Durham County

Residents, business owners weigh in on downtown parking issues

The Chapel Hill Street garage in downtown Durham and the other off-street parking garages are at capacity. That’s why the city has installed parking meters and began charging for on-street parking in late February.
The Chapel Hill Street garage in downtown Durham and the other off-street parking garages are at capacity. That’s why the city has installed parking meters and began charging for on-street parking in late February. bthomas@heraldsun.com

One business owner was worried about making deliveries and returning to a parking space. Another wanted to know where their employees could park during the day.

Another wanted public transportation to be easy for employees to get to late at night. New and future residents wondered whether they would be able to find parking near a new home.

And others wanted to know where their customers could park.

The needs, outlined at a recent neighborhood meeting, were as diverse as Durham, but the source of the problem was the same: parking challenges in downtown.

“The parking is killing us. That is not an exaggeration,” said Seth Gross, owner of downtown eateries Bull City Burger and Brewery and Pompieri Pizza. “Business is down 20 percent.”

Downtown users, residents, business owners and employees were invited to a recent Partners Against Crime District 5 meeting to talk about concerns and potential solutions to the downtown parking crisis. In response, city officials said they are working on it, but don’t have any immediate solutions to a complex problem.

The city’s waiting list for monthly parking at its decks is up to nearly 240 individuals as construction and related crews are taking up some of the spots and more people are moving to, starting businesses in and visiting downtown.

Another complication

Complicating the crunch, at the end of February the city installed meters for paid on-street parking in and near downtown an effort to encourage more turnover. City officials recently announced a plan to take out nine of the “underperforming” pay stations and extend parking limits within the downtown loop from a one-hour maximum to two.

Meanwhile, a new city parking deck with about 670 parking spaces near the intersection of Morgan Street, Mangum Street and Rigsbee Avenue isn’t set to come online until early 2019. The city is also moving forward with a process to update the current parking plan. Officials are also exploring options to ease the immediate concerns.

“It’s a complicated type of process,” said Thomas Leathers, the city’s parking administrator, because everyone has different needs and expectations.

People are looking at how to get downtown from northern Durham County and Wake County, while some employers balk at the idea of their employees using a park-and-ride lot that they have to drive past downtown to get to, he said.

Leathers and Stephanie Loyka, employer outreach consultant with GoTriangle, said they and others have been exploring solutions to the problems for months.

They are assessing park-and-ride options, possibly at the Heritage Square (401 E. Lakewood Ave.) and Lakewood (2000 Chapel Hill Road) shopping centers, and working with larger companies and developers to free up spots downtown and in public and private decks.

In the long term, officials need to continue to encourage downtown users to take public transportation, Loyka said.

“It requires a paradigm shift. People are not used to that, and that also takes time,” she said.

Temporary relief?

Some temporary relief may come after the 250-space parking deck in the former Jack Tar Motel, now the soon to open Unscripted Hotel, opens in the next month or so. Some of the spaces will be open to the public, said Zach Prager, a development analyst with Austin Lawrence Partners.

Emily Bloom, an employee at digital agency Viget, didn’t understand what was so complicated about setting up a nearby van service or park and ride. Bloom suggested that she and others approach owners of the Lakewood shopping center and see if they can lease spaces.

Erik Landfried, GoTriangle’s transit service planning supervisor, discouraged such action, pointing out the liability and other challenges that come with such a service.

After the meeting, Vanessa and Yoni Mazuz, owners of downtown ice cream shop The Parlour, said beyond the changes to the on-street parking, they didn’t really have any solutions to share with their 25 employees after the meeting. But they aren’t necessarily disappointed.

“We kind of figured this was the beginning of a much longer process,” Vanessa Mazuz said.

They moved to Durham from Philadelphia, where public transportation was more robust and popular.

“I wish I could just make riding the bus cool, so more people would do it, so there would be more stops and it would go later,” she said. “And people would just know that it is an option because there are way more bus routes than people realize.”

Cycling to work

Gross, owner of Bull City Brewery and Pompieri Pizza, encourages his employees to bike to work by paying for fees associated with building and maintaining their bikes at Durham Bike Co-op.

“We want to be part of the solution,” he said.

Still, that along with the proposed park-and-ride option, doesn’t necessarily solve the parking issue for customers.

Gross linked declines in revenue, weeks where he sees 15 to 20 percent decreases compared to the year before, to parking after talking with customers and other business owners.

“I think (city officials) need to hear that,” he said. “Getting a place for employees is great but that doesn’t bring customers unless it frees up parking.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

About downtown’s growth

In the last year, 15 new bars and restaurants opened downtown as well as 10 stores. The city expects to add over 100,000 square feet of retail space in the next three years.

Currently there are 1,700 residential units in downtown, and another 1,300 units are expected in the coming years — including the Van Alen, which will add more than 400.

About 1.2 million square feet is expected to be added in the coming years, which represents a 40 percent increase. That growth is much needed as real estate services firm JLL estimates the Bull City has a small 1.1 percent vacancy rate for class A office space and a 2.3 percent vacancy rate for all office.

Source: Downtown Durham Inc.’s annual report