If you’ve tried to come downtown on a Friday or Saturday evening recently, there’s a good chance you’ll recognize this routine: First, drive to your destination. Then, note the rows of cars lining both sides of the street. No parking … Maybe if I swing back around the block, someone will have left, you tell yourself as frustration begins to build. Cars, cars and more cars. What are all these people doing downtown anyway? you brood.
After your fourth circuit, suddenly you see it: a space right in front of the venue! You whip around, gripping the wheel in glee (Can you believe your luck?), and prepare to pull in — only to watch in disbelief as an oncoming driver flips on his turn signal right before your eyes, effectively claiming what must be the only open parking space in downtown Asheville.
Or is it? While this might be an all-too-familiar scenario for many Asheville residents, some city officials maintain that parking downtown may be easier than people think. According to Transportation Director Ken Putnam, one of his department’s highest priorities this year is convincing locals that it’s possible to park downtown if you know where to look.
“We’re still working hard, through education and advertising, to kind of get that stigma, that perception, out of there, because it’s really not true,” Putnam asserts. “On any given day, parking is available — but it may not be available exactly where you want it.”
Going, going, gone
According to Putnam, there are about 12,000 parking spaces in downtown Asheville. About three-quarters of them are privately owned and maintained; their rates and policies vary widely, however, placing them beyond the scope of this article.
That leaves some 700 metered spaces and roughly 2,300 in publicly owned decks. Both the city and county are aware of the downtown parking issues, however, and have taken steps to address them. Just last year, Buncombe County opened a new 664-space deck at 11 Sears Alley in an attempt to keep up with the growing influx of visitors and new residents.
Nonetheless, says Putnam, who’s served in this role with the city since 2009, demand can sometimes still outstrip supply during large events. The parking crunch, he says, stems from an increasingly vibrant downtown that hosts numerous festivals, concerts and conferences each year, plus construction projects that temporarily reduce the number of available on-street spaces.
“We used to be able to say that October would always be our busy time, because that’s when the leaves change and everybody wants to come,” notes Putnam. “That still is a busy time, but I think that window has spread out more, so it’s actually into the summer; it’s actually deep into the fall.”
Finding free, on-street parking on a weekend evening can seem daunting, he concedes. Except during major downtown events, however, many of the six publicly owned decks are “not standing empty but are not anywhere near being full, either.”
“When you come downtown to Asheville and you start driving up and down the streets, you start to see how full the metered parking spaces are, and then you start circling the block to find a space that’s relatively close,” Putnam explains. “And unfortunately, those folks sometimes don’t think, ‘Well, instead of wasting all this gas and time driving around all the city blocks, I could just go to the nearby garage.’”
Putnam also advises drivers to use the Asheville App, a free resource that provides real-time information about available spaces in each of the publicly owned parking decks. He says it can save time and give drivers realistic expectations before they even leave the house.
Some residents, however, maintain that the downtown decks are just too expensive.
“Parking is miserable,” says Sadie Wicker. “Before they went up on the prices for the garages and the parking tickets, I would park on the street and just take my chances. I definitely got a couple of tickets from that, but it’s like, I’m poor: I can’t do the garages.”
But while parking decks may be the answer for the occasional weekend visitor, it’s a different story for many retail and service industry workers, says Sage Turner, who chairs both the Downtown Commission and its Parking and Transportation Committee.
“Downtown workers,” she notes, “have to pay to park while they’re at work, so it’s cutting into their wages and income.”
Caitlin Tagner, who works at Framed Optical Shop on Battery Park Avenue, says she either parks just outside of downtown, scouring the Montford area for a free space, or else uses a metered space to avoid paying the maximum daily rate in the parking decks ($12 in most cases).
“I like to think I can get away with not paying my meter sometimes,” Tagner says with a laugh. “If I get a close-up spot, I’ll just run out there when I think my time’s up, throw some change in it and hope that I’m timing it right.” But that doesn’t always happen, she confesses, and “I feel like I’m constantly working to pay off my parking tickets.”
Tagner isn’t alone. In the 2018 Downtown Business Census, respondents said that 37% of employees at least occasionally relied on metered, on-street spaces for parking, and some reported using them often or even always.
“That’s a really high number: It’s expensive for them and it’s expensive for the businesses, because it’s lost access for customers,” notes Turner. The data collection project is a joint initiative of the Downtown Commission, the Asheville Downtown Association, the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association and the Asheville Grown Business Alliance.
Last year, in an effort to provide more parking for downtown workers, the city leased a surface lot at 50 Asheland Ave. that’s solely for those holding monthly passes. It costs $70 a month to park there, says Turner, and spaces are available. But according to many downtown workers, that’s still too much.
“I personally wouldn’t do that, because I don’t make enough for it to be worth it,” says Evan Rhatigan, who works at Kilwin’s Chocolates, Fudge and Ice Cream on Battery Park Avenue.
Tagner, meanwhile, says, “No, thank you. It’s cheaper to Lyft, but then you still think about how many hours you’re working just to pay off parking.”
Downtown business owners say the lack of parking can deter would-be customers — particularly during special events, when the city decks institute $9 flat rate parking and suspend the first-hour-free policy.
“We’ve had a few customers say, ‘Gosh, $9 is a lot. We’re just gonna wait until next week to come,’” notes Dean Peterson, general manager of downtown fixture Tops For Shoes. Peterson is one of more than 75 employees and owners of downtown businesses who signed a petition in May asking the city’s Parking Services Department to rethink the cost and frequency of special event parking.
Peterson says he understands charging more for big gatherings such as the Christmas Jam and the Southern Conference basketball tournament but feels that other, smaller events don’t warrant the higher fees.
“We believe lower deck fees, possibly $5, will result in fewer empty spaces and more shoppers — a win, win, win situation for Parking Services, local businesses and shoppers,” the petition states.
The city has responded positively to the request, says Peterson, and additional meetings with downtown merchants are planned to discuss alternatives to the special event rates.
“They’ve assured us that they want to do what’s best for the merchants and for the city and for the Civic Center,” Peterson explains.
For his part, Putnam says his department’s No. 1 priority is working with businesses to address their concerns. But balancing the needs of different kinds of business owners while ensuring that there are enough spaces for the event attendees can be challenging, he points out.
“The interesting thing is that you have a difference in opinion from, say, a retail business owner and then a restaurant owner, because they have different needs,” Putnam explains. “We don’t want to just open up the gate and let everybody go out for free, because they haven’t paid yet. We want to find a balance on that.”
The city, says Putnam, is constantly working to solicit feedback and figure out solutions to downtown’s parking issues. On July 9, Parking Services released a parking deck survey that asks users to rate their experience parking in a city garage. The survey, which will be available until 11 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 31, includes questions about special event rates, cleanliness and more.
No new parking structures are planned at the moment, notes Putnam, though that could change depending on the city’s evolving needs. Potential long-term solutions, he continues, include commuter or circular shuttles as well as public/private partnerships, such as the joint venture between the city and the Aloft Hotel on Biltmore Avenue.
And while Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield says that “parking is not a priority for Council right now,” she agrees that partnering with private developers could help alleviate the problems.
“The Aloft deal was really big and complex, and I don’t know that we are going to see another deal like that,” Mayfield wrote in a July 18 email to Xpress. “But adding smaller numbers of spaces in smaller projects when parking is already being constructed makes a lot of sense. In some cases, the developer can add those spaces at little to no cost, but I’m also supportive of the city considering putting money into the deal if the parking is in a place of critical need.”
Turner, however, sees the problem as more urgent. “There’s not a simple solution,” she concedes, but “I can’t say to the community that there’s ample parking everywhere. The reality is, at peak hours when everyone wants to be downtown, there is just not enough parking.”