Park it where?

Why has Firehouse Subs closed its restaurant on East Franklin Street and is planning to reopen in Meadowmont, right next door to Carolina Café? Not because of high rent in the heart of downtown, but mainly because of the lack of parking. Without ample and free parking, Firehouse must limit its customer base to those within walking distance. The new branch at Meadowmont has sufficient free parking to accommodate those on campus who want to zip to Meadowmont, grab a sandwich and go back to work.

When (and by “when” I mean “if”) construction begins on 140 West Franklin, parking downtown will become even more of a problem. Not only will all those cars that now park in Lot 5 have to find parking elsewhere, but all the construction workers building the high-rise will have to find some place to park. Roger Perry lucked out when he was building East 54. His construction site was located right beside the commodious parking lot for what used to be Aurora restaurant and MacLean Builders, before UNC bought the property. Presumably Perry, who is chair of UNC’s board of trustees, rented those spaces from the university. Goodness knows, with all the state budget cuts it has had to absorb, the university could certainly use a few extra bucks. But where will construction workers park during the years they work on 140 West Franklin?

At the end of the most recent Town Council meeting, council members met in closed session to discuss purchasing the property at 110 South Graham St. Presumably, the small parcel would be used for parking. Maybe council members realized the potential for building a 10-story parking deck in the narrow space. Not only would it provide some relief for the parking problem, but aesthetically it would balance out Greenbridge just down the street.
– Nancy Oates

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13 Comments

  1. Frank

     /  June 3, 2010

    You may be right about parking, but you picked a bad example. Firehouse Subs probably moved there because rent is significantly less. They’ll get significantly less business in Meadowmont, but they have a much smaller nut to meet every month. I wish them the best of luck, but the failure rate of businesses in Meadowmont is pretty darn high. Nobody that I know has ever “zipped” into Meadowmont, especially from campus. It’s too far, and too out of the way.

    A more interesting question is why are businesses on East Franklin St. struggling? UNC-CH has several tens of thousands of students and staff. Why aren’t those people going to Franklin St. anymore?

  2. Geoff Green

     /  June 3, 2010

    A few thoughts:

    1) I agree with Fred on his first paragraph. Who’s going to “zip” to Meadowmont for lunch? My understanding of parking on campus is that folks usually don’t park right outside their doors, and have spaces in lots, not assigned spaces, so it’s a trek to get to the car and then find a spot. Because of this, I find it unlikely that campus employees will venture to their cars and drive out to Meadowmont just to get a sandwich to go.

    2) Whatever you think of the plan for Lot 5, the absolute last thing which should be there is a parking lot. It interrupts the streetscape, splitting the western part of West Franklin Street from the eastern portion. Combine that with the setback for parking in front of University Square, and you’ve got a true dead zone which is uninteresting to walk past during the day, borderline uncomfortable to walk by at night. There should be some sort of building there, with a diversity of uses to serve the diverse downtown population.

    3) Franklin Street most certainly does not need “free” parking. A modest parking fee helps encourage parking space turnover and encourage alternate forms of transportation to the core. I’m not sure that it needs a lot more parking, either, though I would defer to actual studies of the parking situation downtown. Franklin Street needs more convenient parking. What is needed is a way to make it easier to find parking, because now visitors have to check for spaces in multiple parking lots located in different parts of downtown. The University Square redevelopment also could help if it adds some sort of parking deck (in the back of the building, please, not taking up a valuable frontage space.) And paying for parking needs to be more flexible; like many other towns and cities, visitors to CH should be able to pay for all parking, whether it be on street or in a lot, using credit cards and/or bills.

  3. js

     /  June 3, 2010

    I work on campus and of hundreds of people working in my building, there’s only about 20 who park nearby. Most either commute from park and ride lots or, if they are fortunate to get a parking spot on campus, it’s in a lot that’s a 15-minute walk from here. Firehouse Subs is what almost everyone in the building orders when we need to feed ‘a lot of people’ – meetings, etc. because it is the cheapest option that we can easily bill for. Nobody I know of goes up to Franklin to get it for lunch because it’s omnipresence at conferences and in the leftover room. That, and they somehow manage to be even more bland than Subway. I would venture that a move to Meadowmont would allow them to expand the catering/vehicle side of the business as well as save boatloads on rent.

    As far as parking downtown, we pretty much have parallel spots, the 2 big decks on Rosemary, Lot 5, and the lot behind the theater. We could probably use signs directing traffic with a big letter P to those Rosemary entrances, but it is a rare sight when all the lots are full. Usually it happens on big football game days. One thing I’d like to see changed is the traffic flow around the Rosemary deck entries. When the FULL light is on at the theater surface lot (I don’t know what it’s called but it’s behind the theater and pepper’s pizza) – cars will line up in the eastbound lane of Rosemary with their blinkers on waiting for 1-in-1-out spots to open up in that lot. Even when there are spots available in the dark deck across the street. Is it because it’s dark or poorly labeled that people prefer to park on the surface lot? I don’t know but it’s pretty bad when traffic backs up INTO the intersection of Rosemary/Columbia, basically causing all traffic at that intersection to halt for half a signal change until the next person in line gets into the surface lot.

  4. JS, that’s Lot #2.

    Geoff, I agree we should be doing something on Lot #5, just not what is currently proposed. The current project is fiscally irresponsible and won’t meet either the economic or community-oriented needs for Downtown. If you balk at there being some kind of public utility in that space, note that the tax payers of this community are investing $10+ million in cash and $20-40M worth of property – a bit of deference towards the community is more than reasonable.

  5. js

     /  June 3, 2010

    Does the town also own the 2 decks across from and (wallace deck?) next to lot #2

  6. Geoff Green

     /  June 3, 2010

    @js: Yes, the Rosemary deck traffic flow is horrible. And the walkway to Franklin Street isn’t so hot either. And, Firehouse Subs is made by firemen for firemen. How could the food possibly be bland??!?!!? 😉

    @CitzenWill: That’s fine, which is why I gave the disclaimer about the current project.

  7. Runner

     /  June 3, 2010

    The town should not put up one red cent for the lot #5 development. Instead, they should just sell the land to the developer and actually make some money on the deal.

  8. Ed Harrison

     /  June 3, 2010

    See this for what parking lots the Town owns: http://townofchapelhill.org/index.aspx?page=192

    Parking spaces within sight of UNC-CH buildings are probably the most “competitive” spaces in the Southeastern US. I wish the owners of this particular Firehouse franchise all good luck in their move to the Meadowmont Village Center. But excellent sandwiches and the like are already on sale there, and the parking is hardly more abundant than downtown, only it’s “free.”

    At some point in the next year, visitors to Downtown should be able to use credit cards to pay for parking meters. This is the result of my finding, about a year ago, a piece of state legislation initiated by Raleigh to allow this for the first time in NC. I asked Ellie Kinnaird to get us added to the legislation (introduced by Sen. Josh Stein, who grew up in the Westwood neighborhood). We are letting Raleigh do the “shake down” on this, with their addition of about 1000 meters with credit card use. Some people talk about fixing problems with Downtown. Some people do something about it.

  9. Geoff Green

     /  June 4, 2010

    Ed Harrison wrote: “At some point in the next year, visitors to Downtown should be able to use credit cards to pay for parking meters.”

    Hurrah. Very nice.

    “I wish the owners of this particular Firehouse franchise all good luck in their move to the Meadowmont Village Center. But excellent sandwiches and the like are already on sale there, and the parking is hardly more abundant than downtown, only it’s “free.””

    It’s easier to find parking spots, certainly. And as I said earlier, that’s the big issue downtown — not the quantity of parking, but the difficulty finding parking and paying for it. The availability of credit card payments will help, but it still needs to be easier to find spots. Perhaps there could be several digital display boards, on Columbia & Franklin, directing visitors to lots with open parking spaces, with a companion website so people could plan their destination in advance.

  10. To followup on Ed’s comments, the Downtown Parking Task Force (I was a member) recommended easing payment – including options like use of credit cards – several years ago. The Town hasn’t solicited formal public input since that task force (and has kind of rejected critiques provided by the Friends of Downtown vis-a-vis parking, parking studies and parking management technologies).

    There were two primary concerns about the use of credit cards, by the way.

    One was security. Several of the systems at the time had security holes all along the pipeline servicing the meter – at the meter, in the transmission of the data and at the server if the system had a remote one. As there’s no formal citizen oversight or advisory process for technology in Chapel Hill anymore, it’s up to staff to make sure that this part of the system is “bolted down”.

    Second issue involved communication. Meters required hardwire, cell or WIFI access to their back-end systems. The Town’s now defunct Tech Board highlighted a system that not only communicated securely via WIFI but also redistributed access via each meter. This system actually was cheaper than running hardwired connections to each endpoint and had the added advantage of strengthening public access throughout Downtown.

    By the time the Downtown Parking Task Force made its recommendations it was fairly clear that the Town’s Downtown WIFI effort was failing – enough access points to claim progress, epic fail as far as actually working (for an example of a working system check out Carrboro). Without a little attention above the PR level it was obvious that we couldn’t build upon our own infrastructure.

    Quick aside, there’s been a dearth of similar leadership on the public component of the Town’s fiber optic rollout (Laurin and Penny have pushed Council but so far their colleagues have not seen network access as an economic development priority).

    Because of that, Chapel Hill is in jeopardy of missing out on the benefits of community-access to municipal networks because we won’t be grand-fathered in under Hoyle’s ridiculous anti-broadband bill. Fiber would be a great boost to Downtown’s fortunes – so that’s something “some people” can do “something about” by pushing to get Chapel Hill’s foot-in-the-door.

  11. Frank

     /  June 4, 2010

    “securely via WIFI”

    WIFI isn’t secure enough. Anybody with enough time and effort can get to the data. Transmitting important or secure information via wi-fi is just plain stupid. It wouldn’t work for parking meters. Any and all data breeches become the liability of the town.

    “(for an example of a working system check out Carrboro)”

    Carrboro’s “system” is sometimes working, sometimes not. I would hardly call it a success. Besides, Carrboro has never addressed their liability issues, either. There’s a lot of illegal activity going over Carrboro’s open Wi-fi network and Carrboro’s liable for it.

  12. Frank, I’ve found Carrboro’s WIFI much more reliable than Chapel Hill’s. As far as liability and illegal acts (which you seem very confident are going on), Carrboro is shielded by the same kind of safe harbor provisions that ISPs have (essentially acting as conduits or common carriers). With suitable encryption of the DATA, WIFI is an adequate means to convey information. WIFI’s own encryption standards – like WEP and WPA – are both open to attack – though WPA2 less so but these meter systems, at least the best of them, don’t use the channel protection but encrypt the payloads.

  13. Terri Buckner

     /  June 4, 2010

    Raleigh is using Duncan Solutions for their parking meters. It looks like they are offering yet another proprietary wireless network solution: http://www.duncansolutions.com/meters.html

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