In a victory for business owners who lobbied against parking meters downtown, the Charlottesville City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to suspend a pilot program that had been shelved during the recent holiday season.
Councilor Wes Bellamy introduced a resolution at the end of the council meeting to suspend the program for a year. The pilot had restarted Tuesday after being suspended in November following a 72-day run.
The city announced Wednesday that the program covering 105 parking spaces has met its end. Two-hour time restrictions on certain parking spaces around the downtown area will still apply.
“Based on the fact that there was no decision to provide a date when the program will be re-evaluated, we have sent out contract cancellations” to the vendors who provided the equipment and support for the program, Rick Siebert, city parking manager, said Wednesday.
Siebert said the program had cost the city about $10,000 per month, but it was on pace to generate about $20,000 a month in revenue. Siebert said Wednesday that ending the contract will not incur any penalties, but the city will have to pay a few hundred dollars for vandalized meters.
With the future of the parking meter program looking murky, business community and city leaders will soon discuss a possible economic recovery plan that would in part subsidize the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville.
Despite suggestions for a shorter suspension of the program, Bellamy was insistent on suspending the program for 12 months. He agreed, however, that the city should work with the business community to develop an economic plan that could cost at least $250,000.
“I’m fine with allocating funds to a recovery plan, but that needs to come in conjunction with the business community,” he said.
Though city officials and some business community leaders had been promoting the parking meters as a way to improve mobility downtown and manage parking, a recent economic downturn for city merchants has led to calls for the city to nix the program.
According to sales tax revenue information, year-to-year retail sales in the city were down by 4 percent at the end of the third quarter of the calendar year. Compared with September 2016, sales tax revenue last September was down 12 percent.
The Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce reported that the decline reflected a $14 million single-month drop in sales.
In a phone interview Wednesday, chamber President Timothy Hulbert suggested the report and the Downtown Business Association’s lobbying helped steer the council to their decision Tuesday.
“Data matters,” he said.
According to a letter sent to City Manager Maurice Jones and the City Council on Tuesday, the Downtown Business Association is requesting $250,000 specifically for marketing, office space and a salaried employee to support the association, as well as a laundry list of enhancements to the Downtown Mall and other parts of the city.
Susan Payne, a business association board member and president of the Blue Ridge Group marketing agency, said no decisions have been made about who will be handling the potential marketing funding from the city.
“An inclusive committee will be created and decisions will be made at some future time,” she said in an email.
Several specific one-time and annual expenditure requests included the installation of public security cameras and restrooms on the Downtown Mall, as well as a new city employee to “maintain and clean” streets from the mall to the Corner.
In addition to also requesting a new full-time “senior level” official to oversee decisions for the mall, the association also requested the city prohibit mobile food vendors around the mall and create a new “special events committee” that would include representatives from the downtown business community.
In an interview Wednesday, Joan Fenton, chairwoman of the Downtown Business Association, reiterated that funding for public services on the mall has decreased in recent years while overall city funding has increased.
The business community has previously considered the creation of a special service district that would raise taxes on downtown property owners to fund additional services.
Though a previous effort to create a business improvement district was withdrawn in 2015 due to property owners’ concerns about the tax increases, Fenton said the additional funds from year-to-year tax revenue growth — especially from last year’s massive increase in commercial property assessments last year, which averaged 30 percent — could fund additional services downtown.
“They should give some of it back,” Fenton said.
Councilor Kathy Galvin seemed reluctant to suspend the parking meter program for a year, but was supportive of the proposed economic recovery plan.
“I will support this, but I must state for the record that I think the metering of parking is not the problem,” she said. “The decline in retail sales has been citywide, in areas that don’t have metering.”
Galvin also referenced the failed business improvement district proposal, comparing it to shopping centers that charge tenants a premium for free parking and other amenities.
“That was the reason the downtown businesses wanted a business improvement district, so they would have someone managing that environment as if it were a shopping center,” she said. “We don’t have any of those supports, and that’s why it’s leaving the Downtown Mall so vulnerable.”
Speaking to the city’s parking management plan, as well as ongoing negotiations with Albemarle County officials to keep the county court buildings downtown, Galvin said the city should revisit the parking meter program later.
In November 2016, the city agreed to pay $2.85 million for a half-acre parcel on the 800 block of East Market Street. At the time of the purchase, the city said a mixed-use development with structured parking could be built at the site near the county court buildings.
“We must build in those supports. At that time, I believe we must insert once again a parking meter program because the parking garage system will not work without it,” she said. “We can’t keep saying we’re going to build parking garages that no one uses.”