Spaced out: Low-wage earners will feel parking pain

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Rick Siebert, Charlottesville’s first parking manager, has experience installing smart meters in Montgomery County, Maryland, where he was in charge of its 20,000 spaces, 19 parking garages and 52 employees.
Photo John Robinson Rick Siebert, Charlottesville’s first parking manager, has experience installing smart meters in Montgomery County, Maryland, where he was in charge of its 20,000 spaces, 19 parking garages and 52 employees. Photo John Robinson

 

The already difficult downtown parking landscape is about to become more challenging in the next couple of years. Major construction projects like West2nd, the Dewberry Hotel and Belmont Bridge promise to further clog streets and decimate an already dwindling parking supply.

And then there’s the pilot meter program coming in August.

Hardest hit will be the minions working on the Downtown Mall whose employers don’t provide parking.

Charlottesville’s new parking manager, Rick Siebert, met March 22 with the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville, which had an organizational coup and panicked meetings last year at the threat (unfounded, as it turned out) the Water Street Parking Garage might close, to brief the group on the future of downtown parking,

Of particular concern to merchants is the trial run of meters in the immediate mall vicinity for the 157 currently free spaces. The pilot will do away with 97 two-hour free parking spaces and install either meters or kiosks for six months.

At least for now, Siebert reassured the skittish business owners, the validation program will remain unchanged, even as the management of Market Street Garage turns over from Charlottesville Parking Center to Lanier Parking Solutions.

Downtown parking has the “illusion of being free,” says Siebert, but if the spaces are full all the time, that doesn’t help if you can’t find a space.

And for those spaces most in demand—the ones closest to the restaurant or theater or shop—he asks, “Why should we give away our highest value spaces?”

Charging $2 an hour on the street could allow a reduction of rates in the parking garages, where people don’t want to park if free surface spaces are available, says Siebert. If all goes well with the meter pilot, he’d like to make the first hour of parking free in the Market Street Garage and end the validation program entirely.

At present that plan doesn’t include the Water Street Garage because of litigation between co-owners the city and Charlottesville Parking Center. Those parties will head to mediation in late May.

Parking meter bids are due April 5. “We requested equipment to be loaned to us for six months,” says Siebert. The companies likely to provide free equipment “predict the pilot will be successful and that we may expand the program. That’s what those proposers will bet on.”

He says he doesn’t know how much the metered pilot program will cost, but there will be start-up expenses to install the equipment. For the individual meters on the blocks where only one or two spaces are available, new signage won’t be needed, but the blocks that will have pay stations will need new signs to point parkers to the kiosks, he says.

Parking study recommendations suggest paid parking from 8am to 8pm Monday through Saturday.

“I think they came up with a reasonable plan to try it for six months,” says DBAC president Joan Fenton. “If it doesn’t work, it can be adjusted before the busy season begins in October.”

If the pilot is successful, escalating the rate for peak times could be an option. “We can get more sophisticated in the coming years,” says Siebert.

And the parking meter perimeter could be expanded out a couple of more blocks, which would make the streets where many downtown employees park no longer an option.

“The most difficult issue will be to find appropriate parking for people working at minimum wage,” says Siebert. “I don’t think it will be a silver bullet. We’ll try several things.”

Under discussion are park-and-ride lots. Siebert mentioned a city-owned lot on Avon Street that can get bus riders to town in 10 minutes. More problematic is the 20-minute return on a bus that currently runs every 30 minutes.

“When you look at people downtown making little more than minimum wage, to expect them to pay $2 to $3 an hour is not feasible,” says Kirby Hutto, manager of the Sprint Pavilion.

“The metered parking doesn’t bother me,” says Hutto, who says it’s “naive” to expect that spaces will remain free.

What is more worrisome, he says, is that there’s no plan to ease the pain of losing parking in the short term from construction and the uncertainty of the Water Street Garage litigation. “There’s going to be a shortage of parking,” he says. “How are we going to accommodate demand for parking during peak hours?”

The days of the city-owned meter lot on Water Street are numbered with construction of West2nd expected to begin this summer. Also on the chopping block are the 51 spaces under the Belmont Bridge, which City Councilor Bob Fenwick says he’s counted and where many Pavilion employees park.

“We’re already hearing employers say they can’t find people to work downtown because of parking,” says Hutto.

“That is a concern,” says Siebert of the upcoming construction. He’d like to phase projects like the Belmont Bridge so all parking isn’t taken out at once.

Parking is also an issue for people coming from out of town to see a show at the Pavilion. The 75 spaces in the Water Street Garage promised to John Dewberry for his eponymous hotel are “coming out of the inventory I can sell to Pavilion patrons,” says Hutto.

Pavilion-goers need to be able to park, says Hutto, and if all the new parking coming from new developments is for private use, that doesn’t help.

Charlottesville Parking Center owner Mark Brown “actually has some good ideas about how to manage the Water Street space,” says Hutto. “With active management, we should be able to know when there’s open inventory.”

Siebert promises to leave no parking possibility unexamined. He’s ready to talk to churches and the previously uninterested LexisNexis to see if they want to share their lots. He wants to contract parking enforcement. And he’ll work with transit to tailor bus routes for park-and-ride options.

And he’s working on a survey for downtown employers to give to their workers. “We need to find out what time of day they come in and where they’re coming from,” he says.

After a contentious year between the city and Charlottesville Parking Center, and the city and Albemarle County, which threatened to move its courts because of downtown parking issues, everyone seemed to take a deep breath in 2017.

The city is implementing a parking action plan based on recommendations from the four different parking consultants it’s hired since 1986.

That includes hiring a parking manager—Siebert—to report to the department of economic development. “Parking is really a tool for economic development,” he says. “I’m glad this council has acted on the advice it’s consistently received since 1986.”

 

Bye-bye free street parking

The six-month Downtown Mall pilot parking meter program goes into effect in August.

  • Area bounded by Second Street on the west, Market Street on the north, Sixth Street on the east and either South Street or the railroad tracks on the south
  • $2 an hour, 8am to 8pm Monday through Saturday
  • Parking meters or pay stations will take cash or credit
  • The 157 spaces in the area include loading zones and 22 handicapped spaces
  • 97 two-hour spaces will get meters

 

 

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