Owner of city garages proposing radically new approach for downtown
The new owner of the Charlottesville Parking Center will unveil a proposal this week for a public-private parking and travel management system that would bring smart parking meters to downtown streets.
“The promotion of free parking on the street is at odds with the promotion of walking, cycling and mass transit,” said Mark Brown, the owner of Yellow Cab and the Main Street Arena who became the sole shareholder of the CPC last summer.
“Let’s make walking, biking, transit and parking work together in a system that makes sense not just for customers but employees,” Brown said.
City Council member Dede Smith, who has seen Brown’s proposal, said the public should keep an open mind.
“This is a pretty progressive issue right now in terms of parking management,” Smith said. “It has a lot of surprising implications that the average person … may not think of and so I think it will be important that as we educate the community in order to get input that they get exposed to this very progressive way of thinking about parking.”
Brown’s proposal, called Access Downtown, takes many of its cues from a 2008 parking study that recommended the city create a policy to make more on-street spaces available to downtown visitors by making parking in private lots and garages more affordable to downtown employees.
The key change would be for the city to resume charging for on-street parking, something that city officials say stopped two decades ago.
“[Meters] would provide a revenue stream to fund parking management and potentially other downtown enhancements,” reads a recommendation in the 2008 study, which was prepared by the firm Martin Alexiou Bryson and the Renaissance Planning Group.
The study also claimed metering would encourage downtown employees to stay off city streets, which would free up spaces for shoppers and other visitors.
“The way we have handled parking in the city has been very decentralized,” said Chris Engel, the city’s economic development director. “There’s not a parking department, there’s not a parking expert. We have the police doing enforcement and we have Neighborhood Development Services doing the on-street permitting and striping.”
Brown said Access Downtown is still in its conceptual stage and he acknowledges there will be many questions about the system’s operation and financial implications for his business and the city. He said he believes a parking board should be formed similar to the structure that governs the Charlottesville Regional Airport.
Brown said many of the 800 on-street downtown spaces identified in the 2008 study are currently used by people who work downtown and that many of them will not use parking garages because they are thought to be too expensive. He said this creates a cycle that hurts downtown as a whole.
“Employees use nearly all the street spots, creating a perception of a lack of parking,” Brown said. “Employers claim they can’t afford to pay for employee parking off-street because they don’t have enough money because their customers go somewhere else due to the lack of parking.”
“We’re going to provide alternative subsidized employee parking and transit options to replace the loss of on-street free parking,” Brown said.
Under Access Downtown, the CPC would pay to install about 60 kiosks throughout two zones that would require parkers to enter their license plate information to pay.
Spaces in an inner zone closest to downtown would be limited to four hours. The first two hours would be a dollar each, but the second two would be priced at a rate higher than that of the parking garages to discourage commuters from using city streets.
The outer core spaces would be $1 an hour and limited to eight hours.
Enforcement of on-street parking currently stops at 6 p.m. but Brown would want to extend that until 9 p.m.
Brown said parking tickets currently are $20 each and many people risk a few tickets a month rather than pay a monthly fee at either of the Market Street or Water Street garages operated by CPC.
In contrast, a monthly pass on Charlottesville Area Transit is $20.
“We’re encouraging all of these methods of transit but we’re not assigning appropriate costs,” Brown said. “The use of private vehicles has the least community benefit because of the congestion, pollution, the parking permit and drunk driving.”
Access Downtown would include a smartphone app that would provide real-time information on how many spaces are available both in parking garages and on city streets. The app also would give updated information on city bus routes and would allow easy access to taxicabs.
Brown is reaching out to the local technology community to get the mobile software applications designed and built.
Currently, many Downtown Mall customers can get two hours of free parking in the CPC garage. Brown wants this validation to be extended to also cover cab rides or bus trips.
Brown has contacted a company called Flow Thru Technologies to develop a system that would scan license plates upon entering the parking garages.
Because the system would recognize vehicles, paper gate tickets would be eliminated and Brown said customers could get in and out of the garage more quickly.
“At the Water Street garage, we’ll sometimes get a back-up that will last an hour or more going all the way up to the roof,” Brown said.
To help employees find parking, Brown wants the free trolley-style bus to operate until 2 a.m., instead of the current 11:30 p.m. to give downtown employees and visitors another travel option. A series of park-and-ride lots also would be developed along the trolley route at a low monthly rate.
“A portion of the meter revenues would go to pay for the expansion of the free trolley, park and ride options and subsidizing a $10 monthly bus pass,” Brown said.
The remainder would go to a proposed Business Improvement District that has also been championed by the Downtown Business Association.
Earlier this month, the City Council agreed to refresh the 2008 study to see if its assumptions are still valid.
Before doing so, Mayor Satyendra Huja asked councilors if they supported the basic idea of converting to a paid on-street system. He suggested a public hearing should be held on that basic question before proceeding with any study.
“When we don’t talk to citizens, they get a little bit upset,” Huja noted.
One councilor said she could support moving to a metered system, but that there should be a way for people to be able to quickly run errands such as dropping off items at the library.
“One thing I would like to explore is the idea of having the first hour be free, even with metered parking,” said Councilor Kristin Szakos.
Councilor Kathy Galvin said she wants the city’s parking system to integrate into a full travel demand system.
“That [addresses] how you incent people to not drive alone in their car, but is it a matter of getting employers to give bus passes to everyone?” Galvin said.
A presentation on Access Downtown will be given to Charlottesville businesses this week, and Brown said he will be making media appearances to promote the concept.
The matter will return to the City Council later this year.