Charlottesville’s City Council will look into alternatives to building a new parking garage facility downtown after discussions at a work session Tuesday.
After hearing from the public, the council decided that it will vote on a resolution during its June 7 meeting about how to move forward with the parking agreement with Albemarle County as part of a joint court complex project. Members of the council agreed that they would like to explore alternate options before moving forward with constructing a parking garage.
In December 2018, the city executed an intergovernmental memorandum of agreement with the county to redevelop the Levy Opera House building and adjoining site at 350 Park St. to serve as a co-located courts complex.
The agreement has a number of provisions and specifically requires the city to provide the county with 90 parking spaces on the first floor for its exclusive use in a new downtown garage to be constructed nearby.
The city is required to start construction no later than May 1, 2022, and have the spots available by Nov. 30, 2023. The proposed garage project is estimated to cost about $11.3 million.
If the city does not build the garage by Nov. 30, 2023, or within one year after the General District Court project is completed, whichever is later, Albemarle County can choose for the city either to provide 100 spaces in the Market Street Garage at or below the second level, or that it re-convey its half interest in East Market Street parcel, allow the county to use the property for parking and pay the county.
As part of the courts agreement, the city purchased the county’s ownership in the parking lot at 701 E. Market St. to build the garage.
The city bought an additional parcel for the project, where a Lucky 7 convenience store and Guadalajara, a Mexican restaurant, currently sit.
Funds expended to date on the planning and development of the project total approximately $1.5 million.
During Tuesday’s work session, Chris Engel, director of economic development for the city, presented two options to the City Council — the city either can go through with the project or abandon it.
Engel warned against abandoning the project, and presented two alternative options that would still honor the agreement with the county.
If the council chooses not to go forward with building the garage as planned, Engel said the city could potentially build a smaller garage facility of about 140 to 200 parking spaces on the parcel currently occupied by Lucky 7 and Guadalajara. This would cost an estimated $6 million to $8 million.
Or, the city could construct a 30- to 40-space parking lot in that space, Engel said. This would cost an estimated $1 million.
The latter option would require the demolition of the Lucky 7 and Guadalajara for the construction of eight additional parking spaces. The city currently owns 32 parking spaces that are used by the two businesses.
Engel said either of these options might require an amendment to the agreement with the county. The parking lot option would not provide the 100 spaces required for county use in the agreement, so additional options would have to be explored to procure the total number of spaces required.
“As I’ve said before, I think spending $10 [million] to $15 million on structured parking is just not the most efficient and wise use of our money when we’re looking at all our competing needs,” said Councilor Michael Payne.
“I haven’t seen a lot of data to back up that there is a severe parking shortage. Even before COVID, there were always spaces available in the Water Street garage when the Market Street garage was full,” Payne said. “It only reaches peak capacity occasionally during midday during weekdays, so we’re spending $15 million to address a problem that exists for a couple hours which could always be resolved by someone going to the Water Street garage, and that’s in addition to all these other private spaces that exist which are always available, as well as paid parking that is always available.”
Payne said he was particularly concerned about the potential demolition of the Lucky 7 and Guadalajara. Other councilors agreed that they should look into potential alternatives before doing this.
Councilor Lloyd Snook agreed with Payne that the number of parking spots available downtown isn’t an issue, and asked if a new facility was still necessary after reports that the county was
rethinking the size and scope of the project
due to lower-than-projected caseloads.
Engel and City Manager Chip Boyles said they had gone over options and it was not possible to move forward without creating some kind of parking facility.
Councilor Heather Hill said that while she supported looking into alternatives to building the garage, particularly due to the cost, she is concerned the city will have to build a new garage in the near future regardless of the courts project and that the council should take this into consideration.
Some local businesspeople spoke in support of building a new garage, saying it would provide needed additional parking in the re-emerging downtown area.
Chris Eure, executive director of the Paramount Theater, said the venue had received renewed interest in events as COVID-19 restrictions have eased and she feels downtown venues will need additional parking. She said the theater has sold more than 1,200 tickets for an upcoming comedy show.
“People are just really clamoring to get out of their houses and do something. If that is any indication that downtown will be coming back, they will be coming back,” Eure said.
“We know when we’re open and we’re thriving, so are the restaurants and the shops, and we work together as a team down here. Frankly, hearing the conversation that the parking garage isn’t going to be built is almost like a kick in the stomach after working so hard to remain open during this crisis and do what we can for the downtown area,” she said.
Eure said she was concerned that if people visiting from out of town struggle to find parking when attending events downtown, they won’t come back and will patronize other venues outside of Charlottesville such as the Altria Theater in Richmond.
Other community members challenged the notion that there isn’t adequate parking downtown.
Rory Stolzenberg, a member of the city’ Planning Commission, said there will be more than 574 private parking spaces created in the next year because of the construction of buildings such as Apex Plaza, which would lessen the need for a new large parking facility.
“The city is paying for 60 new spaces to be created on the empty grass field next to Champion [Brewing] that will be public parking,” Stolzenberg said in response to comments that parking spots would be lost due to the Belmont Bridge replacement project.
Stolzenberg said that data from January 2019 shows that approximately 150 to 160 city employees park in the Market Street garage on weekdays, and that while there is not data for the Water Street garage, there are lots of open spaces.
“We could offer city employees a monetary incentive to park in the Water Street garage instead,” Stolzenberg said, suggesting that the county-exclusive court spots could be located in the Market Street garage.
According to the agreement, if the parking structure is not completed by the time the General District Court project is completed, the city must provide 100 dedicated spaces in the existing Market Street Parking Garage as a temporary solution.
Engel said that it would not be possible to put the county spaces in the Market Street garage, stating that signage would have to be added to indicate those spaces were exclusively for county usage.