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?
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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.
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.