Durham may end free parking downtown, on Ninth Street

jwise@newsobserver.comOctober 25, 2013 

Steve Schewel

JENNY WARBURG — Jenny Warburg

  • Parking office moves

    Lanier Parking, which manages public parking for the city, has moved its office to City Hall until repairs to the Chapel Hill Street garage are finished.

    The new office is in Suite 1400 on the first level of City Hall. Hours remain 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

    Garage repairs are expected to be complete in late December.

    For parking information, see bit.ly/1aqZiBi; or call 919-680-2481 or 919-560-4366.

Ninth Street has eclipsed downtown as the hot topic in the city’s parking plans, but the days of free parking are probably numbered in both areas.

Charging for parking in both areas has generated public objection, but for different reasons and from different groups.

“Downtown and Ninth Street are apples and oranges,” said Tom Campbell, co-owner of the Regulator Bookshop on Ninth Street and a former city councilman. Campbell was one of several residents who raised issues with a consultant’s recommendations during a two-hour discussion at last week’s City Council work session.

Council members deferred any decisions, but City Manager Tom Bonfield said, “We can’t kick the can down the road” indefinitely.

A consultant’s study of parking downtown ( bit.ly/1dzS6WF) and Ninth Street ( bit.ly/19KeVCR) found the city’s designated parking fund is running a $2 million annual deficit, which is being covered with money meant for other purposes.

It also found that some public parking areas downtown and most around Ninth Street are already over capacity, and that the city center alone will need more than 2,000 additional spaces for new development. Among other measures, the consultants recommended charging for on-street parking at 750 spaces downtown and 150 in the Ninth Street area where parking is currently free for one to three hours

“Good urban policy is having people pay for parking in situations like this,” said Councilman Steve Schewel. “I don’t think we ought to be asking taxpayers at large to be subsidizing downtown parking.”

The report also recommends raising rates at downtown surface lots and decks. After a draft report was circulated last spring, the city put off on-street charges until it evaluates parking-meter technologies, but raised parking charges at garages and surface lots downtown with the current year’s budget.

Most downtown residents didn’t know about the charges until they began getting notices in August. Many have received free parking permits for years, and began protesting to the city in August.

Lease uncertain

More recently, Ninth Street merchants grew alarmed at the prospect of losing the free parking that has helped support the district that has become a popular commercial destination during the past 40 years. Fans of the local businesses and casual ambiance have flooded council members with requests to keep parking free.

Campbell said he and other merchants are particularly worried that they may lose a now-free parking lot on the west side of the street.

The city has leased the lot to provide free parking for years, but its future came into question when its ownership changed and new development began on the west side of Ninth Street. The city and the current owner, CPGPI Regency Erwin LLC, are negotiating to continue the lease, but the deal is not final.

If the lease falls through, CPGPI manager Jack Dunn said the land “will probably turn into a building.”

“If that parking (lot) goes away, the businesses on our side of the street crater,” Campbell said, pointing out that the businesses going in on the west side will have parking lots of their own.

Downtown pioneers

While Ninth Street interests feel threatened, residential pioneers downtown say the city is going back on its commitment to them.

In 1992, the City Council adopted a free-parking policy to encourage people to live downtown.

“The current owner-residents bought and invested … based on what we regarded to be a legally binding agreement,” said Coke Ariail, who bought a building near Five Points and moved in 1983.

A $10 per month charge was approved later, but never enforced, according to city Transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen. That rate is now in effect, and residents still face charges as high as $90 a month come January.

However, downtown homeowner Marcia McNally said Ahrendsen and other city staffers have worked with residents to reach some kind of accommodation.

“I trust this council to make a fair compromise that recognizes our role” in downtown’s revival, she said.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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