default and to respond to the allegation Signer and Jones were “in the mud.”

The agreement between the condo association and CPC gives the city 30 days to come up with a budget. If that doesn’t happen, CPC can terminate the relationship and doesn’t have to assure an orderly transition, according to the agreement.

“The gist here is that clearly Mark Brown is in the midst of a chess game with the City where he has a legal strategy mapped out moves ahead,” writes former Charlottesville Parking Center shareholder Richard  Spurzem from a beach in Antigua. “The City, as usual, thinks they are in a checkers game.”

Spurzem has criticized the city in past for not buying the parking garage in 2008 when the CPC was for sale. Brown bought the parking center, which owns the land and some spaces in the Water Street Garage and the surface lot across the street, for $13.8 million in 2014. CPC also runs the city-owned Market Street Garage,.

The city, according to Spurzem, also should have corrected the “horrible” land lease and management agreement with the more city-friendly former CPC management.

A subset of the condo association is the Pooled Parking Unit Owners—the city and CPC—which are the only ones who can set parking rates for the Water Street Garage. The city owns approximately 629 parking spaces—65 percent—and CPC owns 344, according to Brown’s lawsuit.

The rates must be approved by two-thirds of the pooled parking owners, which put Brown at a disadvantage when he wanted to increase the Water Street rates to what he says in his suit are market value.

Last October, Brown proposed upping the rates to $145 a month, $180 for reserved spaces and $2.50 an hour. The city countered with monthly rates of $125 and $140 for reserved spaces and an hourly rate of $2, “significantly below the market rate,” and less than what the city-owned Market Street Garage charges, alleges the lawsuit. Market Street charges $135 a month and $2.50 an hour.

As a result of the city and Brown being unable to agree on what the suit calls the city’s “unlawful and oppressive demands for below-market rates,” the condo association was unable to get its city/CPC factions to approve a budget, and that now puts the association in default, claims Brown.

He has offered to sell the city CPC’s parking spaces or to buy the city’s spaces, both of which have been rejected by the city.

Spurzem predicts the city will either buy Brown’s ground lease and management agreement for “many times” what it could have bought CPC for earlier, or it will hand over its interests in the Water Street Garage “for next to nothing just to get out of the legal noose that Mark Brown will have them in.”

 

 

 

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