At noon one day last week, the Ninth Street business district appeared to be its usual bustling self with one discordant element in view: the public parking lot.
The free two-hour spaces along the street were getting heavy use, as was the free parking lot meant for shoppers at Harris Teeter and the other new businesses on Ninth Street’s west side.
But in the public lot, where the city began charging $1 an hour last June 1, 43 of the 48 spaces were empty, despite the rush of lunchtime trade going on. Later that day, at 5 p.m., only one of the lot’s spaces was taken.
“A ghost lot,” said Tom Campbell, co-owner of the Regulator Bookshop.
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“No one ever parks there,” said Dain Phelan, owner of Dain’s Place pub. “It’s uncanny how there can be no parking anywhere and that lot is 100 percent open.”
In truth, people do park there: at night and on weekends when there’s no charge. But the city instituted parking fees in hopes of covering some of the $82,500 it pays to lease the lot and keep it available for the parking public.
But the public isn’t paying.
“There is some utilization, but it’s by no means significant right now,” said city Transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen. “As long as people are finding free alternatives, that’s probably what they’re going to do.”
So far, the free alternatives include the private lot next to the city-leased lot. Both are owned by CPGPI Regency Erwin, developer of the Harris Teeter and the new building, housing Panera Bread and the Duck Shop among other businesses, at the corner of Ninth Street and Hillsborough Road, that have opened within the past 18 months.
The private lot is meant to serve only those shops facing it, and prominent signs give notice that “unauthorized vehicles” may get towed. But shoppers willing to take a chance are using the lot and taking their trade elsewhere.
“We deal with it quite a bit, with people going across the street,” said Austin Emory, manager at the Duck Shop. “It is definitely a hot topic,” he said.
“I don’t know that I would say we have noticed, specifically, people parking in our lot and walking across the street,” said Regency Centers property manager Jay Kanik. “I can say that I’ve seen students and others leave their cars on our property for extended periods of time.”
Also, he said, “The number of cars in our parking lot against the number of customers in our stores – that ratio has not gone unnoticed. ... Yes, it is a concern of ours.”
Regency hasn’t started towing cars “as of yet,” Kanik said. Regency may add more signs “so that everybody is even more aware of the importance of parking and shopping on our property as opposed to parking and leaving our property.
“We want to be good neighbors,” he said.
“We will take our cues from our tenants as to at what point and to what extent we need to protect the parking,” Kanik said.
‘For the principle’
The city’s parking fee has affected older east-side merchants in different ways. When Market Street Coffee closed its Ninth Street shop in December, a notice on the door blamed business loss since the parking charge began.
Michael Bell, owner of the Hunky Dory vinyl and smokeware shop, said his August through mid-December sales figures for 2014 were $8,000 below those for the same period a year earlier, when the city lot was still free.
At The Playhouse toy store, owner Donna Frederick said her sales have been down, and customers over the holidays “were just not happy” about the fee – “Not for the money,” she said. “For the principle.”
Vaguely Reminiscent owner Carol Anderson had a similar observation.
“It’s not about the money,” she said. “Our customers are well-heeled enough to afford a dollar to park. ... That’s not the issue. It’s the inconvenience.”
Anderson said her business hasn’t “grown by leaps and bounds, but neither was there a sharp decline” last year. The Regulator is attracting new customers from nearby developments across the street such as the Crescent Ninth Street apartments, but also losing some old ones, Campbell said.
“We’re kind of swimming uphill, I think,” he said.
Campell said he hears customers concerned for the Regulator when they see the empty parking lot.
“They go, ‘Are you doing OK?’ Anyone driving past and seeing an empty lot and not knowing anything would just assume that this part of Nith Street is dead,” Campbell said.
“The other thing they say is, ‘I WILL NOT pay to park on Ninth Street.’ Over and over again I have heard that. They take it as a personal affront.”