Parking decisions driven by costs, council says
While voicing a desire for compromise on a couple of points, City Council members signaled Thursday they believe their government will eventually take a more bottom-line approach to parking downtown and in the Ninth Street corridor.
That’s likely to include the implementation of fee-paid curbside parking in both business districts, Councilman Steve Schewel and Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden said.
“It’s very clear we need to have paid parking in both areas,” Cole-McFadden said Thursday during a lengthy council work session focusing on the issue.
The session gave council members a chance to go over the results of a study the city commissioned last year of the parking system. It advised a change in strategy to reduce the tax subsidies that for downtown alone are costing the city about $2 million a year.
The report has sparked objections from downtown residents who face the loss of free parking, and from Ninth Street merchants who worry the advent of paid curbside parking will scare off customers.
Council members encouraged compromise with both groups, but said the current subsidies of parking are unlikely to endure.
In the present fiscal climate, officials are talking “long and hard about dollars dwindling and tough choices and priorities,” Councilwoman Diane Catotti said.
Officials when budgeting have to put all such subsidies “on the table and in context,” so it’s clear to the public money spent on parking inherently means “a choice of not doing something else,” she said.
Schewel was blunt. “I don’t think we ought to be asking the city’s taxpayers at large to be subsidizing downtown parking to this degree,” he said.
Members said a compromise with downtown residents would likely involve “grandfather” deals with at least some that include discount pricing for use of city parking decks.
Several longtime residents, West Chapel Hill Street’s Coke Ariail most prominently, have argued that the city in raising deck fees has reneged on perpetual free-parking deals made long ago with “pioneers” who moved downtown before the upswing in its fortunes.
Mayor Bill Bell said he’d be interested in seeing proof of such arrangements, and quizzed city Transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen specifically about a 1992 council resolution Ariail has invoked while arguing his case.
“Did it say anything about if a person parked in the garage in 1992, they’d have free parking from then on?” Bell asked.
“No,” Ahrendsen said, adding that the resolution was a routine rate-setting instrument that’s “been superseded” in the years since.
Catotti was unwilling to support a total fee waiver for downtown residents.
“We have some critical issues and things are not how they were 20 years ago,” she said, adding that she expects to “take some heat” for her position.
The Ninth Street issue, meanwhile, turns mostly on the future of a 42-space lot the city controls on the west side of the street and that up to now has offered free parking.
Officials leased the lot in 1985 from a company, controlled by Terry Sanford Jr., for a bargain price of about $3,000 a year.
But the lease ended last year after Sanford’s company sold the property to a Raleigh firm, the Chartwell Property Group, that’s installing a grocery and other new businesses in a redevelopment covering much of the west side of Ninth.
Chartwell is willing to sign a new lease, for a significantly higher price to the city that early on will cost it about $85,589 annually.
Administrators propose recouping that by converting the lot into a fee-paid one. But they believe fees will cover only about half the lease’s costs.
The resulting deficit, coupled to the likelihood of motorists filling up any free parking in lieu of paying fees to use the lot, are driving the city’s parallel interest in paid curbside parking.
Merchants and council members agreed Thursday the continued availability of the west-side parking lot is crucial to existing businesses on the east side of Ninth.
“If that parking lot goes away, the businesses on our side of the street crater,” The Regulator Bookshop owner Tom Campbell told the council.
But Bell said he won’t support signing the new lease without paid curbside parking. It would be preferable, he argued, for Chartwell to operate the lot as it sees fit rather than for the city to incur a new parking-subsidy deficit.
Councilman Don Moffitt said a potential compromise is for “the retailers to underwrite the cost of the parking there” in some way.
Campbell said the idea of raising funds for that via a special tax district is “something to look at.” He also encouraged officials to help arrange parking for the employees of Ninth Street businesses, to lessen pressure on spaces customers typically use.