DURHAM — Ninth Street merchants are plenty worried by the prospect of their customers being charged to use the now-free west side parking lot, and City Councilman Eddie Davis, for one, thinks they have good reason.
“It does pose a problem,” Davis said last week.
“If you go with metered parking there when people have not had to do that over a period of time,” he said, “you will just drive the traffic away from those traditional businesses that have been there.”
Davis and his colleagues get to weigh in on the Ninth Street parking situation at their Thursday work session. Their agenda includes the city transportation department’s proposal ( bit.ly/1ln4pKt) that the city lease the 44-space lot for $82,500 a year and institute a $1 per hour parking fee to help cover the cost.
It isn’t just charging for what has been free for decades that has business owners upset. There’s also the fact that the parking lot’s owner, CPGPI Regency Erwin LLC, has lots of free parking available – for businesses on its own property.
“You will have no harmony on this street if you have one lot that’s paid and the rest of it being free,” said Danielle Martini-Rios, owner of the Blue Corn Cafe. “To me, that's an unwelcoming feel.”
Council members put off discussing the parking proposal at their last work session, at merchants’ request “so that we could get them more information,” said Vaguely Reminiscent owner Carol Anderson.
“This is a very serious thing,” Anderson said. “It doesn’t maybe seem so on the face of it, but it’s a serious subject for us, the viability of our businesses.”
Councilwoman Diane Catotti was not convinced that parking fees would be as harmful as business owners claim.
“I’d like to hear a little more from our transportation people about that,” she said. “I don’t think that’s been our experience elsewhere.
“We’ll see. I’m open to some compromises, for sure,” Catotti said.
The city has leased the lot and allowed free there parking since 1985. That lease ended when CPGPI Regency Erwin LLC bought the property in 2012, but the company allowed free parking to continue while negotiating new terms with the city.
Preliminary parking terms are described in an Oct. 12, 2012 memo ( bit.ly/Lbqv1U), which gave a non-binding estimate for leasing the lot at $15,250 a month for 20 years and covering the cost out of tax revenue from new businesses along Ninth Street such as the Harris Teeter supermarket and Panera Bread bakery.
The price hike from $15,250 a month to $82,500 a month raised a red flag for Regulator Bookshop co-owner Tom Campbell.
“How was the interest of the taxpayers protected (or not protected, as seems to be the case) in the lease negotiations?” Campbell wrote in a memo to council members.
“Any juxtaposition of that $15,000 (figure) with what we ultimately negotiated is not valid,” said Kevin Dick, the city’s director of economic and workforce development.
“The intent of that memo ... was just some ideas. That’s why those deal points are non-binding,” Dick said. “That dollar amount ... was not meant to be any more than what we could allot in the incremental tax revenues for reserves in case the revenues came up short of the lease costs.”
The 2012 memo did mention that charging for the parking lot, as well as for on-street spaces in the area, would be “evaluated” if recommended in the consultants’ parking study then just under way. Dick said the city made sure Ninth Street merchants were “well aware” of those possibilities, but Campbell maintained that “no mention” paid parking in the lot was ever made to them.
Ninth Street ‘feel’
Martini-Rios said she welcomes the chain stores moving onto historically hometown Ninth Street, but not what she sees as City Hall’s attitude.
New business “is bringing faces, it’s bringing light, it’s bringing life,” she said. “But those people came in because we had that feel, they wanted that feel we had brought to this street.
“So now the city is turning around and saying, ‘Well, we want to make more money off of this now.’ And it’s going to ultimately kill the small business owner.”
Campbell suggested that the city could still afford to cover the lease cost, even at $82,500 a year, from new tax revenue.
“My initial thought is, it might be easier – particularly since folks have been there on Ninth Street for a long period of time – for us to do as Tom has suggested,” said Davis.
“One of the things that crossed my mind is that there is so much money paid in (city) incentives to bring new businesses to the area,” Anderson said. “My question would be, is there not a modest sum of money available to keep viable the businesses that are already operating?”