The pay-parking dilemma

Oct. 26, 2013 @ 05:03 PM

Not so long ago, finding a place to park in downtown Durham was no problem. Empty parking spaces – like empty storefront and tobacco warehouses – were plentiful.

Outside of a few islands of activity, there weren’t many people doing business downtown. Even fewer lived there. 

While we might have been superficially pleased by the speed and ease with which we could park our cars, if we did venture there, we had to know this was not good.

Smart retailers know that if is consistently easy to parking at the curb right in front of the store, you have way too few customers.

Today, of course, that has changed.  And in what is unlikely to be the last disagreement between pioneers and the city government -- both of whom, it should be noted, have contributed mightily to the renaissance -- we face a dilemma over downtown parking.

A similar conflict is simmering in the Ninth Street area where different dynamics are at work, but the debate over who should pay for parking is similar.

The debate was launched by a city-commissioned consultant’s study that recommended reducing taxpayer subsidies for parking.

In both downtown and the Ninth Street corridor, the consultants recommend and City Council members signaled Thursday they favor charging for on-street parking and in some lots that are now free. 

Much of the downtown concern has come from residents, a group grown more plentiful in recent years.  They cite both formal and informal arrangements that have allowed them to park for free, especially in off-peak hours, in city decks.

But citing other demands on the city’s budget – and the changing face of downtown – council members seem intent on assessing fees. “Things are not how they were 20 years ago,” council member Diane Catotti remarked. Councilman Steve Schewel said flatly that “I don’t think we ought to be asking the city’s taxpayers at large to be subsidizing downtown parking to this degree.”

On Ninth Street, parking stress is not new. That bustling, funky commercial strip has always suffered from a shortage of parking.

But changes in ownership of a popular lot that provides about the only off-street, public parking – for free – raise the prospect that the city will be charging for the use of that lot, as well as for on-street parking. There’s also a prospect that lot will cease to be available at all for parking.

Tom Campbell, co-owner of long-time Ninth Street fixture The Regulator Bookshop, minced no words about what that would mean. “If that parking lot goes way, the businesses on our side of the street crater,” Campbell told the council.

We confess to seeing merit on both sides of these issues. The city is hard-pressed to allocate, much less justify, extensive subsidies for parking in a couple of areas of the city. But alienating downtown’s early residents – and discouraging new ones – or undercutting the vitality of Ninth Street are unwelcome prospects.

In the end, we believe the city and the citizens impacted can find middle ground, and perhaps phase changes over time.

The balance will be tricky, but finding it is critical to reinforcing downtown’s increasingly exuberant rebirth.