Tuesday, April 16, 2024

‘A small business killer’: Owners push back against restricted parking on S. Front Street

New signage is in place along the 300 block of South Front Street restricting parking to permit holders only, despite outcry from the local businesses nearby. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — Unintended consequences have risen after residents living on South Front Street earned what they thought was a victory.

READ MORE: Neighbors rally to restrict public parking along 300 block of S. Front Street

A group of downtown business owners have started a petition to revert changes recently made by Wilmington City Council, enforcing new parking regulations along the 300 block of South Front Street.

The city surveyed 12 residents on the block earlier in the spring and changed the rules to allow residential permits only. Since 1996, the block has been open to the public, except between the hours of 11 p.m. at 3 a.m. 

The home owners cited speeding and dangers with backing out of their driveways, due to sight being compromised from parked cars, as the reason to change the regulations. Wilmington City Council unanimously approved the resolution to restrict parking to resident-only from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily last month. 

Signage has been installed and warnings only are being issued through Oct. 15; citations will begin thereafter. 

While those who asked for the change were happy it was approved, some local business owners are not. They state the spaces were used by employees and customers alike, and think fair notice was not given to the public before the parking rules were amended.

Wilmington Water Tours owner Douglas Springer spoke to Port City Daily about his frustrations, also iterated to council last week. 

“There’s no legal premise for them to do this at all,” he said. 

Nine business owners — retail shops and restaurants on South Water Street — signed the petition, including: The Rooster and Crow, Elijah’s, Pilot House, The George, Riverwalk Properties, Sauce’d, Reveler Development, Art Factory and Waterline Brewing. 

The letter Springer drafted to the city stood strong that the businesses “do not support your decision; they were not communicated with by any city staff member that such a critical recommendation was going to be made to city council that threatens their business existence.”

“I really truly feel you were given a long presentation, but it really didn’t give you enough to make a wise decision and ask those questions you guys ask so well — the ‘whys,’” Springer said to council Oct. 3. “The overall goal of staff presenting to you should be presenting all sides and give you all that information. We don’t feel that was done in this case.”

Springer, who also served on the Downtown Parking Advisory committee for five years, noted there was no public input involved when considering amended parking regulations. He said only one side of the story was given and impacted businesses without prior notice; the entrepreneur read about the changes via the news.

Council member Charlie Rivenbark agreed it was not an appropriate way for Springer to learn of the updated regulation.

“For somebody to have something affect their business, not just yours, everything down there and find out about it in the newspaper, that doesn’t fly with me,” he said at the meeting.

Springer added the block was the last public parking access within walking distance to Chandler’s Wharf. There are limited one-hour parking spaces outside the building.

“It’s a small business killer,” Springer told council. “It was the last remaining, affordable, reasonably accessible parking.”

The dozen or so spaces on the 300 block were free to parkers.

Springer has been outspoken out against the city’s implementation of one-hour parking throughout the historic district, saying it was “a slap in the face” to downtown businesses. In a statement sent to the city in 2018, Springer noted the residential parking program removed 140 spaces from “an already short supply.” He also said the move could be the “final blow” destroying many standing businesses after Hurricane Florence.

Earlier this month, Springer noted small business owners downtown have already been through the ringer between two major hurricanes and a pandemic. 

“We agree speeding is a problem, there’s dangerous entry and parking density is too great,” he told council. However, he added, the restrictions are not going to address those issues. 

Springer noted the business owners who signed the petition and residents who requested the change have a positive relationship and the desire to stop the parking restrictions was not a slight on the 300 block neighbors.

To address their concerns, Springer recommended installing four-way stop signs to discourage speeding and pace traffic through the street. He also suggested designating a parking space per residence, while leaving the others open to the public and reviewing sight line issues for driveway entrances. It could reduce the density of parking altogether.

“But what wasn’t presented to you?” Springer asked council last week. “There was a complete disregard for the safety of employees, customers and taxpayers.”

He said many employees leave work at late hours of the night, sometimes carrying tips, and now have to walk a mile to the parking deck, which presents safety concerns.

He cited the Cape Fear Community College student Joshua Proutey, who was murdered in 2012 as an example. Proutey was killed walking to his car after leaving work at the Hannah Block Community Arts Center on Second Street.

Council member Kevin Spears accused Springer of fear mongering by using Proutey’s story.

“You used it as a mechanism to generate fear for public safety right?” Spears asked.

“Absolutely not,” Springer replied. “I used it to make a point. The point is: It’s going to happen again if you allow it.”

Mayor pro tem Margaret Haynes reminded Springer that Proutey was mugged and shot for a sandwich, on a public sidewalk, next to a public parking space.

Haynes also came to parking director Chance Dunbar’s defense, after Springer said he and Dunbar had a handshake agreement in place. Springer said the last time the city tried to implement resident-parking only in 2018, he negotiated with Dunbar to exclude South Front.

“I said, ‘Look we’re not going to fight you on this, if you do everything you can to keep this for us,’” Springer recalled, implying Dunbar broke the deal.

Dunbar told PCD the 300 block of S. Front St. was not included in the 2018 data collection, 2019 pilot program, or its expansion from 2019 to 2020, since the block was not already part of the full program.

At the council meeting Haynes told Springer he should not be disparaging city staff.

“My experience with [Dunbar] downtown, and I do live downtown, is that he is probably one of the finest employees we have and downtown has been vastly improved under his watch downtown,” she said. “So, I don’t appreciate that.”

Springer agreed that Dunbar’s “trying to do the right thing.” He said employees understand “what” they’re supposed to do, but not the “why,” particularly the survey that’s included in the process for a block to enter a residential parking program. To meet city code, a residential street must be 70% occupied by parkers and 25% of the vehicles must belong to individuals who do not live in the immediate vicinity.

In November 2022, the 70% occupancy was not met when the survey was done; however, when repeated, May’s results showed 87% occupancy with 70% of vehicles not owned by nearby residents.

Dunbar confirmed to PCD per the city’s current guidelines, petitions are accepted to survey parking occupancy from residents twice per calendar year, on Nov. 1 and May 1. 

Springer was frustrated the survey was done twice, since it failed the first time but the application for residential parking remained active.

“How many times are you going to extend it?” Springer asked rhetorically to PCD. “Just try it again, try it again.”

When the city informed the residents that staff was going to do the survey a second time, Springer claims neighbors altered the results.

“The citizens told me they moved their cars into their driveways; some of them still have out-of-state plates, they moved them onto the streets to simulate residents weren’t there,” Springer said. “I approached the staff and said, ‘Do you think that was ethical?’ It was complete silence. Finally, the answer was: ‘That’s how we always do it.’”

Council member Neil Anderson said if the survey wasn’t random, that was concerning.

Springer went on to explain the origins of the survey, which resulted from a Supreme Court ruling in Arlington v. Richards. A resident sued the Virginia city for fair use of property when residential parking was instituted in the ‘70s. While Rudolph Richards lived a block over from the parking-restricted neighborhood, he said it was unfair residents could park in front of his home, but he couldn’t park in front of theirs. 

When the court sided with Richards, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency got involved and appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. It issued a metric, the 75/25 rule the city uses, to enforce air quality with a public survey that determined how many people were residents versus commuters, encouraging drivers to carpool or use public transportation.

“Then it spread across the parking community,” used to implement regulations, according to Springer.

“Per our understanding, the Court noted that a preamble to the Arlington ordinance sets goals for the measure that include the protection of residential neighborhoods from air and noise pollution, the preservation of the value of property, and the protection of the personal safety of children and other pedestrians,” Dunbar told PCD.

He added the city’s goals align with the Arlington ordinance and also include a mission to reduce hazardous traffic conditions, protect residents from unreasonable burdens to access their homes and preserve the character of residential neighborhoods.

The 300 block of South Front Street, typically filled with 50 to 100 cars, now has five, Springer said, per the last time he checked.

He said the city is essentially leasing public property to 12 residents, by shutting down parking spaces for 24 hours a day, which should have required due process.

“If you lease or sell property, it’s another whole ballgame,” Springer said to council. “You need to have fair value, do those analyses. It’s what my grandfather used to call a ‘flim-flam,’ when you show one thing but it’s really representing something else.”

Instead, the restriction provides 12 residents “exclusive use” to on-street parking for $40 per year, for what Springer said was a “$30,000 parking place.” He said it’s no surprise the neighbors voted in favor.

“Would you vote for that?” Springer said to council. “I sure would.”

Based on his calculations, he said the city has given away $1 million worth of parking by closing that one block. In the 10 blocks in the residential parking program, it’s closer to $9 million of lost revenue.

“The parking space belongs to every citizen, yet it’s $40 for those to reserve it?” Anderson asked. “We need to look at it.”

Mayor Bill Saffo agreed the residential parking process itself should be reviewed and also ensure everyone impacted is properly notified moving forward.

Springer asked council to table the parking restriction on the South Front Street block since the application process was flawed. He asked for time for the business owners and the residents to compromise on a solution that benefits both.

He sent a followup email to city council Oct. 9 stating the businesses’ constitutional rights by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment have been violated. The correspondence calls for an immediate resolution to remove the restrictions and develop a plan to better address concerns of both the residents and taxpayers at large for “fair use” of the streets.

According to Dunbar, city staff is reviewing residential parking permit guidelines and processes as the program grows, including a review of benchmark municipalities that have an active residential permit parking program.

However, the new restrictions on the 300 block of South Front Street remain in place.


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