Rudy Panucci On Pop Culture

Let’s All Drive Downtown, Then Leave Without Finding A Place To Park!

The PopCulteer
September 3, 2010

Charleston’s Coin Job

This week’s PopCulteer is a rant. It’s not a calm opinion piece, or a well-researched hard news story. This is, hopefully, a semi-articulate hissy fit.

Parking in downtown Charleston sucks. There is no better way to say it.

There aren’t enough handy places to park. The parking meters are stingy with their time. The Meter Maids are overly agressive. It’s almost like the city doesn’t want to be bothered with us puny humans.

There is so much cool stuff downtown, but it’s becoming more and more of a hassle to get to it. I don’t know how Charleston expects to attract new businesses when established businesses are seeing their customers driven away by a lack of decent parking.

You can find places to park, but there can be unexpected consequences.  If your meter runs out, you’ll be stuck with a five-dollar ticket.  That’s if you pay it within ten days. If you’re late, or if the folks handling the tickets decide to pretend that you were late, you’ll be billed for an additional twenty bucks.

Crime is running rampant in Charleston.  The crime rates are on the rise, bucking the national trend, but don’t even think about parking too long in one spot. There seems to be a zero-tolerance policy in effect for people who try to patronize Charleston businesses.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that Charleston completely eliminate all parking meters. If they did that, then maybe small businesses could flourish, like they are in South Charleston, which has more than a 95% occupancy rate for their available business locations. Lord knows what that sort of thing might lead to!

I know that the city of Charleston has some sort of bond deal that they say forces them to act this way. From what I can make out of it, they floated a municipal bond a few years back and put future parking revenue up as collateral. Because of that they have to agressively pursue the parking fees and fines, and they have to go through all sorts of red tape just to offer limited free parking.  They say their hands are tied.

Which might explain the crappy parking situation in Charleston, but it sure doesn’t do anything to improve it.  Over the summer, the problem has threatened to grow from an annoyance to a full-blown crisis.

The Blossom Deli is going to shut down tomorrow. One of the reasons is the lack of parking.  Even though there’s a municipal parking building nearby, people are afraid to use it because it’s so hard to figure out how late the parking buildings in this city are going to stay open.

ArtWalk last month was one of the worst in terms of traffic and parking. It seems like the city re-programmed all the traffic lights in town to maximize the annoyance factor, and then it was still hard to find a decent place to park.

Parking suckiness has even struck The Charleston Town Center, which recently eliminated the very-handy short-term parking in their Quarrier Street building, and seems to be on the verge of phasing out human parking attendants in favor of automated machines. I stopped by the mall for a bit just this week: It was virtually deserted.

This all adds up to a parking situation in Charleston that has become detrimental to business.  In this tight economy, the cost of parking can be a deciding factor when it comes to choosing a book store (Taylor’s is great, but the parking is free at Books a Million), a restaurant (after the novelty wears off, will people pay extra for parking to choose Pies and Pints over Lola’s?), or any other businesss.

As to how we fix this, I’ve got a few ideas.

First, stop charging for meter parking after 5 PM, not the current cut-off time of 6 PM. A lot more folks would make the downtown area a post-work visit if they didn’t have to worry about getting hit with a ticket at five-minutes ’til six.

Free parking on Saturdays is a no-brainer. There is no incentive for people to venture into the city and spend money with local merchants if they risk getting hit with a fine that’s two-and-a-half times the size of the weekly user fee.Downtown is competing against the sprawl down Corridor G, The Shops at Kanawha, The Nitro/Cross Lanes shopping center, D Street in South Charleston and many other places, all of which offer free parking.

All municipal parking buildings should be open 24 hours a day. I have several friends who will not venture downtown after dark anymore because of the hassle of having their car’s held hostage overnight, sometimes for days, if a holiday falls just right. There are parking buildings that sit empty every evening while people park along Virginia Street, blocking traffic and tempting fate by being in the path of that crumbling building on the corner of Virginia and Capitol.

Fines should be lowered, and the city should back off on trying to collect extra fees by claiming you didn’t pay soon enough. It’s bad enough to have to pay a ticket. It’s even worse when, months later, you get a threatening letter from the city and have to contact your bank for a copy of the check that you used to pay them on time.

If a person is doing work to promote the city, and gets a ticket for something stupid, then tear the ticket up. A friend of mine got nailed for twenty-five bucks this week for “blocking the sidewalk” by chaining his scooter to a lampost.  The scooter is smaller than most bicycles. That’s just petty and self-destructive of Charleston.

And it brings me to another point.  Charleston needs more bike racks.  It’s pretty messed-up when people who live four or five blocks from downtown will hop in their car and drive to Southridge rather than ride their bike downtown, simply because it’s less of a hassle to make the drive and park a car out there than it is to park a bike on Quarrier Street.

I think it’s great that the city is considering establishing taxi stands downtown. Even though it’s going to eat up a few primo parking spots.  I hope they also consider doing something to attact a more professional Taxi company than C&H. Decent cab service is another thing that this city is sorely lacking.

Back to parking, Charleston needs to remember just exactly what purpose parking meters serve.  They are NOT meant to be a revenue stream. They are there to facilitate the timely flow of customers to the businesses in the city. The meters limit the time that one car can tie up a parking spot.  The same purpose is served by the two-hour time limit in South Charleston, where business is booming.

If the city’s hands are tied in fixing these problems because of some previously-existing bond issue, as they claim, then maybe they need to find a way to extract themselves from said bond issue as quickly as possible.  It’s strangling this city and driving businesses out.

Weekend Events

There’s lots of cool music and stuff in town this weekend.

RFC faves, Tofujitsu, are at Bruno’s tonight at 9 PM. There’s no cover and the food is really good.

Also cover-free, Steve Himes and Chris Allen are at Taylor Books from 7:30 to 9:30 PM.

Crossroads will be at Sam’s Uptown Cafe on Friday and Saturday, with a $4 cover, at 10 PM.

RFC guests Civil State will be performing at The Empty Glass Friday for a five-dollar cover around 10 PM.

Also on Friday, The Blue Parrot plays host to High Fives & Hell Yeahs EP Release Party, featuring the Morgantown band, along with RFC 108 guests The AK40 Sexuals and Grinderpump.  Cover is five bucks and the show kicks off at 10 PM.

Saturday night The No Pants Players return to The Alban Theater in St. Albans for a family-friendly show.  It kicks off at 8 PM and six bucks gets you in the door for an evening of improv comedy gold.

The big show of the weekend is Noizebox with RFC faves, The Scrap Iron Pickers, returning to The Empty Glass on Saturday. The show begins around 10 PM, and the cover is yet to be determined, but less than eight dollars.

One last weekend note: RFC 94 guest, and friend of the PopCulteer, Ryan Hardiman, will be singing with The West Virginia Symphony Orchestra at Haddad Riverfront Park. This Labor Day concert begins at 8 PM and ends with fireworks.  Plus, it’s free.  You’ll want to be there.

That’s it for this abbreviated holiday-weekend edition of The PopCulteer. Keep reading for our regular features and episodes of Radio Free Charleston.

22 Comments

  1. Mark

    This was a much needed “rant” if I ever saw one. I’ve been posting mighty hard this week about this topic and my clients and I have all been hit with $25 parking tickets this week alone!

    This city will not grow at this rate. The Parking Czar here has to realize that she needs us more than we need her and if more people spoke up through her office and the newspapers, this might give more incentive for the city leaders to make some much needed changes before this town becomes a ghost town not just after 5:00 p.m., but all week!

    Call 304.348.8000 and tell them your concerns today!

  2. Karen

    Do you really think people go to Books-A-Million over Taylor because of a quarter?? Or those who chose not to dine at Blossom because 50 cents is gonna break their bank?? DOUBTFUL Go to Taco Bell if you can’t fork out a few cents for parking. Every city I’ve ever been to in my life has parking meters yet I’ve never heard so many complaints about it.

    Could it be that WV residents prize quantity over quality? Wouldn’t they rather go to super-sized-made-in-China stores and restaurants rather than pay a little more to enjoy quality food and products?

  3. Elvis Capone

    “Mish” Shedlock, among other cogent commentators, has suggested the ideal manner in which municipalities may shed the problems inherent in bond issues AND grotesquely generous public salaries/benefits and the accompanying underfunded pensions: Bankruptcy. Shed those obligations. Strip everything down to the metal and start over. It’s the only way to avoid crushing increases in taxes, fines, fees, and generally strangling the few remaining working citizens.

  4. BeautyQueen

    agreed. i work on hale street so i struggle with this everday. i work at 4, so even if i do find a meter, i am usually there a little early so i put the money in for two hours, and have to run out 15 minutes before six just to put money in for 15 minutes, lol. the only other place i can park is spyro’s and it’s 4 dollars.

  5. Tony

    I believe you’ve hit on some really valuable criticisms of the parking system as a whole, and the specific remedies you propose can’t be argued with (5pm and Sat free parking are, as you say, no brainers).

    That being said, I believe there is a culture here in Charleston and the surrounding communities that is as big a contributor to the problem as short-sightedness on the part of City officials. I have said a dozen times if Ive said it once. The single most demonstrable and sad axiom of Charleston-specific development is some vartiation of the following: “If you build it, and you don’t somehow manage to put more free, ground level parking spaces right in front of it than could ever be all filled at once, they WON’T come.”. People here refuse to walk or take advantage of public transportation (unless they are indigent or have too many DUI’s).

    Only in this culture can an empire like Spyro’s have managed to thrive all this time, and this town is literally polluted with Spyro’s flat, convenient, expensive little parking lots. I think that, within the scope of potential land use and reuse in the corporate boundary, flat location-specific motor vehicle parking is at the bottom of the heirchy.

    Charleston is a town that grew up around a population of 120k and now we are hovering around 50. We don’t need much of the barely used and outmoded infrastructure that serves to isolate us, cut us off from our larger environment and support our early 20th century mindset with respect to transportation and planning.

  6. Tim

    As a relative newcomer to the Charleston area, I can do nothing more than laugh at this never-ending complaint. When I drive through downtown, what I see is that at least 50% of the city has been torn down to make surface parking lots and parking garages. I am not sure how there could be much more parking downtown and still have a reason to park there. Further, when I go downtown, which occurs often, I have never had to park more than a block from my destination. I have yet to ever be ticketed either.

    The problem I see is that most Charlestonians seem to be extremely lazy. That is why they will gladly get a crappy meal at a chain restaurant and sit in tons of traffic as long as they can park 12 feet from the front door (or park in the fire lane) in the suburbs. Then they’ll feign tears when good restaurants with character, like the Blossom Dairy, close down because walking more than half a block was too much to fathom.

  7. rudy panucci

    Good comments. Let me address a few:

    Karen–My point about Taylor Books (one of my favorite places in town) was not that people don’t want to spend a quarter or fifty cents to go there. I was pointing out that, faced with the prospect of driving around the block several times to finally find a good, safe spot, then getting slapped with a five-dollar fine, which will escalate to twenty-five if the city decides to pretend you didn’t pay it on time, people might be inclined to drive out to Corridor G the next time they want a book.

    I agree that WV has a problem choosing “Big Box” retailers over independent stores, but I also feel that, with the edge those stores already have, why make parking so difficult on top of it?

    Tony–You make some very good points about our local resistance to walking and using public transit–but that also ties into another problem that downtown businesses face, crime. There were many well-publicized violent street crimes downtown over the past few months, and maybe if the city were as vigilant in protecting its citizens against those as they were at protecting the world from overtime meters, more people might be willing to walk farther.

    Tim–you are a newcomer, and eventually you will get a ticket and have the joy of dealing with the city of Charleston’s parking system. Once you do, you’ll realize why the complaints are so loud.

    However, the parking problem is compounded by the fact that we have an abundance of parking buildings, but none of them seem to be open on any kind of reliable schedule. The Blossom is very close to a mostly-empty parking building, but so many people have gotten their cars locked up in those buildings that they’ve been conditioned to stay away from them.

  8. Mountain Woman Phd.

    The comments on how “lazy” we are here in Charleston miss the point. It’s easier to fix the parking problem to cater to “lazy” customers than it is to go our and change all of the lifestyles of those people.

    My personal experience is that it’s not hard to find a place to park in town, but the enforcement is so over-the-top that it can make the experience terribly unpleasant. Once, while I was at a doctor’s appointment, my meter ran out twenty minutes before I could get to it. I fully expected to pay a ticket, but when I walked out to my car, the meter maid was putting a second ticket on my windshield. I had to pay both tickets.

    I do wonder if the city has a deal with Spyros, to make parking in their lots more attractive by writing excessive tickets at the meters.

    I work downtown, and I love it and patronize as many businesses as possible during the week, but on Saturdays I don’t want to go near the place. I already have to fork over a user fee, and I’ll be damned if I let the city nickle-and-dime me to death with parking tickets on the weekend.

  9. Longtime Listener

    Good rant. Parking does indeed suck in Charleston. I love Taylor Books, but I usually only go there on Sundays to avoid the meter nazis. We are a lazy, aging population, but we’re not wealthy enough to keep forking over money to the city so they can use it to pave the roads in South Hills and build ugly things all over the rest of Charleston.

    It would be nice if the businesses in Charleston could get together and pick one weeknight each week where they stayed open later. That way patrons could go shop downtown and face less work traffic and not have to worry about feeding the meters. Maybe the city could increase police patrols on those night so that we wouldn’t have to worry about being clubbed over the head.

    Ironically, the people who can afford to park in the Spyros lots are the people who don’t mind paying parking tickets. for the rest of us, every penny counts.

    I was surprised to see you mention that one band in your weekend events. Aren’t they the guys that got kicked out of the Empty Glass and wanted to burn it down or something?

  10. Rachel

    Sounds like we need to keep a better eye on our watches, iphones, or the big clock on Capitol Street to ensure we don’t get those little, bright tickets. Don’t let a meter have that much power over you. Park, walk and keep Charleston alive!

  11. Tim

    Nice for so many to show up to prove my point…but I guess I should have said “lazy and whiney.”

    First Taylor books is open well after the meters are no longer enforced. That was the case for Blossom too.

    If you park at a meter when you do not know how long your business will take to accomplish (e.g. a doctor’s appointment) then no one but you is to blame for the ticket you might find when you return. You should have parked in one of the nearly infinite number of other options, including the free spaces, that we non-lazy people take advantage of on a regular basis.

    Finally, you can pretend that downtown has significant crime, but that is as laughable as pretending it is hard to park there.

  12. Mountain Woman Phd.

    Gee Tim, it’s notable that you can manage to be obnoxious, condescending and rude in such a small amount of words.

    You are right about how people can only blame themselves for getting a ticket at an over time meter. However, getting two tickets for being twenty minutes late is wrong.

    You are right that, a healthy, strong man who can stand the heat shouldn’t be bothered by having to walk a few blocks to conduct his business. You are either privy to some very usefull top-secret information, or imagining things when you think there is “free parking” anywhere near the downtown area. Maybe you’re onto something and can’t share. Or maybe you’re tempting fate and will wind up being towed one of these days.

    You don’t seem very sympathetic to people like me, single, older women with health issues who aren’t quite capable of managing a ten-block hike in 90-degree weather to get our heart checked. I suppose you’ll suggest that it’s my fault for not living up to your lifestyle standards.

    I get that you’re a big healthy “non-lazy” person from out of state who can come in and tell all us ignorant hillbillies how we’re doing everything wrong, but frankly, we don’t care. We’re talking about fixing a couple of problems with parking that are hurting downtown business. We don’t need to hear from judgemental jackasses.

    Your assertion that we have to “pretend” that downtown has significant crime is what puts the lie to the rest of your statements. Are you high? Did you not see that, just last week, a report showed crime on the rise in Charleston? Were you too busy hiking around town to read about the rash of violent robberies downtown this summer? Did you miss it when someone was robbed and beaten nearly to death right in front of Taylor’s in broad daylight just a few weeks ago?

  13. rudy panucci

    Hey folks. Let’s keep it civil. I’ve already had to pull a couple of comments that were needlessly combative.

    How about we hear from some business owners? Do you think your business would be helped if the meter hours were trimmed a bit? Would reliable parking building hours help?

    What are the other issues that are hurting downtown business? Am I barking up the wrong tree with the parking thing? Is it just one factor? Chime in!

  14. libco

    kind have to agree-there’s parking all over downtown you just have to pay or walk. WV-ians want to park in front of where they are going and not have to pay. I have heard people say that. Anywhere else you would be paying through the nose for parking. I’ve been to other cities-30 bucks a day or more.

  15. libco

    Although Rudy I do agree with the Saturday thing but people have some kind of crazy unreasonable fear of Charleston crime. People are scared of the East End and the glass and way more stuff happens downtown at other bars. No one’s ever been shot or killed at the glass (or in our lot)!

  16. rudy panucci

    I’ve never felt in danger at The Glass. There are other parts of town that I think twice before venturing into at night, but the East End has always struck me as a relatively safe place.

  17. amodernguy

    As a downtown retailer my biggest complaint is the lack of meters which will allow more than 1 hour. One hour is simply not enough time to have lunch and then visit a store or two. The other issue is Saturdays – when the meter cops are on “high alert” and just waiting for meters to expire to write tickets – when parking should be free. The city did allow free Saturday parking last December for the Holiday season and it really helped traffic. We should do that all year round. Frankly, two hour+ meters would encourage people to park and walk. With just an hour you had better go around the block and find something very close to where you are going or else face a ticket. If you park several blocks away you sometimes can’t get there, do your business and get back in a 1 hour time frame.

    Rudy makes another good point regarding the parking garages. The Dickenson Street garage frequently is locked up before the stated time. I have called on several occasions to have the City send someone down to unlock the building when it was shut an hour or more before the posted time.

    Good dialogue – I know this same discussion is currently happening among shop owners downtown as well.

  18. Danny Jones

    I would be glad to meet with any or all to talk about how the meters/parking garage connection developed. I learned this when I was doing radio news in the 1990’s. Also, We have a parking committee that deals with this and you would be welcome to appear to talk to the committee.

  19. Amy VanGogh

    Thank you Mayor Jones… When I coordinated ArtWalk a few years back dealing with how the parking was so counter-productive to promoting businesses, arts and culture downtown. Even when I was unloading materials for festivall with flashers on I got a ticket. It’s hard to both donate your time and get ticketed for it!!

  20. Chase Henderson

    I think it could be argued that crime is on the rise downtown, because of the parking. Since no one is downtown after five all kinds of crime from petty to far more serious run rampant until the next work day.

  21. Tim

    Still waiting to see evidence of this massive crime wave downtown. So far, I’ve seen reference to an article discussing crime in Charleston. No part of that article referred to downtown specifically and nothing in it particularly pointed to a massive increase in crime. In fact, if you look at the FBI crime report the article referenced…1) the report contains no data on WV 2) it contains no data on cities the size of Charleston 3) if you use the population of Charleston’s urban area of ~212,000 [from Wikipedia] to find cities comparable in population, Charleston appears to be on the low end when it comes to crime.

    I am not surprised that Charlestonians want to see the worst, but reality doesn’t back that up in any of the areas you’ve chosen here.

  22. rudy panucci

    Tim, you seem to spend a lot of time laughing at Charlestonians. Maybe that’s why you’re missing the point and veering off the topic. Unless you want to deny that the highly-publicized attacks that occurred over the summer actually happened, then you really don’t have a leg to stand on, logically.

    The perception of crime is a problem. If crime in Charleston is lower than that of other cities, then that’s great, but it doesn’t change the public view that crime is on the rise. That’s one element hurting downtown businesses. It can be remedied by having more visible patrols and locking up the attackers–both of which have been done.

    I appreciate that you’re taking the time to contribute here, but you seem to be intent on arguing against statements that nobody has made. The reason nobody has provided evidence of a “massive crime wave” is because the only person using that phrase is you. I wrote of “highly-publicized violent crime,” which is something you can’t really dispute.

    I notice that you didn’t mention the parking situation this time. We seem to have spurred a genuine discussion on that issue that may actually end up with some progress being made.

    So, let’s try and keep it constructive, not combative, okay?

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