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Councilors debate results of parking study; Changes could be coming
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Charlottesville Tomorrow | Tuesday, November 11, 2008 at 10:31 a.m.

A study of parking in downtown Charlottesville, conducted by consultants Martin, Alexiou, Bryson and the Renaissance Planning Group, has been released. City Council was briefed on the conclusions at their meeting on November 3, 2008. Jim Tolbert, Director of Neighborhood Development, presented the results of the study, and relayed several recommendations for further action made by a task force that has been overseeing the study.

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The purpose of the study was to address concerns from business owners that current parking capacity in the core of downtown was not meeting their needs. The consultants were also commissioned to reevaluate the Parking Exempt Zone (PEZ), which was established in 1976 to encourage downtown redevelopment by waiving minimum parking requirements in the zoning ordinance for all new developments. The goal of the PEZ is to give developers incentives to build pedestrian-oriented sites rather than devote valuable land to parking. PEZs are currently used in communities, such as Arlington and Alexandria, that wish to encourage urban density in specific areas. The consultants were also asked to evaluate the role of transit in alleviating parking demand.

The study found that there is more than sufficient downtown parking for current demand. The optimal benchmark for peak parking lot usage is typically set at 85% - that is 85% of the spaces are taken at the busiest time on a business day. During the course of the empirical investigation, which was conducting while the University of Virginia was in session and outdoor events on the downtown mall had begun, only 63% of the total public parking spots were used.

However, if all developments that are planned for the downtown area come to fruition and many of them opt not to provide their own parking, the City could be faced with a deficit of parking at some point in the future.  The primary cause of this concern is a potential Water Street Parking Lot redevelopment, which the City estimates would require 600 additional parking spaces.

Tolbert
Jim Tolbert addresses City Council

Problems were identified with the two hour on-street parking spaces. About 10% of cars parked in two hour parking were abusing the system, either by overstaying the limit or shuffling their car to a new spot every two hours. The use of these spots by commuters defeats their intended purpose of keeping the most convenient spots open for customers and patrons.  Without the major overstayers or shufflers, the study determined that on-street parking would be adequate at about 75% capacity. To meet this challenge, Tolbert recommended shifting enforcement to a new division that would be under the Department of Neighborhood Development Services. Tickets are currently written by City police officers.

Additionally, the time limits could be set so that closer spots are given shorter limits. The consultants recommended a three-part system, ranging from 1 hour spots in the core to indefinite spots on the periphery.

The study did not find PEZs to be causing any strain on downtown parking, because developers had been choosing to follow the market demands for parking anyway. In fact, on average recent developments within the PEZ have voluntarily included parking at 1 space per residential unit and 1 space per 450 square feet of non-residential, which is comparable to non-PEZ minimum levels.

Table26
A table from the study describes parking behavior in downtown Charlottesville

Nevertheless, City staff is concerned that a parking problem may arise in the future and has determined that, according to a staff report, “the parking exempt zone has outlived its usefulness and should be changed.” There was also disagreement between the consultants and City staff over whether the PEZs were giving banks reluctance to finance new developments. Given the concerns expressed by the City, the study recommends the reintroduction of the requirement that developers provide a minimum number of parking spaces for all new developments with the option of paying a fee-in-lieu, which could go toward parking and/or support for alternative modes of travel. City staff has suggested dedicating these fees to a fund for a future public parking garage. According to Tolbert, this could be necessary “maybe four or five years” down the road.

A considerable portion of the study was dedicated to the potential for transit to mitigate some of the parking needs. There is currently a significant amount of room of transit use to grow, with only an estimated 1-2% of downtown workers commuting via bus. If Charlottesville Transit Service were able to double its ridership, this would free up around 300 parking spaces. The study examined the close relationship between transit usage and parking price and convenience, stating that “the supply and price of parking will be the single largest factor in encouraging greater use of transit or other alternative modes for commuting.” Finally, a street-car system, which has been proposed along West Main Street, was determined to alleviate the need for 30 parking spots.

The greatest difference between the consultant’s recommendations and that of the stakeholder’s and planning department’s is over whether a pricing system for parking ought to be introduced. According to the study, charging for parking in the zones closer to the city’s core would have several benefits. It would allow the City to manage the occupancy levels to target the 85% rate and a $1 an hour fee would likely draw between $500,000 and $600,000 a year in revenue for the City. Even a modest price for on-street parking would give an incentive for commuters to use the garages. It would also be likely to increase the number of people who choose to walk, bike, or take the bus. Research shows that financial incentives are the only proven ways to encourage these modes of transportation. On the other hand, stakeholders are reluctant to compromise the convenience to motoring customers, particularly given the current economic conditions.

PB070010
A view from the City-owned parking lot on Water Street

City Council already shows differences of opinion over the pricing question. Councilor David Brown expressed his approval of installing meters, saying he doesn’t think a modest fee would actually deter drivers from coming downtown. Councilor Satyendra Huja pointed out that the downtown used to have meters installed, and wondered if the meter system would be worth the trouble of the increased revenue. Councilor Julian Taliaferro said that “we need to take a look at the meters,” but Mayor Norris indicated that he was still wary of the idea.

Councilor Edwards asked about Travel Demand Management (TDM) programs, such as ride-sharing, to “decrease the parking by decreasing the number of cars.” Jim Tolbert expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of this approach, responding that “we are a long way away from being substantial enough to have a positive impact on that.” On the other hand, the study does recommend several strategies, such as marketing campaigns, free bus pass programs, more bike racks, and incentives for employers.

All of these recommendations are in the preliminary stages, and no actions will be taken in the near future. There will be a public meeting downtown on November 14th for other members of the community to weigh in on the proposed parking changes. Furthermore, Council will hold a public hearing on the topic at its meeting on December 3, 2008.

Daniel Nairn

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