Members of the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville agreed Wednesday night to sign a petition asking the city not to divest itself of its interest in the Water Street Garage.
New DBAC Chairman George Benford stressed that the DBAC itself was not interested in taking a position on the matter, other than to reiterate that it wants a swift resolution to the suit.
A show of hands by the membership indicated a large majority favored treating the garage as a public utility. Only two people raised their hands when asked whether the garage should be run and treated as a private entity.
“We have consensus that the city should do parking as a utility, they should run meters, and there is trepidation about the price going up,” said DBAC member Joan Fenton, owner of Quilts Unlimited, J. Fenton Gallery, J. Fenton Gifts and J. Fenton Too on the Downtown Mall.
The DBAC members came to the decision after Robert Crane, a Violet Crown Cinemas executive from Nashville, said he had heard a lawsuit between Charlottesville Parking Center owner Mark Brown and the city could be settled in Brown’s favor within the week.
That settlement would see the city pull out of the garage entirely, which could lead to dramatic rate increases, Crane said.
“If [the city sells its spaces, CPC is] there to make a profit, and they are going to make a profit,” Crane said. “When we opened our theater, we took a long time to get the validation sorted out, and we got it done on a very short-term basis, and we are afraid that is going to go away.”
Crane offered to have a lawyer on retainer with Violet Crown compose the petition, and he took contact information from DBAC members interested in signing it.
Charlottesville Parking Center sued the city in April, claiming the city has kept parking rates below market rate. The city countersued later that month, claiming CPC breached a contract when it bought 106 spaces from Wells Fargo in October.
City officials said Wednesday night that suit is not settled.
“The city is continuing discussions with the Charlottesville Parking Center, and absolutely no decisions have been made,” said Miriam Dickler, city spokeswoman.
After the meeting, Crane declined to say where he heard about the settlement and added that the settlement might also be months away.
“This is kind of more word-on-the-street,” Crane said. “Word on the street, if you dig a little, is that the settlement could be very imminent, like next week, or it could be six months.”
Realtor Bob Kahn, along with Benford, argued in favor of the garage going 100-percent private. A new owner, Kahn said, would drive investment and efficiency at the garage.
“[The city doesn’t] want to spend money on it,” he said. “If you want them to make it a utility, what makes you think that will change?”
Some DBAC members said they were concerned that if a settlement is a few days away, petitioning now could be too little, too late. That fear was quickly outweighed by a desire to at least make a point.
“I think that if next week the parking spaces downtown are going to be sold, then my friends who own businesses on the mall will be out of luck,” said Susan Payne, of the marketing firm Payne, Ross and Associates.
John Plantz, owner of Timberlake’s Drug Store, applauded the group’s unity on the parking issue.
“I think the opposition has so far been fragmented, that has been the problem,” he said. “If we can get ourselves together and get the public behind us, we can have some effect.”
Charlottesville Parking Center owner Mark Brown could not be reached for comment by press time.
Before the parking discussion, the DBAC expressed support for a business improvement district downtown. The association made and withdrew a request submitted in 2014 to create such a district last year.
The business improvement district would levy a tax on downtown business owners that would then be used for marketing, safety and other improvements on the mall.
“City Council has indicated definite support for the business improvement district,” Benford said. “We are taking another look at it, so it will look different than what it did two years ago.”
Benford added that the new district would likely call for a lower tax than the previous request. The last request had proposed business owners pay a 13-cent tax for every $100 of assessed value on taxable real property.