Credit: Credit: Nelson Nygaard

Charlottesville City Council appears ready to add meters to downtown streets as part of an effort to manage parking to relieve congestion and make the area a more attractive destination.

Charging for curbside parking is one of several recommendations offered by a study commissioned by the council earlier this year. A 2008 study also recommended installing meters but councilors declined at the time to do so.

“I have no problem with moving on to the next step of looking at implementation,” said Councilor Kathy Galvin at a work session Thursday.

The firm Nelson Nygaard is being paid $120,000 to conduct the latest study. The company previously worked on a West Main parking study and was also recently commissioned to redraw Charlottesville Area Transit routes.

The latest study was conducted to see what has changed in the past seven years.

“The snapshot is that demand is up,” said Chris Engel, the city’s economic development director. “There are more visitors, there are more employees and there are more residents in and around the city.”

Engel said the number of transient parkers seeking space in the two public parking garages has doubled in the past three years. There’s also a waiting list for new monthly parkers at the Market Street and Water Street Parking Garages.

Supply has remained relatively unchanged, according to the study, with 4,280 parking spaces downtown available to the public. That breaks down to 1,932 public off-street spaces, 1,001 public on-street spaces and 1,347 private spaces in surface lots that can be rented by the public.

“There’s a fair number of unused spaces in your downtown when you take your inventory in its totality,” said Karina Ricks with Nelson Nygaard.

But those figures will drop slightly in the new few years. Just over a hundred public spaces at the City Market surface lot will be unavailable for three years while the nine-story Market Plaza is built. The city will lose up to 70 spaces when the Belmont Bridge is eventually replaced and has pledged several dozen spaces for use by Albemarle County for its court system.

Ricks said the city can use its existing spaces better to address concerns about a lack of parking.

“When you take overall the privately held lot spaces with the publicly held garage and on-street spaces, your peak occupancy is under 70 percent,” she said, adding that is up from 63 percent from the 2008 study.

“I think that number probably surprises some members of your public who believe there’s no parking availability in downtown,” Ricks said. “Really it’s that these spaces are not all optimized.”

The study did not recommend specifics for how to make the transition to paid on-street parking, but did suggest using equipment that would allow for people to pay by phone or credit card.

“[Smart meters] are electronic meters that allow a lot more flexibility and management,” Ricks said. “You can gauge those meters to permit, let’s say, 30 minutes of free parking.”

Councilor Bob Fenwick said he was concerned taking away free parking would make it harder for businesses to compete with shopping and entertainment destinations in Albemarle.

“If there’s one thing I hear about Stonefield, it’s free parking,” Fenwick said.

But Ricks said there are many differences between the places.

“We hear that a lot, but the reality is you’re not a suburban shopping destination,” Ricks said. “You’re a very different market down here, and people come in part for the unique offerings and in part for the walkable environment.”

Ricks has recommended strategically expanding the amount of available public parking rather than building a new structure.

“We do not think that it’s a wise investment for you to have a standalone public parking structure,” Ricks said. “Frankly, your land is too valuable for other uses.”

However, she said the city could work with developers as they construct new buildings to build new spaces.

A representative of the Charlottesville Parking Center said the council should be looking at expanding the number of spaces downtown.

“We have basically shut down downtown to new development, to business expansion and to new employee hires because we don’t have any parking for them,” CPC manager Bob Stroh said.

Stroh said the city was in a similar situation in the late 1980s when there was no more capacity. He said the opening of the Water Street garage in 1993 helped downtown begin to thrive. For instance, the City Market was able to open in a public parking lot on Saturday because there was additional capacity.

City Manager Maurice Jones said his office was already looking at some solutions to address the situation.

“We’re looking at park-and-ride opportunities and how that would work for Charlottesville,” Jones said, adding that he’s talking to Charlottesville Area Transit on how such a system might work to help employees park their cars off-site to free up parking for customers and visitors.

Council made no decisions but will hear possible recommendations for action at an upcoming meeting.