Surprise resolution: City makes move to buy Water Street Garage

The city didn’t tell Mark Brown it was passing a resolution to buy him out of the Water Street Garage.

Staff photo The city didn’t tell Mark Brown it was passing a resolution to buy him out of the Water Street Garage. Staff photo

City Council unanimously passed a resolution June 6 authorizing City Manager Maurice Jones to make an offer to buy the parking spaces owned by Charlottesville Parking Center in the Water Street Garage. Both the city and CPC owner Mark Brown have said they are in talks to resolve issues that led to the entities suing each other, but Brown says he was unaware of the plan offered up Monday night.

Just when things seemed to be quietening down in the ongoing battle between the city and Brown over the fate of the Water Street Garage, downtown business owners, not reassured by the two sides promising to play nice and work things out, met June 2 for an “open and impartial discussion” that ended with the 60 or so attendees endorsing a petition brought by Violet Crown and its PR firm that opposes privatization of the garage.

The city’s handling of downtown parking also was roundly condemned.

“We have a parking problem,” said downtown property owner Aaron Laufer—several times. He also wondered whether eminent domain for the Water Street Garage was an option.

The latest consternation started a week earlier at a Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville meeting when Violet Crown’s Robert Crane, aided by Payne Ross’ Susan Payne, proposed a petition to the city that it not sell its share of the complicatedly owned Water Street Garage.

“We would not have come into this community without affordable parking,” said Violet Crown owner Bill Banowsky at the June 2 meeting. The theater had an agreement with the Charlottesville Parking Center to pay 35 cents an hour for validated parking, the same rate that Regal Cinema had. Brown bought CPC for $13.8 million in 2014, and the parking rate doubled, said Banowsky. The city agreed to subsidize 20 cents an hour, but that agreement only goes through the end of the year, he said.

“CPC has gone on record saying they want to drive up rates to what the market will bear,” said Banowsky.

IX complex owner Ludwig Kuttner was even blunter: “We have a maniac who decides to blackmail us. He plays crazy, we play crazy.”

Play crazy in dealing with Mark Brown, advises Ix owner Ludwig Kuttner. Staff photo

While Kuttner said building a garage at IX was an option, he also suggested the group find properties suitable for parking. “I know 20 spots we could use that are not used now,” he said.

Brown claims the city is forcing him to keep Water Street Garage rates below market rate and below what the city charges at the Market Street Garage. He filed suit against the city in March, and the city countersued in April, alleging it didn’t get right of first refusal on parking spaces Wells Fargo sold to CPC.

Brown was not at the June 2 meeting, nor was anyone from CPC. Before the meeting, brand new general manager and former mayor Dave Norris pooh-poohed the notion that Brown would jack up rates. “That doesn’t make business sense,” he says, especially when Brown’s share of parking downtown is 19 percent.

Norris pointed out that Violet Crown has a monopoly downtown and it didn’t jack up its rates, nor did Brown with Main Street Arena or Yellow Cab, companies he owns. “He’s a business guy,” says Norris.

Jones sent a letter on behalf of the city to DBAC president George Benford to reassure those at the meeting that work was going to address long-term parking needs. “It is important to emphasize that despite increased recent attention, we do not have a parking crisis in downtown,” said the letter.

Tin Whistle owner Jacie Dunkle wasn’t buying it. “For Maurice to send that, that’s bull,” she said. “Quite frankly, I don’t trust the City Council to make a wise choice,” she said, mentioning the recent increase in the meals tax despite restaurant owners’ objections. “They already know we don’t want meters,” a plan recommended by a city study and by Brown.

City councilors Bob Fenwick and Wes Bellamy were at the meeting. “These things are being discussed in executive session,” said Fenwick.

Councilors pay close attention to e-mails from constituents, said Bellamy, and the voices he’s hearing on the issue are fragmented. “Unity is what’s going to move things through,” he said.

“If another 1,000 spaces were parachuted downtown, I don’t care if Mark Brown owns Water Street,” said Laufer, who added that Brown is a friend. He urged the city to buy out Brown.

The city had multiple opportunities to buy the garage before Brown did, says Norris, and he questions whether it will be able to afford millions to upgrade the garage when it cut $50,000 for the municipal band from the budget. “There are 300 empty spaces on the third floor with a 200-plus person waiting list,” he says. “How does that make sense?”

Charlottesville is facing parking issues on multiple fronts. Albemarle is looking at whether to remove its general district court from Court Square because of parking. New businesses need parking, as do employees and the Landmark Hotel.

“My concern with the petition in general is it’s going to prolong and maintain the litigiousness going on now,” says Norris. “We have an opportunity to resolve it. Let’s resolve the long-term issues with parking.” That was before the City Council resolution. Norris was unavailable at press time, and Brown declined to comment on the city’s latest plan.

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