Town officials hope free weekend parking and more visible spaces will encourage people to come downtown this year and patronize local businesses.
The problem with downtown parking, officials said, is that much of it goes unused because it’s not where people prefer to park. The town has more than 950 on-street, parking lot and parking deck spaces in the business district.
The Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership and the town’s parking services division, Police Department and mayor’s office have been examining the problem, said Meg McGurk, CHDP executive director.
Fifty business responses to a survey about employee parking showed those workers were using about 175 parking spaces, she said. Many were locking up prime spaces for most of the night, she said, while lots and decks in less-visible areas had vacancies.
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Other employees had learned to work the system, Mayor Pam Hemminger said, remaining until the lots close at 11 p.m., for example, to avoid paying.
The first of three new pilot programs should free up more on-street spaces by encouraging employees to park in lesser-used lots, McGurk said. The town will offer 100 employee permits in June to 10 businesses reporting a high need, she said.
The permits will cost businesses $30 each and be good after 4:30 p.m. through December at the Wallace Deck, the Basnight Lane lot off West Franklin Street and the 140 West deck. The program will be monitored to see if the permits are being used and in which lots, McGurk said.
More lighting in those areas should help employees and others feel safe walking to their cars at night, Hemminger said.
UNC pitched in with another pilot program by agreeing to raise the stop arm on its West Rosemary Street lot at 4 p.m. each day, starting this week. The parking will be available to anyone, but McGurk said, also should provide employees of other businesses an opportunity to park for free.
The town also will extend the free parking now offered every Sunday to Saturdays in July, similar to December’s free parking program. Parking also is free in on-street spaces after 6 p.m. and in off-street spaces after 8 p.m.
Town staff, as part of that pilot program, will bag parking meters for about 200 on-street spaces, letting drivers park free for two hours. There still will be a fee for parking lots and decks.
“We want you to come downtown and tell your friends about the great meal you had at a certain restaurant. Parking is never part of that conversation,” she said. “We don’t want you to ever say parking is a hassle or I couldn’t find a spot.”
Drivers who stay too long will be ticketed, Police Chief Chris Blue said, although there will be leeway for drivers who stay only a short time over the two-hour limit.
“Two hours and 15 minutes is not something we would spend a whole lot of time on; four hours is,” he said.
The program could cost the town $10,000 in parking and enforcement revenues, McGurk said.
Council member Nancy Oates suggested the town look at providing restaurants with vouchers for their customers instead of free parking. That would ensure drivers who park are going to those businesses, she said.
Businesses already can buy discounted parking tokens and validation coupon books to hand out to patrons. Nearly two dozen businesses also participate in a complimentary valet parking program on West Franklin Street; the cost is $5 for patrons of other businesses.