Albemarle County officials and staff are hoping that Charlottesville holds up its end of a 2018 agreement that kept the county courts in the city’s downtown, but some say that a planned parking garage is not necessary to keep the contract rolling forward.
Charlottesville’s City Council will vote Monday on a resolution to direct the city manager to “cease all other activities previously commenced to facilitate development” of a parking structure that was being built as part of an agreement with the county for a courts complex project.
Councilors have spun their wheels for months about whether to move forward with a 300-space, $10 million — excluding purchase cost of the lot at the corner of Market Street and Ninth Street Northeast — garage to meet the requirement for 90 structured parking spaces at Seventh Street Northeast and East Market Street, as outlined in the agreement. The city had been planning to build it across two lots, adding the parcel where a Lucky 7 and Guadalajara Mexican restaurant currently sit.
If the city ultimately does not build the garage, Albemarle has two other options, and the county gets to choose which one to proceed with.
“The county feels good that the agreement can be met without the deck,” said Albemarle spokesperson Emily Kilroy.
Parking was one of the central points to the long-running debate over Albemarle courts staying in the city. Even with lower caseloads than originally projected, the county still wants Charlottesville to meet the agreement’s parking commitment. The county is basing its parking needs on a survey of time and space uses.
The two options — if the city does not build a garage — are for the city to provide parking in the Market Street Garage or on the surface parking lot on East Market Street that would have held the newly built garage.
In the first option, the city would provide 100 spaces in the Market Street Garage at or below the second level. In the second, the city would sell back the half interest in the 63-space surface lot that it purchased for $1.28 million as part of the garage plan, allow the county exclusive use of the 63 parking spaces and pay the county back rent for the time it owned the full property.
“In our meetings with the city manager, we’ve been saying stick to the agreement, work through the decision-making you need to do, but the agreement is what we’ll hold you to — either Market Street or the surface lot concept,” said Assistant County Executive Trevor Henry.
If the city decides not to build the garage, Henry said county staff, in consultation with the Board of Supervisors, will decide which option the county will pursue.
Supervisor Liz Palmer, who was always supportive of keeping the courts downtown, said she understands the City Council wanting to wait to see parking needs post-COVID.
“We were very careful to put in alternatives because, quite frankly, we didn’t know what the city would end up being like in the future,” she said. “Today’s council cannot require a future council to do something specific, just like with the Board of Supervisors.”
Palmer said she was concerned about the age of the Market Street Garage and its viability long-term.
“I want more information on the status of the Market Street Garage, what’s the future of it, in order to give a preference on the alternatives … we need to do some investigating,” she said.
Nearly $500,000 was spent by the city in fiscal year 2016 to refurbish components of the Market Street Garage, including repointing of mortar, some brick replacement, ADA improvements and vertical expansion joint replacements.
Supervisors Donna Price and Bea LaPisto-Kirtley both said they feel comfortable that even if the parking garage is not built, the county will still have the needed parking spaces as part of the agreement.
“If the garage is not going to be built, before I say whether I prefer door number two or door number three, I want to get input from county staff that would help me feel better about knowing what the circumstances and conditions are today, not what they were when we entered into the agreement sometime in the past,” Price said.
Supervisors Ned Gallaway and Diantha McKeel did not respond to interview requests by press time, and Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said she didn’t have anything to share at this time.
Albemarle has been considering what to do about its courts for more than two decades, at one point looking to potentially pull the courts out of the city as a possible catalyst for economic activity somewhere in the county limits. Many in the legal community encouraged the county to stay and threatened legal action if the Board of Supervisors were to vote to relocate the courts without a referendum.
In late 2018, after nearly a year of negotiating, Charlottesville and Albemarle elected officials signed a memorandum of agreement to keep the courts downtown.
Albemarle will renovate its current courts complex to serve as the Albemarle County Circuit Court. The Levy Opera House will be redeveloped to house the Albemarle commonwealth’s attorney offices and a new facility behind it will serve as a co-located General District Court for the city and the county.
Capacity, modernization and security have been the three major drivers for the needs of the county courts project, Kilroy said, which will cost the county about $37.7 million. The city also is contributing $6.8 million for the co-located facility.
Originally, the general district facility was planned to have four sets of courts — one for the city, two county courts and a shell space for future court operations. But the building now will have two courtrooms and two hearing rooms, according to a consultant’s report in April.
“We do think that the [parking] need will be there, because there’s some changes in the programming, but our square footage is essentially the same,” Henry said. “This is what we communicated to the city — that we’re anticipating the needs of parking to continue as identified in the agreement.”
In the agreement, the new parking garage would include 90 dedicated parking spaces for “exclusive use and control by the county” on the ground level, designed for controlled access “to the fullest extent feasible” during regular court hours and for special sessions or events.
The Market Street Garage option for the county includes 100 spaces of parking at or below Level 2 with controlled access during regular court hours and for special sessions or events. The East Market Street parcel option has 63 surface parking spots.
The agreement also includes an allocation of 15 on-street parking spaces for county use during court operational hours; those spots are already in use by the county.
Henry said part of the base assumption for parking is tied to the Virginia Courthouse Facilities Guidelines, which notes that courts should have a range of parking spaces from about two to four spaces for every 1,000 gross building square feet.
“No single standard for courthouse parking exists: geographic location; number of and type of courtrooms; number of employees; proximity to downtown and public transit systems; availability of shared parking with other offices; and land uses all affect parking demand,” the guidelines read.
Daily parking need analyses made by county staff in 2015 estimate that based on the number of trips generated by circuit court users, who typically spend approximately four to eight hours in court, and general district court users, who typically spend about two to four hours in court, 50 to 90 parking spaces were needed, excluding secured parking.
Based on future estimates of trips, 75 to 120 spaces would be needed.
Jon Zug, the Albemarle County Circuit Court clerk, said he was disappointed to hear that the city is likely going to explore alternatives to constructing a parking garage.
Although he thinks the city-county revenue-sharing agreement is a good idea, Zug said if the city backs out of this agreement, it gives credence to an argument from some county residents who say the county should stop making that annual payment to the city.
“If the city is going to do that, they’re going to just give fuel to the people who say the county should just say ‘screw that’ on the revenue-sharing agreement,” he said. “That’s really unfortunate because it leaves disgruntled county residents with the opinion that the city can do whatever they want to do, but we’ve got to toe the line, and that’s not fair.”
The revenue-sharing agreement was approved in 1982 in a deal to prevent the city from annexing county land, but a state moratorium on annexation was put in place in 1987. Some county residents have called for the county to renegotiate or end the agreement.
Currently, the payment amount is derived from a formula that looks at the populations of the city and the county, the value of locally assessed taxable real property, and the real property tax rates of the city and the county, as determined by the Virginia Department of Taxation.
As part of negotiations around the courts, Albemarle had discussed with the city that land-use valuation, the practice of discounting taxes for property owners who place conservation restrictions on their land, should be recognized in the revenue-sharing agreement formula, but that was not part of the signed agreement.
When the courts agreement was signed, one county board member at the time, Supervisor Rick Randolph, was the lone no vote, citing that it was not “the ideal outcome” and calling the negotiations “perhaps the last best opportunity” to revisit the revenue-sharing agreement formula.
“City Council in recent years has not demonstrated a governing capacity to attain agreements and then execute them in good faith,” he said at the time. “My concern is that the parking garage spelled out in the memorandum will not be built by the city, and that the Market Street parking facility — while close to the county court complex — will be permitted to deteriorate without the upkeep and maintenance necessary to assure an ongoing attractive facility for our county residents to use.”