Raleigh's North Hills goes downtown: Get ready for pay-to-park

akenney@newsobserver.comApril 25, 2014 

— North Hills aims to be more of a downtown than a mall, with its glass-front stores, and a scattering of offices and apartments.

Now the shopping center shares something else with downtown Raleigh: Pay parking for some spots.

People who live and work in the privately owned districts apparently are crowding shoppers out of the best spaces, according to North Hills management, so the company is experimenting with a system of credit cards, phones and validation tickets to free up parking.

For the last month, Kane Realty has tested a system called PassportParking on some spots in the Park District near The Cowfish restaurant. The new pay lot charges $1 per hour, but shoppers can erase their parking bill if they buy food or goods in the district, which stands across Six Forks Road from North Hills’ main retail area.

Depending on whom you ask, it’s either a high-tech approach to a parking problem or a high-tech pain in the butt.

Pulling into the test lot, you’ll see a sign for free parking, with registration and purchase. After parking, you either call into a number listed on the lot’s signs or open a free app called PassportParking.

If you’re new to the system, PassportParking asks for the lot number, credit card information and the vehicle’s license plate number. (It can remember information for repeat callers and app users if they use a numeric password.)

Finally, you pick how long you want to stay and set the clock ticking. You can extend the timer by call or app – or you can get a discount code from a shop or restaurant in the area and erase up to five hours of the bill.

The first 30 minutes are always free. The new model – which applies only to 65 spots now but could expand – won’t directly make money for the shopping center or its tenants, according to Bonner Gaylord, the shopping center’s manager and a Raleigh city councilman.

A quick adjustment

Kane Realty wants to see whether it makes parking easier for shoppers in a limited area, then potentially spread it to other popular spots.

“It’s a location that a lot of folks use,” Gaylord said of the lot near Cowfish. “Rather than seeing office workers who park there and leave their car for a long period of time, the intention of that lot and all the other surface lots is to provide high turnover for customers.”

Shoppers have been quick to adjust to the system, which is made by Charlotte-based PassportParking.

Tom Kelly, who eats at North Hills a few times a month with his wife, was skeptical when he first heard there was a change in parking – “I think it stinks,” he joked reflexively.

He warmed to the new model, though, when he heard management’s reasoning.

“That’s not a bad idea,” he said as he and Maryanne Kelly made for their car – in a regular non-pay lot – with leftovers. “A few of these cars haven’t changed since we were last here,” he said.

Some skeptical

Jedrey Orton, the general manager for the Italian restaurant Vivace, is wary. The restaurant isn’t in the same area as the pay-to-park test, but he worries that the new requirements – including the choice of purchasing or paying a fee – will drive away potential customers.

“I think it’s a beautiful place to come and walk around. Just because you don’t spend money the first time around, doesn’t mean you won’t in the future,” he said. “We have a lot of people who come in and want to take a peek at the menu. You put signs up – they have to download an app, do this, do that – it’s detrimental to me.”

Gaylord, the manager, said that Kane Realty had considered other options, including parking stickers for the workers and residents they want to clear out.

“There’s no way to really monitor it. You’re having to constantly chase people to get them to voluntarily put stickers on their car,” he said. “If you see a car that’s parked there regularly, what you have as a punitive step is to tow them, and you invariably end up towing the wrong person.”

In some ways, North Hills is fighting the side effects of its own success. An indoor mall wouldn’t have this problem. Few people fight over the seas of pavement outside one of the old single-building centers, but a curbside spot by a high-concept chain restaurant might be more alluring.

“Raleigh’s going big time,” Tom Kelly joked.

What’s next?

Management hasn’t decided whether to expand the pay-to-park program, but it could be useful in North Hills’ central area, according to Gaylord.

“Ideally, we’d like to have premier parking spaces across the property – and have people park easily, just as long as they’re willing to acknowledge that they’re customers,” he said.

So far, North Hills’ biggest problem with the system is teaching people how to use it. Management has been changing the signs and messages at the new lot to stress that it’s supposed to be free.

“It really is mostly about helping people to understand why we’re doing this,” Gaylord said.

Early signage didn’t make it clear that the lot was supposed to be free to shoppers.

A sign outside the lot now says “FREE” parking for restaurant and retail. A purchase, however, is necessary.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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