Downtown Sylva to get more free parking

Years of complaining by Sylva merchants that there isn’t enough parking downtown has spurred the Sylva town board to lease a private parking lot near the intersection of Mill and Main Streets.

The board voted 4 to 1 to lease the Sammy Cogdill parking lot for $400 per month in order to alleviate a perceived parking crunch and to address concerns about the safety of oversized vehicles parking in diagonal spots.

The ongoing debate over parking in downtown Sylva resurfaced in May when Western Carolina University student Thaddeus Huff published the findings of a downtown parking study he conducted as part of his graduate research. His conclusion contested the idea that there was a parking shortage in Sylva. Huff’s study found there were plenty of spaces in the greater downtown area — people just weren’t willing to walk more than a block to their destinations.

Huff’s study did identify the south end of Main Street as the area most in need of parking, and he suggested encouraging people to park in other parts of town as a solution.

Many local merchants, however, believed that Huff’s study — which was conducted in March — didn’t take into account congestion during the most heavily trafficked time of year or during festival weekends. They cited anecdotal evidence that customers routinely struggle to find parking at key times of day.

The town board’s vote to rent the Cogdill lot for a year should put the discussion to rest.

“It’s an opportunity for us to see if it makes an impact,” said Town Commissioner Chris Matheson.

Matheson said her vote was based as much on safety concerns as on the lack of available parking spaces downtown. Matheson said oversized vehicles parking in diagonal spots make Main Street dangerous.

“If you’re on the right side of one of those vehicles, you’re backing into an abyss,” Matheson said.

Board Member Ray Lewis was the only dissenting vote. Lewis objected to the notion of the town committing more money to downtown Sylva and suggested the money to lease the Cogdill lot should come out of the town’s annual $12,000 allocation to the Downtown Sylva Association.

Lewis’s stance on the subject may foreshadow a point of contention in the upcoming budget discussions. Town financial support of DSA has been controversial each of the past four years during budget time.

Mayor Maurice Moody said parking and DSA funding were separate issues, however.

“I think those are two separate issues and the majority of the board wants to leave DSA funding at $12,000 where its has been for the past few years,” Moody said.

The board also discussed other ways to alleviate the parking shortage in Sylva, including the option of adopting a parking ordinance similar to one in the town of Highlands that prohibits merchants and their employees from parking on the Main Street during business hours. Another alternative would see the town rent some of the spaces in the Cogdill lot to businesses that wanted to reserve spaces for their employees.

All of those discussions were informal. Moody confirmed that the Cogdill lot would be open to the public July 1 and that the bulk of the spots would be used for additional free parking.

Sylva parking shortage in the eye of the beholder

A parking study of downtown Sylva conducted by a Western Carolina University graduate student has gotten local merchants talking and left the town board facing a puzzle.

For years downtown merchants have complained that the lack of available parking for customers hurts their businesses. But the study concludes that the town’s some 600 existing places are enough.

Thaddeus Huff –– a graduate student in public administration in his last semester at WCU –– authored the study as his final research topic for his professor, Dr. Chris Cooper. Huff circulated 50 surveys to business owners in the Downtown Sylva Association asking five basic questions about their views on parking downtown. The responses showed that 65 percent of the business owners felt there wasn’t enough parking for customers, and 69 percent felt there wasn’t enough parking for employees in downtown.

In March, Huff followed up the survey with a study of the supply and demand of parking in each of the downtown’s eight blocks, counting the number of spaces and the occupancy rate in each block four different times of day on four separate days.

The findings were surprising. Only three blocks downtown in the areas of Mill and Main streets closest to their intersection routinely had more than 70 percent of their parking spaces utilized at a given time of day.

Huff’s summary of the survey reframed the discussion about parking in downtown Sylva as having more to do with how far people are willing to walk from available spaces to their destinations.

“Given that the supply, in this case, is not the problem, the issue seems to be the proximity to certain locations for drivers,” Huff concludes in the study. “The answer is not more parking spaces. Even with no access to private lots, an argument could be made there is plenty of parking to meet the demand given the time periods the counts were conducted in.”

But tell that to the merchants who get phone calls from customers in their cars asking if they can get curbside service because they’ve already circled past the store three times.

Sarella Jackson, an employee of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, testified to that as she walked out of Annie’s Bakery on Monday.

“Most of the time, parking is a problem. It’s relatively hard to find parking close to the building at lunch time,” Jackson said.

She said it is not uncommon for her to circle the block two or three times before she finds a spot.

Annie Ritota, who opened Annie’s Bakery eight years ago, winces when she hears customers complaining about parking.

“We do have a problem on this end of town,” Ritota said.

A parking solution discussed in the past is for the town to purchase or lease a vacant private lot on the prime stretch of Main Street, the former Dodge dealer lot owned by Sam Cogdill.

Ritota said she would support the town leasing or buying the lot, although she wasn’t 100 percent sure it would solve the problem. Instead, Ritota suggested limiting how long people could occupy a prime downtown spots.

“Obviously that lot would be very helpful,” Ritota said. “But I’ve always said maybe if we went back to paid parking so people could come and go, people wouldn’t stay all day.”

Huff has also taken planning courses, and he said from a planning perspective, the town would ideally put the empty car lot owned by Cogdill to some use because vacant lots in a downtown send the wrong message.

But both Mayor Maurice Moody and Commissioner Sarah Graham said they would have a hard time spending the town’s money on parking when it was facing a very tight budget this year.

“Right now we’re paying for a pedestrian plan and directional signage, and I’d like to see those play out before we commit to another expense in parking,” Graham said.

Sheryl Rudd, co-owner of Heinzelmannchen said Mill Street’s problem is almost certainly the result of too many merchants and their employees occupying the handful of prime on-street spots readily accessible to customers.

The result is infuriating for Rudd.

“We lose business,” she said.

Rudd attended the town board meeting where Huff presented his findings and said she appreciated the information but would like to have seen the results of a similar study conducted during the high part of the tourist season.

Rudd said she favors the idea of the town leasing the Cogdill lot and either the Downtown Sylva Association or merchants reimbursing the town for a particular number of designated spaces.

Huff, who lives in Asheville, said most of the studies he used as models dealt with bigger towns. But he still thinks Sylva’s free parking could be part of the problem.

“If you give out free pizza, there’s never enough pizza,” Huff said.

Huff recommended a number of measures that could alleviate some of the strain the merchants are feeling around parking. He advocates better signage to steer people to the town’s public lots. He also recommends a firm policy against employees parking in spots for customers, and reviewing the idea of metered parking on Main Street.

The issue of downtown employees taking up prime on-street spots in front of businesses has been a topic of heated discussion the past, and a number of downtown business owners agree that it is a starting point for the discussion.

Recently one downtown merchant anonymously left flyers on car windows that read, “Dear customers. I work downtown. I took your parking space and you, the customer, had to search for parking.”

Steve Dennis, owner of Hollifield Jewelers, also thinks employees parking on Main Street all day are a large part of the issue.

“The enforcement needs to be addressed in terms of people staying a long period of time,” Dennis said. “You don’t need to drive up and walk straight into your job.”

Mayor Moody said he needed to study the results of Huff’s project in more detail before he responded to it directly.

“I think we all need more time to look at it closely,” Moody said.

Huff agreed the same type of parking count he conducted should be repeated during the high tourist season and on a festival week, but he really believes the town has to look at the parking issue holistically and not a simple shortage of open parking spaces.

Waynesville panel may recommend rolling back rear parking mandate

A movement is afoot to roll back some of the smart growth principles of Waynesville’s land-use plan by loosening commercial development guidelines.

A blue-ribbon committee appointed by the town has spent the past few months combing through the town’s land-use plan, which espouses a progressive “new urbanism” philosophy.

The plan promotes pedestrian-friendly development and aesthetic standards for commercial development in an attempt to preserve small-town character. Several members of the committee question whether the new urbanism model is realistic, however.

Joe Taylor, one of committee members, said the ideals in the land-use plan are utopian and don’t take current development patterns into account.

“It can be done if you start with a clean sheet of paper. If we are going to create a new town, fine, go for it,” Taylor said.

The committee’s composition is weighted toward business interests.

“We have people on that board making recommendations that make sense for doing business,” Taylor said.

Public Works Director Fred Baker said that commercial interests were perhaps underrepresented on the citizen task force that helped write the land-use plan earlier this decade. The current blue-ribbon committee was constituted to give them a voice, especially given their ongoing complaints over the regulations.

Ron Leatherwood, a contractor on the committee, said he didn’t get involved when the town was writing the guidelines, despite literally dozens of public input meetings held over the course of three years.

“A lot of us in the business community didn’t realize the consequence of the written word on the table,” Leatherwood said. “At the end of the day, I am not seeing us doing a great deal of changes except in two or three areas. We have to have some type of hybrid of this.”

But Baker isn’t sure a hybrid is possible. Baker has long had the 13 principles of new urbanism tacked up on the wall of his office. He said they work in unison, and if you ignore more than two or three, the whole vision collapses.

Leatherwood questioned whether Waynesville in general has the population to support new urbanism. The concept is based on people living, working and shopping in a close-knit, pedestrian-friendly environment, but it relies on residential populations being able to support nearby mixed-use commercial districts.

Taylor also wonders whether the model is possible today. Society no longer functions like it did in the 1950s, when people walked to their neighborhood grocer, Taylor said. But advocates of new urbanism want to remake society by forcing commercial developments into a mold that doesn’t work on the ground, Taylor added.


Parking lot saga

One of the most contentious points addressed by the committee is parking lot configurations for new commercial development. The town’s plan bans parking lots directly in front of buildings. By placing parking to the rear and side of businesses instead, the streetscape is defined by building facades, sidewalks and street trees rather than expansive asphalt parking lots.

Despite the aesthetic benefits, the regulation is not always practical, according to some committee members.

“Parking, as we knew going into it, is probably going to be the biggest issue,” said Town Planner Paul Benson. “I think they all feel like we are being too restrictive by not allowing any parking in front of the building. Certainly we have heard that from the development community.”

Taylor said it is ridiculous to ban parking in front of buildings.

“People tend to go where the crowd is,” Taylor said. “That is pretty much human nature to say, ‘That place is doing business, let’s go in there.’ Hide all the vehicles and you take that factor away.”

Baker said the purpose of the rule is to create an “active pedestrian environment.”

“That is difficult to do if you have only left a little strip of sidewalk between the parking lot and road. It visually sets the automobile above all other considerations,” Baker said.

Craig Lewis, a planning consultant with the Lawrence Group in the town of Davidson who is steering the review process, said auto-centric development doesn’t stand the test of time. One strip mall is simply abandoned by shoppers and merchants alike when a new one comes along.

“Areas that are pedestrian friendly have become more successful than areas that are automobile friendly,” Lewis said. “We are talking about creating places that people care about.”

But Leatherwood said the “new urbanism” vision can still be achieved through other techniques to buffer the look of asphalt parking lots.

“By still having tree canopies or street walls or some kind of streetscape, you don’t have the impact of a large parking lots directly on the street,” Leatherwood said. “You can soften the street.”

Committee member Patrick McDowell pointed to a small strip mall in the greater downtown area called Haywood Square, which wouldn’t be allowed under the town’s current land-use plan.

Engineer Patrick Bradshaw countered that it’s not a bad thing to force developers to think outside the box.

“Surely we are brighter than just a strip mall duplicated time and again. What we keep trying to do is move these strip malls around. While it is suitable for some locations, we can do better,” said Bradshaw, who sits on the committee.

Lewis said Waynesville’s land-use plan has been a trendsetter.

“More and more communities are doing it, but it is still not the norm and certainly not in the mountains. I think Waynesville has led a lot of conversations in the mountains because they have said ‘We care about the aesthetics of our community,’” Lewis said.

But even Lewis isn’t a purist when it comes to no parking in front. To insist there can never be parking in front of a building is impractical, Lewis said. Lewis has proposed a compromise that would allow a portion of parking to be allowed in front of buildings in a few of the town’s high-traffic commercial areas, namely Russ Avenue, the Dellwood/Junaluska area and the interchange near the new Super Wal-Mart.

“I think it is a good compromise,” Benson said. “Some districts lend themselves to new urbanism more than others.”

But several committee members want the compromise extended to more parts of town. They also want more parking spots in the front than the limited number Lewis has proposed.

That debate has yet to fully play out and the differences of opinion could ultimately lead to a split vote in the committee’s final recommendation.


What’s next

The committee is still a few months away from making its recommendations. The task has been rigorous. The committee had been meeting every other Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. for three months, allowing the members to get on with their workday by 9 a.m. They have now ramped up the schedule to meet every week.

“It is a hard-working advisory committee,” Baker said. “The town is certainly getting a lot of work and a lot of good ideas from them.”

Baker noted that the recommendations will be just that, however.

“There might be some that don’t necessarily make it through,” Baker said.

Final approval resting with the town’s elected leaders following public input.

“I don’t see the town board wanting to reverse course completely on the parking issue,” Benson said. “I think we are all just looking for a way to add some flexibility without compromising the pedestrian focus.”

Who’ll pay the price?

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

It’s lunchtime in downtown Hazelwood, and the small area’s only parking lot of roughly 30 spaces is jam-packed. People jump out of their cars to grab a bite to eat, a haircut, medications, or a cup of coffee from the various businesses in this section of Waynesville.

Parking problems plague downtown Bryson City

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Entire half hours dedicated to finding a parking space. Cars backing into each other. Employees and customers with nowhere to park. The parking situation in Bryson City is reaching crisis levels, and local business owners are pleading for the town to help them.

Sylva discusses downtown parking woes

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Parking along Sylva’s downtown Main Street is a challenge.

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