DURHAM — Skeptical of merchants’ fears, City Council members voiced support last week for charging $1 an hour to use the now-free Ninth Street parking lot.
“I am not anticipating a huge dropoff in retail because you have to pay a dollar to park,” Councilwoman Diane Catotti said.
For their part, business owners who had vigorously opposed the charge appeared grudgingly reconciled to it, but pressed the council to move on improvements promised in a Ninth Street plan more than five years ago.
“There just needs to be some forward progress on (those) priorities,” said Larry Wood, owner of Ninth Street Flowers.
Among those priorities are lighting and paving the alleys between Ninth and Iredell streets for parking and pedestrian traffic, sidewalk repair and better lighting on Ninth Street’s historical east side.
“I concur,” said Councilman Eugene Brown. “The city has promised a lot of things over the years ... and been rather tardy in delivering.”
Brown’s colleagues favored making a priority of the improvements, as well as selling special parking permits to employees of Ninth Street businesses, expanding city facade-improvement grants to include the Ninth Street area, and negotiating with owners of other private lots to open them for others’ use.
Making the east-side area more pedestrian friendly and parking-accessible could offset some of the effects of parking charges on businesses, and alleviating some of the effects of first-time parking fees.
“The merchants on Ninth Street have a really good point,” said Councilman Steve Schewel. “Without these other things ... they’ve got a problem.”
The city has agreed for CPGPI to make streetscape improvements, at city expense, along the west side of Ninth Street, where a number of new businesses – including a Harris-Teeter supermarket – have opened recently and more are expected to open soon. Increased tax revenue from the new businesses, along with a new hotel and apartment complex, is expected to finance those improvements, which are going onto public property.
East-side business owners want some of that revenue to go toward sprucing up their side of the street. They have also said the city puts them at a disadvantage if their customers have to pay to park while new businesses across the street have plenty of free parking available for their customers only.
“We are afraid Ninth Street will become collateral damage to the city's parking policy,” Regulator Bookshop co-owner Tom Campbell said.
Discussion of Ninth Street issues took up a an hour and 38 minutes of the council’s work session Thursday, which concluded with the city administration’s Ninth Street parking proposal set for formal approval at the Feb. 17 regular council meeting.
According to that plan, the city would lease the 46-space parking lot from its owner, CPGPI Regency Erwin LLC, for $82,500 a year, imposing the $1 per hour weekday fee, and setting two-hour limits on free on-street parking throughout the Ninth Street area – many spaces there now have three-hour limits or no limit at all.
City projections anticipate offsetting some of the lease cost with parking-lot fees and parking-ticket revenue. Proposed lease terms are for five years, with two extensions at rates to be determined.
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 has allowed free parking to continue while negotiating new terms with the city.
Mayor Bill Bell asked city administrators to find out if CPGPI would let the city put off lease payments until after the lot gets needed resurfacing, which will take about three months. That would allow more time to arrange for improvements the merchants want before paid parking in the lot goes into effect.
Several council members pointed out that free parking will still be available on-street, and time limits should increase turnover so open spaces are easier to find than they are now. Schewel described himself as a frequent patron of Ninth Street shops.
“I'm not going to stop going there because I have to pay a dollar, and I'm going to look for free parking as soon as I get there.”
That free parking may be only for the time being, though. Charging for on-street parking in the Ninth Street area is recommended in a consultants’ parking study completed last year and remains an eventual likelihood.