Some business owners say the Downtown Mall hasn’t been quite the same since shield-wielding white supremacists and neo-Nazis invaded it over the summer, followed immediately by the onset of a pilot parking meter program that required drivers to pay to park for what was once a free space.
So what better way to welcome back its patrons than offering free holiday parking?
“The timing [of the parking meter pilot] made it so people who perhaps were feeling a little skittish to come down after the summer just kept that feeling,” says Lynelle Lawrence, co-owner of Mudhouse Coffee Roasters, a Downtown Mall institution of 24 years. “The idea is just to allow the downtown area to welcome people back and have nothing be a deterrent.”
The city announced November 14 that the newly metered spaces surrounding the mall would be available at no cost from Friday, November 17, until Monday, January 1, and parking in the Market Street Parking Garage would be free on the weekends for the holiday season, starting at 5pm each Friday.
Lawrence says her coffee sales have certainly declined since the onset of the parking program, and Joan Fenton, chair of the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville, says that seems to be a trend for other business owners.
“I know that there are a lot of businesses that are very upset by the meters and think it’s a bad idea,” says Fenton, who also owns Quilts Unlimited & J. Fenton Gifts. “We haven’t seen the figures but, anecdotally, people have told us that they don’t want to park because of the meters.”
Local writer and downtown frequenter Elizabeth Howard is one of those people.
“The sun was shining on the meter, so the prompts were a little hard to read and it took me several tries to make it work,” she says, adding that she had to take a few trips back to her car during the parking process, including when the computer system asked for her license plate number, which she doesn’t have memorized. “It was frustrating, plus I was in a hurry.”
Adds Howard, “I would still come downtown, but I would avoid the meter.”
Fenton’s personal qualm is that the rate is too high. “I’m not sure that we’re in a community that will accept a $1.80-per-hour rate,” she says. “At this point, I don’t think it works.”
But Fenton says when the businesses called for help this season, Charlottesville management acted fast.
“The city has been through a great deal since August 12,” says parking manager Rick Siebert. “There have been a lot of hard feelings expressed by a lot of people about what went on, and perhaps what mistakes were made, so I think this is the city partnering with the businesses on the mall to say ‘come on back.’’’
And while the parking meters are a hot topic, he adds, “I don’t think this is all about the meters. I think this is all about the mall and the need for the city to support the efforts of the business community and to remind everybody what a great place it is.”
Siebert says the meter pilot program will likely run through May (the holiday parking promotion ends at the beginning of the new year), and would then go before City Council for recommendations. Despite all the backlash, he says the program has helped improve turnover and create available spaces.
“There are certainly a number of people who are upset, and not happy about the elimination of the free parking, but there are other business owners, property owners and customers that I’ve talked to personally who have talked about how great it is that they can now actually find a place to park on-street without driving in circles, and I think the $1.80 per hour is worth that convenience.”
And he says he’s heard from several satisfied Market Street garage parkers because their rates have decreased since the pilot was implemented—instead of paying $2.50 an hour, it now costs a dollar less with the first hour free.
Lawrence says she expects to see another dip in Mudhouse sales in January, but that happens at the beginning of each year, so she won’t necessarily be able to attribute it to the reinstated meters. For now, she’s enjoying what she calls “this beautiful moment” of business collaboration, where employees are saying, “Let’s see what we can do to create a holiday spirit downtown. This is a lovely place to be and we’ve got you.”
Adds Lawrence, “It’s never been this tight and strong, and the city is right with us. It’s given us energy and focus.”