Greenville city officials are moving closer to developing a parking strategy that accommodates recent and future downtown growth.
On Wednesday, the city’s public transportation and parking commission reviewed final recommendations from an eight-months-long parking study, led by Walker Parking Consultants. Commission members will determine the actions the city should take to improve parking downtown and present those suggestions to the Greenville City Council for a vote in January. The study, which analyzes current and future growth in the city's Uptown district, revealed major deficits in the supply of short-term public parking. A series of recommendations came out of the study, such as reducing the number of leased spaces in the center of Uptown, phasing out the city's E-tag program, hiring a city parking manager and installing more parking meters.
Business owners in the Uptown district have experienced the difficulties arising from limited parking supply. For instance, Marty Vainwright, co-owner of Coastal Fog, an interior design store and cafe located near Pitt County Courthouse, says the primary complaint she hears from customers is that they can't find parking close enough to her market.
"Typically when they come downtown, they circle around the block several times and can't find a parking place," she said. "They choose to go to one of the chain stores for their lunch, not in the uptown area."
Vainwright's observation isn't surprising based on some of the parking study's findings. Of the 637, off-street public parking spaces in the city's central business district, only 41 percent are available for visitors, while the rest are designated for city staff or downtown employees and residents who lease the spaces. And the limited availability of curbside parking fails to compensate for this lack. Uptown has 657 on-street public parking spaces, most of which are free spaces with two-hour time limits, but e-tag holders can occupy those spaces all day, so long as they pay a $75 annual fee and show proof of downtown employment or residency.
To address these deficits, Michael Connor, who led the study, recommends the city move some of its leased and city staff parking spaces from centrally-located lots, such as the Harris, Roses and Blount-Harvey Lots, to the peripheral lots, which include the Courthouse and Greene Street Lots, along with the roof level of the 4th Street Parking Deck.
“Short-term parkers, people going to lunch or going to shopping, they’re not going to walk three or four blocks when they only park for one or two or three hours," Connor said. "But long-term parkers, like employees, and students and others, they tend to accept longer walking distances."
He also suggests the city begin phasing out its E-tag program next year because those permits compete with short-term parking spaces, Connor said.
"We’re seeing that a lot of employees and other long-term parkers are consuming those valuable curbside spaces, and so by improving the turnover of those spaces, just like the seats of a restaurant turning over, more folks coming to Uptown will find an available space," he said. "They’ll see a cute shop or a neat restaurant and they’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s grab a sandwich. Let’s take a look at the goods and services that they offer.’”
To oversee these changes, the city should hire a "parking champion," who would manage parking downtown and serve as a liaison between city officials and downtown business owners and residents, Connor said. "Without having that single point of contact, a business owner, a resident, a customer gets frustrated because they don’t know who to talk to,” he said.
The parking study comes at a time when the uptown district is experiencing significant growth, said Bianca Shoneman, president of Uptown Greenville, a non-profit that promotes economic and cultural development in the district.
“We have announced $623 million in public and private investment that will come online over the next several years," she said. "So by 2019, our residential population will be at 2,500 people. When I started with Uptown Greenville in 2012, our population downtown was 545 people.”
The study analyzes at least a dozen upcoming and potential development projects. Two major student housing developments, a theater along Fifth Street and the Greenville Transportation Activity Center, a public transportation hub, will open next year. Other upcoming development projects include the redevelopment of the former Imperial Tobacco Processing Plant, located on Dickinson Avenue, and a student services center for East Carolina University, which will include its own parking garage. A 5,000-seat amphitheater in the city's Town Common, along the Tar River, has been proposed.
Because downtown growth will increase traffic to the area, the study recommends the city increase the number of parking meters downtown to improve turnover rates. This is a good idea that aligns with future development, said Shoneman, who also sits on the city's public transportation and parking commission.
“It sends a clear message -- this is a paid parking space," she said. "And those should be in our most highly trafficked areas, along Evans Street, along Fifth Street and places where people want to see turnover.”
While phasing out the e-tag program and reducing the number of leased parking spaces in the center of Uptown can begin next year, expanding parking meters and building additional parking infrastructure could take years to complete, said Roger Johnson, the city's economic development manager.
"It won’t be an overnight success, but as long as we put the right strategy in place for a long-term sustainable solution, our community will be fine," he said.
Building parking garages is expensive, with a single parking space costing about $20,000 - $25,000, Johnson said.
"A 200-space deck is going to cost a significant amount of capital, when you have a capital improvement project, it competes with other capital improvement projects," he said. "You’ve got to plan appropriately for those, it takes years sometimes to secure funding to do that."
Still, public investment, such as parking infrastructure, often attracts private investment into a community, Johnson said, helping to generate more revenue for the local economy. "When a community invests in a parking structure, it removes that responsibility of capital from that private investor and it puts it on to the public," Johnson said. "It allows the private community to i nvest in a community, and it creates a place where all can enjoy, be it a hotel or a restaurant."
There are some immediate improvements the city could make that would make parking easier for visitors, such as improving the visibility of parking signs, Johnson said. "We don’t have a very good way-finding sign that helps directs those folks to the right place to park in the uptown core, so they can frequent those businesses," he said.
Ultimately, downtown parking challenges are a sign of a healthy economy, Johnson said.
"It’s often considered a problem, and I understand why people see it that way," he said. "But the real parking problem is when you don’t have anybody wanting to park there."