Does downtown Wilmington have a parking problem?
By Jared Brey
Special to Delaware Business Times
On the first Monday in April, a handful of Wilmington’s most prominent Amovers and shakers were tucked inside the entrance to a parking garage on North Orange Street, bundled up for the cold weather, taking turns at a lectern set up for the news cameras.
Mayor Mike Purzycki was there, and City Council President Hanifa Shabazz. Serving as emcee for the morning was Michael Hare, executive vice president for Buccini/Pollin Group, the developers responsible for the new parking garage and the 200 apartment units above it. He noted that the previous garage on the site – the Mid-Town Parking Garage was condemned in 2011 – had at one time been a go-to resource for visitors looking to patronize one of the restaurants or shops on nearby Market Street.
“As a company, we’re very committed to the redevelopment of social life, nightlife, recreational activities along Market Street,” Hare said. “Parking is an essential component of that. Mayor, you and I have talked forever that, throughout our city, parking is the tail that wags the dog. Convenience is important to people who want to come to the city.”
Hare’s comments reflect a common concern in certain corners of Wilmington: that the cost and convenience of parking have become an obstacle to the city’s growth and vibrancy. When corporate tenants are looking for new locations, developers and city leaders say, the expense of parking for employees in the city can be the deciding factor that pushes them to the suburbs, where parking is easier to provide. And while the city has taken steps to make metered parking more convenient, there are lingering questions about uneven enforcement and predictability for visitors who want to park their cars on the street.
But parking issues in the city are about perception as much as reality. And it’s not always obvious how best to address them.
Optimizing on-street parking
It’s not a service that he advertises, but Dave Bart will sometimes pay his patrons’ parking tickets.
According to Bart, the store manager for Jerry’s Artarama at 704 N. Market St., about a third of customers that come through his store complain about parking. Either they’re confused about where they’re allowed to park, or they’re bothered that they have to pay for parking at all. He doesn’t sympathize with the latter sentiment, but he does understand why a first-time visitor would be confused about the rules.
“My top three pet peeves are: the signage is horrible, the meters themselves are very unclear, and the [Parking Regulation Enforcement Officers] are not ambassadors,” Bart said.
Bart believes the downtown commercial strip loses customers because of the lack of clarity for street parking. And Lani Schweiger, the projects and communications coordinator for Downtown Visions and Main Street Wilmington, said that residential growth downtown means that residents will sometimes use metered street parking that could otherwise be used by customers, especially on nights and weekends when it’s free to park.
Still, it’s not as though it’s impossible to find a metered spot downtown during business hours. Even when street parking is tight, there’s usually room in one of the lots.
“It would be nice if there were clearer parking signage downtown, even if it’s to notify you where there are lots,” Schweiger said. “A first-timer to downtown, you have to look at it from their perspective: Do they know where they have to go?”
The city has already begun trying to address problems with street parking and has a handful of solutions it’s considering implementing in the future.
Last fall, the city announced that it had joined a partnership with Parkmobile, so that drivers parking at any of 1,000 meters downtown could pay using a mobile app that tracks how much time is left on the meter. The partnership has added an option for drivers who aren’t in the habit of keeping loose change in the car, but it’s not universally available throughout the city. And, Bart said, many visitors don’t know the app is available.
Last spring, a city task force called the Street Parking Optimization Team created a list of recommendations for improving the parking environment in Wilmington. The SPOT group was formed with “the twin goals of incentivizing more turnover for storefront businesses and creating a more convenient experience for customers,” according to the report. Among its many recommendations: clarify street signage and update the city’s website with more parking information, improve signage for off-street parking options, install multi-space kiosks on Market Street, and collect data on parking patterns to inform future practices. The report also recommends aligning paid parking hours with enforcement; meters currently need to be paid until 6 p.m. on weekdays, but enforcement officers stop working at 5.
Other recommendations could be more controversial, like extending paid parking and enforcement to nights and Saturdays. That practice would be meant to promote turnover and keep street spaces open during extended hours to encourage visitors to patronize downtown businesses during those times. The report also recommends capping the number of residential parking permits available in each zone, expanding commercial loading space downtown, and ending the holiday parking promotion. The latter promotion is “counterproductive,” the report said, because it encourages downtown workers and residents to stay in the free spots all day rather than making them available for holiday shoppers.
The city is slowly working its way through the recommendations. It’s also keeping an eye on how parking impacts the corporate office market in Wilmington.
Challenge: Attracting corporate tenants
Parking issues don’t just affect the vibrancy of the downtown shopping district. They also play into the overall economic health of the city as a factor in corporate tenants’ location decisions, commercial real estate professionals say.
Big businesses never base their decisions about major location moves on just one factor, said Blaise Fletcher, a Wilmington-based executive vice president at JLL, a commercial real estate services firm headquartered in Chicago. But along with public safety and the city wage tax, parking often ranks at the top of business leaders’ concerns about locating in a city like Wilmington, Fletcher said.
In the suburbs, the cost of parking is usually included in the overall rent a tenant would pay at a corporate office park. But in the city, the cost of parking is usually passed on to employees. Businesses considering locating to an urban environment have to consider whether they can afford to pay employees more to offset that cost.
“That’s a major factor when someone is considering a move,” Fletcher said. “A lot of times you can’t overcome it.”
Wills Elliman, a senior managing director in the Wilmington office of Newmark Knight Frank, said that in the city, parking can add up to 25 percent to the total cost of commercial real estate. So employees usually end up bearing the brunt, and not just in corporate settings. In February, Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. asked the state to help cover employee parking costs, according to a report in the Delaware Law Weekly. Downtown parking can add up to around $1,700 a year, and many court employees earn less than $32,000 annually, according to the report.
In response to questions from the Delaware Business Times, Mayor Purzycki said that while public safety and the wage tax sometimes come up in discussions with potential tenants, they are simply a matter of due diligence, and “not top-of-mind concerns that are unique to Wilmington.”
“The challenge we hear most often from corporations and businesses about locating in the city is the cost of parking for their employees when compared to a suburban or out-of-state location where the is no cost for their employees to park,” Purzycki said. “Because of our small size and short commute times between city and suburban locations, it is difficult at times for employers to balance the need for a city setting for a business versus a location where employees have no cost to park. We think it said quite a bit about Wilmington’s advantages when corporations pay for their employees to park in the city, which a handful do, because companies desire a Wilmington location and they are willing to carry the cost on behalf of employees.”
Of course, it isn’t the case that parking is literally free in the suburbs. But it’s easier to hide the cost as part of an overall development rather than passing it onto employees. Urban land tends to be more expensive, and tenants can’t simply add parking amenities to existing office space when they’re considering moving to the city.
“In a perfect world we would have parking garages with free parking for companies,” said Chris Buccini, managing partner at The Buccini/Pollin Group. “And that would fundamentally change the Wilmington office market. But it’s expensive to build parking garages, so I don’t see how that would ever be possible.”
Parking vs. safety
As much as parking concerns can complicate commercial real estate transactions, there seems to be more than enough supply to serve current levels of demand. Jed Hatfield, president of Colonial Parking, one of the biggest holders of parking lots in the city, said that occupancy is currently about 85 percent at the 40 parking facilities the company manages. That’s down from a peak of about 95 percent a few years ago, before Capital One began consolidating its office space and a string of corporate departures from the city.
“A year ago, the market was much tighter than it is today,” Hatfield said. “There was less available than today “¦ It’s sort of quietly happened.”
Dave Gula, principal planner for the Wilmington Area Planning Council (WILMAPCO), also said that the Council isn’t aware of any high-level parking concerns in the central business district. WILMAPCO hasn’t undertaken any parking studies in the last decade, but in 2007, it helped organize a Downtown Parking Summit that engaged residents and business owners with questions about parking in the city. According to a survey conducted as part of the summit, respondents’ top five concerns were the ability to walk safely to and from the car, vandalism and break-ins, convenience, clarity of information, and the availability of visitor parking. Asked to name the most important aspects of parking downtown, 27 percent said safety, with the next-most-common answer being cost, at 17 percent.
To Hatfield, the perception of public safety in Wilmington is one of the key underlying issues that affect the business environment. Hatfield said that safety concerns downtown are overblown – both he and Schweiger say that downtown Wilmington doesn’t have a major crime problem – but acknowledges that they may be real sticking points for out-of-town executives thinking about locating in the city.
“[Parking] is an excuse more than a reality,” Hatfield said. “And from a supply standpoint, there is definitely excess supply in the market currently.”
Even if parking demand were higher, creating parking lots and garages just to meet it could be a misstep for the long-term growth of the city. Hatfield said he would love to see the market become strong enough to create demand for development on some of the lots he manages. If parking space were needed for new projects, it could be incorporated into the larger structure, rather than sitting on its own as a surface lot. Over time, excess surface parking space can encourage more people to drive into the city when they might have the option to take transit or ride a bike, and can contribute to an urban environment that isn’t well-suited for pedestrians.
That’s why Buccini/Pollin chose to build its newest garage underground, Buccini said at the ribbon-cutting in April. An above-ground garage in that area “would have looked like crap,” he said. Parking concerns can’t keep wagging the dog forever.
“People need to think that the amenities of being located in the City of Wilmington outweigh the cost of parking,” Buccini said. “So that is our sole focus over the last decade, to create enough [bars, restaurants, and amenities] to make it actually worth it.”