Asheville City Council

Downtown parking with no hassles — it’s almost like having the heat without the humidity: Whatever would we have left to kvetch about?

But as Asheville City Council members listened while consultants presented the results of a $92,000 parking study, it seemed — at least during the Sept. 15 work session — that such an eventuality might come to pass.

A joint effort by the firms of Day Wilburn Associates Inc., and Carl Walker Inc., the study concentrates on parking and traffic patterns in three areas of the city: downtown, Biltmore Village and west Asheville. The study recommends ways to free up parking, ease traffic congestion, and accommodate future growth.

An end to meter feeders

If the ideal consultant takes his job seriously, Lee Bourque of Carl Walker Inc. is a man well suited to the parking field: An otherwise jovial-looking guy in glasses and a suit, Bourque becomes fairly grim, as he talks about what he terms “parking-meter abuse.”

Now, until the moment the words “parking-meter abuse” started getting thrown around, this correspondent had sincerely hoped the study would turn up such findings as: “There’s no place for meter maids in a free society” — which is why, I guess, I’m not a parking consultant. Bourque himself seems to suffer from no such delusions.

What, exactly, is the dastardly act, you might ask? According to Bourque, it’s when a vehicle occupies the same space all day, its owner — usually an employee of a downtown business — returning at two-hour intervals to feed the meter. This occurs, he says, in 11.4 percent of downtown’s parking spaces, peaking at 44 percent on certain blocks.

“It doesn’t sound like a very big figure … but when you translate the amount of space-hours taken up by these all-day parkers into how many … short-term trips were lost … it amounts to 693 short-term visits a day,” intoned Bourque. Lose those all-day parkers, he added, and parking volume could increase by 24 percent.

“Any downtown-development expert will tell you that a parking space in front of a retail store is worth about $50,000 a year in retail sales,” declared Council member Barbara Field, herself a co-owner of downtown’s Earth Guild. “So anybody who lets their employees park all day long in front of their retail store must be crazy.”

Because metered spaces cost less than parking in a garage, though, there’s little incentive for all-day parkers to change their ways. (The unwanted attentions of meter maids aside.) Which is why Bourque argued that meter rates should be doubled — to 50 cents an hour. “Parking,” he avowed with a passion that only a consultant on the subject could summon, “is economics-driven.”

At the same time, he continued, the city’s three parking decks — the Rankin, Civic Center and Battery Park garages — should set aside more spaces for monthly users; currently, these decks have long waiting lists of people waiting for long-term spaces, while spaces allotted for short-term visits sit empty.

In light of discussions about an expanded Civic Center and a new downtown hotel, as well as the projected opening of the Grove Arcade, Bourque recommended that a new parking facility be built in the Haywood/Grove Arcade area, with about 550 parking spaces. City/County Plaza, he added, will need another 60 to 80 spaces, too.

Bourque also offered an additional explanation for the high rate of parking-meter abuse in Asheville. Based on the parking study, he said, “Asheville citizens walk about one block for their parking. Typically, there’s a high resistance to walking farther than one block,” and parking in a garage or parking lot usually calls for a two- or three-block hike.

And how about that downtown traffic?

After Bourque concluded with a grave recitation of the final facts about Ashevilleans’ propensity to abuse the city’s parking meters, Rick Day of Day Wilburn Associates Inc. stepped forward to tell Council what the study had discovered about downtown’s traffic patterns.

And to everyone’s delight — but no one’s surprise — he pointed out that, well, it might be time to review downtown’s traffic signals.

“If we were to get [the signaling problem] fixed, I think my husband would probably say it was worth [my while] being on City Council for eight years,” said Field, noting the way motorists and pedestrians can wait for several minutes at one light, only to be allotted mere seconds to dash across the street at the next one.

“Traffic patterns change over the years,” Day replied. “I’m sure that when [the lights] were installed … they were probably correct for travel at that time.”

Another issue demanding attention turned out to be downtown’s loading zones — how many should there be, and where. Also under discussion was the possibility of restricting deliveries by 18-wheelers to certain times of day.

But the crowning piece of the new traffic plan is a proposed shuttle linking downtown’s points of interest with its parking facilities. In the meantime, said the consultants, signs indicating the way to key destinations and parking facilities should be designed — and prominently displayed.

Meanwhile, in Biltmore Village and west Asheville…

While Biltmore Village has no parking meters, it does have a problem with all-day parkers, noted Bourque. About 23 percent of available spaces are occupied by all-day parkers, representing a loss of about 352 potential visits a day.

The solution, he posited, is to develop two parking facilities, with a total of about 150 spaces, for tourists and employees of local businesses. But, he continued gravely, if the “abuse” continues, Council should consider an “on-street meter system.”

The study also identified possible locations for a passenger-train station, suggesting that the facility be designed to include both parking and a welcome center.

Other recommendations include encouraging people to use McDowell Street as an express route to south Asheville, thereby easing traffic snarls along Biltmore Avenue.

West Asheville doesn’t suffer so much from lack of parking as from lack of clarity about what constitutes parking, said the consultants, noting that of the 212 potential spaces along Haywood Road, only 24 are marked.

Even more curbside parking could be available, continued Day, if a continuous through-lane were developed along Haywood, which has a disconcerting tendency to start new lanes and then abruptly end them.

West Asheville business owners are afraid that parking meters will be installed along Haywood Road, said Council member Tommy Sellers, but Bourque and Day assured him that none are planned.

The parking study is available at the city clerk’s office for $30 — or you can peruse a copy there at no charge. A public hearing has been scheduled for Oct. 27.

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