Truce: City and Mark Brown settle parking garage dispute

The city will be in charge of the Water Street Parking Garage starting August 1, and Mark Brown will collect rent. Staff photo The city will be in charge of the Water Street Parking Garage starting August 1, and Mark Brown will collect rent. Staff photo

Two years ago, before Nazis came to Charlottesville in 2017, the big story was the contretemps between Mark Brown, co-owner of the Water Street Parking Garage, and then-mayor Mike Signer and the city.

The escalating parking wars led to suits and countersuits, panicked meetings of downtown business owners, threats of closing the garage and of eminent domain, challenges to the hiring of a former mayor and whopping legal bills on both sides.

At the July 16 City Council meeting, as the clock approached midnight, councilors approved a settlement that gives them most of what they wanted, but the full cost is not known at the present.

“I wasn’t sure until 11:58 last night this would get approved,” said Charlottesville Parking Center general manager Dave Norris, who has seen seemingly solid deals with the city fall apart before, the day after the meeting.

In the settlement hammered out over the past two years, Charlottesville Parking Center, which Brown owns and which manages the garage, agreed to sell 73 spaces to the city for $413,000. The spaces, previously owned by Wells Fargo, have been a sore point for the city, which sued Brown for buying them from the bank when the city had a right of first refusal should any parties want to unload their spaces.

“We’re selling them at the same price we paid for them,” says Norris, a former Charlottesville mayor whose own hiring was a point of contention when the city, through Chris Engel, director of economic development, questioned Norris’ qualifications to run a parking garage.

Charlottesville Parking Center was founded in 1959 by business owners who feared the emergence of shopping malls with ample parking would be a threat to getting people to shop downtown. The Water Street Parking Garage is a jointly owned public/private entity, and CPC owns the ground underneath the garage, as well as the surface lot across the street.

Although the city had the opportunity to buy Charlottesville Parking Center when it went on the market in 2008, it didn’t. Brown bought CPC in 2014 for $13.8 million and an uneasy alliance with the city began. In March 2016, Brown sued the city, alleging it forced him to offer parking below market rate—and below what was charged at the city-owned Market Street Garage.

In the settlement, the parking center will lease its remaining 317 spaces to the city for $50,000 a month for 16 years—with a 2.5 percent annual increase after the first year. The city believes it will make more than $900,000 in net revenue during the first year of the lease, according to a city document.

“It’s really a good thing for all parties after two years of contentiousness,” says Norris. “As of August 1, they’ll have full control and can set whatever hours and rates they want.”

CPC used to manage the Market Street Garage, but during the heat of battle, the city fired CPC and hired Lanier Parking to manage that garage. Most CPC employees who run the Water Street Garage will go to work for Lanier, which will take over the management of Water Street, city parking manager Rick Siebert told City Council.

When questioned by Mayor Nikuyah Walker, Siebert said none of the Water Street Garage employees will make less than the city’s minimum wage and that they have benefits.

For Charlottesville Parking Center administrators like Norris, it’s time to dust off those resumes. “This is the end of our role as a parking management company,” he says. “I’m exploring my own options.”

Brown continues to own the land underneath the garage. He was traveling in Greece, and in an email says the settlement is a “very slightly modified version” of a proposal CPC made to the city in January 2016 before any litigation was filed, “so we eventually succeeded in achieving our preferred resolution to the problem.”

At one point, Brown tried to buy the city’s portion of the garage—and the city did likewise. He also threatened to close the garage, which totally freaked out downtown business owners. The Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville made clear to the city that it believed the garage should remain publicly owned.

“I think we’ve gained significant efficiencies,” Siebert told City Council, as well as gaining control of the garage’s operation, “which I think is so important to the public.”

At the July 16 council meeting, Signer noted that “Ms. Galvin and I have some scar tissue and war wounds from this.”

Councilor Kathy Galvin recalled “all-day long mediation sessions.”

The city hired Richmond attorney Tom Wolf with LeClairRyan, who charged the city a discounted rate of $425 an hour. At press time, the city had not provided what those legal fees added up to over two years.

“We really decided to stick to our guns and stick up for this being a public good, a public asset,” said Signer. “And it was very difficult and there was a lot of fighting from the other side, a lot of scaremongering from some of the local journalistic outlets.”

He added, “This settlement a couple of years later is a good result for the public on all fronts.”

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