Has your favorite free parking spot in downtown Asheville recently disappeared? You’re not alone.
Previously free lots on Hilliard and Buxton avenues have become fee-based within the past year, while Kassinger Development Group has disallowed use of the former Fuddrucker’s parking lot off Charlotte Street as it builds a mixed-use complex on the site. And with various street spaces, like the handful on West Walnut Street, suddenly sprouting parking meters, the number of no-cost places to leave one’s vehicle has dwindled.
The shift is pushing drivers who are unwilling or unable to pay for the convenience of parking downtown elsewhere — including spots in surrounding neighborhoods. That pressure is causing headaches for homeowners and sparking conversations around more sustainable ways to bring people into Asheville.
Meghan Rogers, executive director of the Asheville Downtown Association, says that parking has been a top concern for downtown businesses for many years. In the ADA’s 2022 survey, respondents listed “availability of parking options for employees” as the fifth-most serious problem facing their business, behind homelessness, safety and sanitation issues.
Though Rogers feels that downtown likely has a sufficient amount of parking, its affordability for downtown workers remains an issue. Waiting lists are common for monthly options — city-owned lots run $50-$60 per month and permitted street parking costs $30-$50, while metered parking goes for $1.50 per hour; city-owned garages cost $100-$130 per month or $2 per hour after the first hour. Those fees can add up quickly, and as the number of residents and visitors continues to grow, Rogers is adamant that changes need to occur for those who live and work in the city’s center.
“The ADA has advocated for additional parking options, public/private alternatives, better transit, more multimodal options and more,” she says. “We’ve [also] encouraged both the city and county to develop an option for employees of downtown businesses … and [offer] more effective communication about available options.”
Progress has occurred with a lot on Asheland Avenue that Rogers says was initially billed as downtown employee parking for $70 per month, with businesses able to purchase additional hang-tags for a nominal fee. While that promotional period has expired, the rate has been reduced to $50, in line with the cost at a Lexington Avenue lot. At press time, both lots had available spaces.
Asheville spokesperson Kim Miller says free parking may be found at a city-owned lot at 55 Valley Street, near City Hall. She also points to “many unmetered on-street parking spaces,” most of which are in the South Slope and have one- or two-hour limits. The city’s parking services team, however, does not keep an inventory of metered and unmetered parking spots.
“While the city continues to find ways to maximize the use of available parking downtown, improving connectivity citywide for all modes of transportation helps provide options to driving and parking,” Miller says. “Policies provide the framework for the city of Asheville to improve mobility by connecting sidewalk, greenways and transit.”
Shift out of park
Those enhanced options are especially important as the number of employees who commute to downtown from outside Buncombe County continues to rise. Tristan Winkler, director of the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization, reports an uptick of about 25,000 commuters coming into Asheville for work from 2002-19.
“That’s a huge increase,” Winkler says. “Over the same time, the amount of people who live and work in Asheville increased by about 1,000. So, overall, what you’re seeing is Asheville employers increasingly dependent on bringing in workers from outside of the city.”
While Winkler’s job doesn’t involve specifically monitoring the downtown parking situation, the MPO conducted a regional transit study from 2020-21 that identified four potential routes to connect Asheville with the rest of the region. The changes would reduce downtown parking demands but also have wider-ranging effects.
“Right now, if you live outside of the city, you don’t have a ton of options besides driving into the city. The transit routes, for the most part, stop around the city limits, and bike infrastructure outside of the city is very, very limited,” he says. “Having more regional transit routes is something that would give people options, but that’s something that has not moved forward since this study was adopted.”
The historic Montford neighborhood just north of downtown features free parking in a gravel lot at the intersection of Cherry and Flint streets, as well as in a paved lot near the convergence of Cherry and Broadway by the Asheville Skatepark. (Both are owned and operated by the N.C. Department of Transportation.) Montford resident Barry Friedlander says the two options are usually full throughout the week, prompting drivers to park on nearby streets.
Sympathetic to service workers who struggle to afford parking, Friedlander would like to see free or modestly priced choices at a designated central location for these employees. Until that or another solution arises, however, he and his neighbors are dealing with the consequences of overflow parking.
Fellow Montford resident Jon Sackson says that such violations — which he rarely sees enforced — keep garbage collectors, emergency vehicles and parcel delivery trucks from proceeding on their usual routes. And residents without off-street parking often have to find spots multiple blocks away from home, making grocery trips and other routine outings especially inconvenient.
“It’s like trying to take a sponge which is already mostly soaked and trying to soak up a bunch of water,” Sackson says. “It doesn’t work.”
With the approval of the Montford Neighborhood Association, Friedlander and Sackson formed an ad hoc parking group with fellow residents Brian Astle and Bonnie Gilbert. After regularly recording cars parked throughout the neighborhood for several weeks, they found that residential streets such as Cumberland Avenue were often at 100% capacity or higher due to illegally parked vehicles.
Armed with that data in late summer 2019, the group invited Ken Putnam, director of Asheville’s Transportation Department, to walk with them through the impacted streets, discuss the issue and explore potential solutions. The first measure Putnam suggested was establishing permitted parking for residents, something Sackson says has worked well in Washington, D.C., in tandem with rigorously enforced towing for violators.
Nearly three years later, however, the ad hoc group members had yet to hear back from Putnam. Miller provided more information in response to recent inquiries from Xpress.
“At the present time, we do not have sufficient resources to create a residential parking permit zone in Montford,” she says. “The city’s current Code of Ordinances does not currently address residential parking permits, nor how exceptions may be handled.”
Though the decrease in downtown activity during the pandemic granted Montford a temporary respite, Asheville’s recent resurgence has again brought street parking woes to the adjoining neighborhood.
“The lack of standards and signage and the total lack of parking enforcement have made this situation something like the Wild West of parking in Montford,” Sackson says. “Just go stake your claim wherever you want. Nobody will bother you.”
Michael Hernandez, a server at Zambra on West Walnut Street, doesn’t add to Montford’s parking chaos for several reasons. He averages around 5 miles of walking in a normal shift at the tapas restaurant and doesn’t want a long trek back to his car after he clocks out — especially late at night while carrying cash tips. Instead, he first looks for parking on Haywood Street, and for the past two years he primarily used a free lot at the corner of Haywood and Page avenues.
“About three months ago, [the city] turned that into permit parking, which is pretty much empty all day long,” Hernandez says. (Miller confirms that Lot 18 became a permitted lot on April 1.) “So now I try to find metered parking in that area. If I can’t find one, then there’s a permit lot on Rankin [Avenue] that I take a chance on and park there. Sometimes I get ticketed and sometimes I don’t.”
Because he goes in around 3 p.m., Hernandez typically only has to pay for two or three hours of parking before meters stop charging at 6 p.m. As as result, he spends far less on parking than when he worked day shifts at Cúrate or Rhubarb, when his car was metered for six to eight hours.
Like Rogers and Friedlander, Hernandez would like to see local elected officials offer deeply discounted parking for downtown workers, but he says such options should not be restricted to certain areas or hours. That flexibility becomes increasingly important with peak tourist season approaching.
“It’s become more difficult to find parking, and it will continue to get worse with summer,” Hernandez says. “Saturdays are always bad.”