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On Ninth Street, and Durham's never-ending search free parking

I can't help but have a certain amount of cognitive dissonance when I read the fast-multiplying news headlines these past few days about parking in the Ninth Street area.

Mind you, I'm writing these lines while midway through a two-week business trip to China, in the sprawling Shanghai-Suzhou metroplex in China's fast-modernizing eastern provinces.

In the latter -- a New York City-sized metropolis that comparatively few westerners have ever heard of -- the shiny new Metro is practically clean enough to eat off of and, at about three dimes for a one-way ride, crazy affordable. 

Sure, cars flock to megamalls like the city's new Aeon complex on its eastern side, where a Chinese hypermart and an entire floor catering to neonatal and natalist young families sits cheek-by-jowl with a Burger King and the globally-inescapable, freakishly same-tasting Starbucks. But Aeon is also steps from a bustling subway system, with quick connections to buses that run with 10-minute headway.

The edge-city where my work is based also has 15-minute headways on an excellent, easily-parsed, cheap (16 cents/ride) bus system. The terminus of that system is the high-speed rail line, where electric bullet trains depart every few minutes for downtown Shanghai and its domestic airport and to other parts of the country. A few dollars can get you across 30 miles of congested, 25 million-soul metropolitan landscape in less 18 minutes flat.

Meanwhile, in Durham, it will take transportation planners, federal and state officials, and elected representatives twice as long to even get a half-assed aboveground light rail system through the design and planning stages. To say nothing about how long it will take to fund it. Or to build it - if it's funded.

Is it any wonder, then, that in a city as self-congratulatory as we Durhamites and Chapel Hillians can be, that we're still obsessed with keeping parking free and building as much of it as we can stomach?

First, let's take the recent news that Ninth Street merchants are bandin' together to see if they can backstop the City's $87,000 per year lease payment on the Ninth Street surface lot.

As the Herald-Sun's Lauren Horsch explained, Durham counts on about $46,000 in parking fees to cover that cost; the remainder comes from those lil' orange presents that your friendly parking enforcers leave on windshields.

Instead? It's been just over a year since Durham instituted paid parking -- from 8am to 7pm weekdays only, mind you -- on Ninth. Total take: $7,000 in fiscal 2015 through most of June.

Seven. Thousand. Freakin'. Dollars. Let's do the back of the envelope:

Let's be overly-generous and assume that in the waning days of FY2015, the lot brought in, say, $1,000 more in revenue. Take $8,000, then divide by 365 and multiply by five-sevenths (since there's no weekend revenue.).

That comes to -- wait for it -- $30 per weekday in lot revenue. Or put another way, the average space in the lot is getting about 40 minutes of use per 11 hour day!

For a 45-space lot, with 11 potential billable hours a day, the maximum revenue potential is nearly $500 per day. And the City's $46,000 annual run rate only assumes $175 in daily parking sales.

So: the lot is getting only one-sixth the amount of paid traffic that was expected.

I have to confess I find myself seething a bit over this one, and channeling my good friend Barry Ragin in a fit of pique each time I think about this:

  • First off: are we, collectively, so damn cheap that we won't stick a dollar in a machine to park at a lot? Yes, folks will say, Southpoint has free parking. It does, and you don't have to visit the Y when you go there, either, since you'll be hauling butt from approximately Pittsboro (town slogan: "Sprawl ya tomorrow!") to get anywhere. A buck an hour to park across the street, and patrons won't pay it?
  • Secondly, anyone who pulls into the privately-owned free lot at the Hairy Teet is sure to see the diaspora of Dukies, families, singletons and others -- all ages, sexes, races and creeds -- who shimmy into a space and then shimmy across the sidewalk to Ninth Street. This, despite the signs and occasional lights-flashin' private security cars making it extraordinarily clear that parking is for tenants only.

Yes, I'm clearly given to understand that when you give people a free option and a paid option, they'll choose the free one. But at what effort?

That Harris Teeter parking lot is maddening to drive in, compared to the easy-in, easy-out Ninth Street public lot. And, there's the ever-present towing risk when and if Regency decides they're sick of the free-loaders.

Frankly, the Ninth Street merchants make a good point about the impact of the free lot's disappearance on their business. 

I'm intrigued by the head shop owner's claim that the business has lost $150 a day in sales, according to the Herald-Sun. (Isn't it, of course, possible that a chunk their business up and moved to Colorado? Har, har.)

Small wonder that biz owners are reaching into their own pockets to pledge towards backstopping the City's $46,000 revenue expectation and making the lot free again.

I'm not sure what the "right" number seems to be regarding how much the business owners are on the hook for. One reasonable thing would be to compare the level of subsidy that private downtown projects are getting for parking, and then expect a similar public-to-private ratio of support here.

Either way, Ninth Street business owners are right that their businesses and the historic mill village feel are part of Durham's charm and have catalyzed area developments, and some reasonable intervention is warranted.

But I still say to my Durham friends: if you won't pay chump-change for parking on Ninth and would rather play parking-lot Frogger or tempt ticketing fate on Ninth, I just don't get it.

Are we sure our community is as urbane (or urban) as we sometimes like to think?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Meanwhile, Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian is looking to spend about $1 million on two-thirds of an acre of land on neighboring Iredell St. to develop its own, 39-space parking lot.

The church's situation, well-documented in their handy issue guide for church members (h/t to the Indy for the link), shows the flip-side challenge to free parking: land is increasingly too valuable to sit around holding two-ton robot-crafted bits o' sheet-metal without revenue to go with it.

Blacknall's PDF memo notes that their existing parking arrangement sufficient for Sunday services was threatened a few years back when Duke proposed to lease their Iredell/Perry/Broad parking lot to build a new Whole Foods on the site, before the leftie-pleasin', libertarian-enrichin', wallet-depletin' chain store decided to renovate their existing store instead.

(Aside to Whole Foods skeptics: next time you're in Asheville, visit their new store on Tunnel Road, replete with an upstairs biergarten with mountain views. Not bad, despite my rhetorical digs at the Austin chain.)

Ironically, the church cites pressure from the City's parking enforcement on Ninth Street -- and, unsaid but probably a contributing factor, the exodus of cars from the aforementioned now-paid parking lot -- as contributing to a crunch of spaces.

As the Herald-Sun's coverage points out, the church has decent parking on Sundays thanks to the Duke lot's presence, but a growing congregation coupled with increased weekday operations and meetings means there's a crunch to get parking.

Instead, Blacknall is proposing to spend $990,000 buying three parcels from a member. The eastern-side parcels would become a lot for the church, and a west-side parcel -- which may be leased back to the seller for up to three years -- could eventually, the church posits, get developed as a small parking deck:

The parcel on the west side of Iredell offers a fairly sound structure that may offer interim facilities. Long term, this property may enable us to participate in a structured parking solution with others in our district who are also seeking parking solutions. We imagine something that may meet our full parking needs available to Blacknall on Sundays, and to merchants and others on weekdays.

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All of which points to an interesting concept: could Ninth Street merchants and interests eventually extend their planned self-help efforts beyond subsidizing free surface parking, and towards a parking solution they would own together?

Or, the potential of a church fund-raising for a parking facility, then using revenue from the parking revenue during weekdays to pay for the carrying cost and debt service on the project? (For the record, we've no idea how that fits within tax law -- though the propensity of churches to allow their steeples to become cell phone towers suggests there's at least some option.)

Still, there is a certain irony of talking about building new lots or eventually structured parking when some of that shortage is caused by a mis-pricing (crazy as that seems) of a lot sitting vacant around the corner. (Could the church, perhaps, chip in on the cost of the Ninth St. lot from the City, like merchants are looking to do?)

To say nothing of the fact that the arrival of parking lots and eventual structured parking on Iredell will sound a death knell for a few mill houses -- some of the remaining remnants of the housing stock that, with the old Erwin Mill, birthed today's Ninth Street small commercial district in the first place.

Chalk it up to another episode in the ongoing series of pressures Durham is feeling from the impact of its growth.

No one ever moves to the city a city might grow into; they move to the city they want to live in. Yet (metaphorically) everyone seems to want to move to those same cities. And that, dear friends, is the rub in living in the third-fastest growing city in the country by percentage.



The transit picture you paint of Suzhou sounds nice, and we’d all love to zip to downtown Garner in 18 minutes for the cost of a latte. Let’s keep in mind this city-we’ve-never-heard-of has 5x the density of Durham and wages 1/9th the Bull City; Suzhou does not exactly exist in a culture of individualism, and Chinese car ownership (though growing) is currently just 6% (compared to 90%+ in the US). All of these inputs favor mass over personal transport.

Even so, Chinese auto growth is following the rest of the world: as people pull out of poverty, they categorically move from public transport and towards cars (and parking, by correlation). Chinese auto growth is, by any yardstick, extraordinary, surpassing US ownership in less than 10 years, and doubling the American market by 2040. That’s the reality.

The best book on the pace of change in China is “The Concrete Dragon”, written by former UNC planning professor Tom Campanella. Its main thesis is Americans cannot fathom the unprecedented pace of change in these cities, a dozen of which have gone from the size of Chapel Hill to the size of Chicago in less than a generation.

Durham may be ‘growing’, but China it ain’t.

Our fair city will need more parking. As will Suzhou. This need we share. It will be provided by 1) increased supply and 2) demand pricing. These transitions will always be rockier on this side of the Pacific. Damn those pesky property rights.


Will the city will push for sidewalks as these lots on Iredell are redeveloped? It would be nice to have continuous sidewalk from the new Solis Ninth Street apartments up to Whole Foods. The road flaring at the Iredell/Markham intersection would also need to be changed to make it more pedestrian friendly.

Walking along Ninth Street is pleasant, but not so much if you are trying to quickly get to Whole Foods or the BCC stop. It requires navigating through a bunch of sidewalk traffic and obstacles, which is to be expected.

In theory, Iredell is a nice alternative, but on-street parking narrows the road to the point that cars traveling in opposite directions can barely squeeze by. This is dangerous for pedestrians when there is no sidewalk.

Dave Wofford

Shade trees please!
Good sized shade trees are needed all along this Ninth Street area including the parking lot and the sidewalks. And the trees need to be watered regularly the first couple years o they don't die/look like crap like most new development's trees do due to neglect.

Erik Landfried

I'm having a little trouble believing that an underutilized 45-space lot is hurting business that much, but who knows. I would think that there would be an increase in walk/bike trips because of the new apartment buildings nearby, the Main Street bike lanes, etc. The places I go most often (Whole Foods, Elmo's, Chubby's, and Dain's) are always packed.

Ninth Street as a whole has always left me wanting more. So much of that area is lined with surface parking lots, so the walking experience is not very nice. And the one stretch that isn't constantly interrupted by parking lots and driveways (the east side of Ninth between Markham and Perry) is not very long and is, quite frankly, kind of crummy. The sidewalk is too narrow, the streetscape looks like crap, and there just aren't enough interesting businesses to make it a "destination". I do love the Regulator, but it's mostly restaurants. The same thing is happening downtown as well - so many of the new businesses are food/drink related, which makes them excellent places to get lunch, dinner, or drinks, but not so much to stroll.

Parking is definitely an important to issue to get right. I'm just wondering if it's a bit of a red herring in this case.

Brian Hawkins

The Teeter is clearly not enforcing their customers-only parking rule. There have been a couple of occasions where it took several minutes for me to find literally any spot (and I'm the sort that will park further away on purpose to make getting out easier, so I wasn't being picky about proximity) and the store was...not the least bit busy at all.

Unfortunately I don't see the Teeter having any incentive to tow cars unless and until they think freeloaders are actually impacting their business. So I don't know...spread the word that there's free parking at the Teet and you probably won't get towed?


For whatever reasons, Durham residents have made it pretty clear they're not interested in using the pay lot. It's been a year and the experiment is pretty clearly a failure. For while it may be "chump change" to pay $1 to park, when you're stopping for 5 minutes to grab an iced coffee or to run into Francesca's to pick up a couple of biscotti or a little bit of gelato to take home for dinner, the chump change is a 20% increase in the cost of a frivolous little splurge. Add to this the annoyance that there's only one pay station in the lot--so you either have to park farther from your destination to be near the single pay station or to walk across the lot to the station and then back across to where you were going. Suddenly, the spur-of-the-moment stop simply isn't worth the time & trouble. Multiply these little decisions by multiple drivers day after day . . . . it doesn't take long to add up. It may seem silly on the surface, but it is what it is.

It makes me a bit angry that the city isn't reversing its decision. The conversion of this lot to a pay lot feels like a punishment to the very businesses that have toughed it out on Ninth Street through the hard times, taking chances and establishing businesses that contributed to Durham's reputation as a cool place--building the very reputation that made Ninth Street attractive to the big Harris Teeter-national chain restaurants & businesses that are now there.

And what does the city do in return? Take away one of the few benefits they had--convenient, free parking. It does seem to be a fact that people are driving by rather than using the lot. The businesses on Ninth have repeatedly stated that their business is falling off since the conversion of the lot to a pay lot and their profits are declining. And of course, as business falls off at these locally owned, home-grown businesses they have less to invest Durham and they employ fewer employees who earn less and spend less money in Durham. . . . So the loss to the city that these businesses losing money represents compounds the loss of the lot income. This should all be figured in to the true cost-benefit analysis of the lot. Perhaps the city could at least make an announcement that they will initiate a trial period of free parking (6 months, 12 months, whatever) and gather data so that an informed and workable decision can be made that doesn't come entirely out of the hides of the businesses.

We in Durham constantly have to step up to the plate and pay for new services and police and parks and fire departments and schools for all the new development and neighborhoods springing up. Old West Durham has lost a number of public amenities to development--parks, a library branch, a community center. It doesn't seem to me that it is unreasonable to ask for a small, free parking lot to support the businesses that have built and supported the community. The city can support that lot for a long time and not spend as much as replacing our community center or library would cost.

Michael Bacon

Ninth St. has needed city-owned structured parking for well over a decade. Fair enough that with Ninth St. reasonably healthy that other parts of the city needed some help, but surface parking lots continue to mar the area, when the 6-800 blocks of Ninth, Broad, and Iredell could support considerably more retail and housing with the solution of the parking problem.

As an aside on the train -- did I see a city council candidate saying that maybe we need to stop on the light rail system and think if we did it right? Seriously?

Ed Harrison

The journalist's version of Charlie Reece's comment when he filed was this: "The third issue includes exploring the issue of light rail and whether it’s wise to move forward without the participation of Wake County and Raleigh."

I would be delighted to clarify Charlie's understanding of this. As a GoTriangle board member for over five years, I've been repeatedly informed by multiple transportation professionals that the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project can move forward without the other project(s) which involve Wake County. This is why I am spending so much right now working on this project, on my tiny Councilmember's salary. The transit plan adopted by both regional transportation committees (Metropolitan Planning Orgs) assumes three components and sections. UNC main campus to east Durham is the one that's well underway. The reason the other two aren't moving forward is that the Repugs took over the Wake Board of Commissioners in the 2010 election and made sure almost nothing happened for four years. Their contempt for Raleigh, in particular, was reprehensible. Democrats regained control of the BOCC last November, and things are proceeding apace.

John Martin

@Ed: The Republican Wake Board of County Commissioners was skeptical about light rail, and in my opinion, rightly so. They hired a well-known transit consultant to make recommendations. As a result of those recommendations, the Wake County Transit Advisory Committee has now recommended against light rail, and proposed other alternatives. The new Democratic Board of County Commissioners has not taken any action to resuscitate light rail in Wake County. "Light rail. . .is dead on the tracks," is the way the N&O put it in April.

A brief outline of the plans being considered can be found here:

Ed Harrison

@John: I have not said anything anywhere about what technology might be chosen or not chosen in Wake County. As someone who was watching the Wake Commissioners on transit issues as closely as anyone outside that county in their years of dominance, I can attest that they opposed public transit, pure and simple. And that former chair Paul Coble insulted the Raleigh City Council and citizens for even raising questions. The choice of light rail for the Durham-Orange line is based on a couple of facts: (1) A huge number of people need to be delivered into at least two places (the university job centers, Duke and UNC-CH) in short periods with the most delivery-efficient vehicle, which is a rail car, not a bus. (A light rail train starts out by carrying at least 3 times as many people than the largest bus available, the "accordion" model); (2) Light rail trains allow relatively close stations, which are developments nodes, because they can accelerate and decelerate quickly, being short and relatively light. Wake's consultants don't appear to be recommending as many stations in a relatively short distance as the D-O LRT project has.

Kevin Davis

@Aaron: I'm not disputing that the government-driven development environment in China is radically different from what we have in the US. At the same time, for reasons that have much more to do with funding, political will and (I suspect) organizational inertia than anything else, we take forever to actually build and do things.

Witness this quote from the Herald-Sun today (

"Marvin Williams, director of the City of Durham’s public works department, said depending on where the prospective sidewalk is being built it can take anywhere from six to nine months, up to five or more years to complete.

And most of the projects within Durham come in on the longer scale — about two years to complete. And it looks as though that time frame isn’t going to budge.

“That’s how they’re moving these days,” Williams said."

Say what you will about comparing the US and China; that it takes one of our smaller, more "nimble" cities as long to build a freakin' SIDEWALK as it does to build thousands of kilometers of high-speed rail or subways, is an embarrassment.

And note this affects roads just as much as it does transit, sidewalks, and the like.

We can all think of good reasons for the status quo. But the status quo is pretty awful, all-in.

Looking further at that article, the Fayetteville St. stretch quoted in the H-S would run, assuming a 5' width, almost $150 a square foot.

To. Build. A. SIDEWALK.

That's not far off the per sf. cost to CONSTRUCT A HOUSE.

The H-S notes that City Council was stunned by the cost of the process. Hopefully this will be more than an eye-opener -- it'll be an incentive to see if there's any way to fix an insane process.


That story about sidewalks was a real eye-opener for lots of folks here in Durham, myself definitely included (and the current members of the city council, according to the article). It's easy to see how various levels of planning, review, permitting and contracting can become encrusted around the process of building new sidewalks in a way that can be pretty burdensome, but the timelines described in that story seem beyond the pale. I have every confidence in Marvin Williams and our city's hard-working public works department, but I still have to believe that there are some best practices from other cities that Durham could benefit from studying if we want to streamline this process. I'm not saying we'll whittle this thing down to China-like speeds (nor would I want to, speed like that often sacrifices quality and safety), but there's just got to be a better way.



Do you have a source for Durham being the third-fastest growing city in the country by percentage? That is just such an amazing statistic. I tried to Google it but didn't find anything.



It took 364 days to build the Empire State Building: from breaking ground to cutting ribbon. How is it possible, or tolerable, that it could take longer for us -- with over 8 decades of technological advantage over the Empire State builders -- to build a sidewalk??!!

Bull City Rising

@Blair -- sorry for the slow reply, have been catching up on things I missed while in China for a few weeks.

Here's some links (Brookings, and Washington Post) to the findings:

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