Newark delays parking rate hike
Businesses express concern over doubling of cost
Facing mounting criticism from the downtown business community, Newark officials have delayed a plan to increase parking lot rates during the busiest times.
Under the plan for “peak” and “off peak” rates, which was supposed to go into effect last week, the cost to park would double to $2 per hour Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The current $1-per-hour rate would remain on weekends, nights and during the summer.
By raising the rates, the city aims to incentivize visitors to park in university
parking garages or at parking meters on the outskirts of downtown, thus freeing up spaces for others.
However, last week, several business owners argued the move would instead incentivize customers to avoid downtown Newark altogether.
“It’s a tipping point for Newark. This sends red flags up to the outlying community and Newark residents alike – do not come to downtown Newark,” Donna O’Dell Hoke, owner of Unique Impressions, told city council Oct. 23. “Newark is not an island. There are plenty of places to shop and dine.”
She noted that her business’ promotional materials all highlight Newark as a nice place to visit.
“If this parking rate increase does go through, what an idiot I will look like,” Hoke said. “I will look a fool to encourage people to come downtown so their wallets can get pummeled every single time they visit us. You’re pushing me right out of town with them, and I’m not kidding.”
Other business owners worried about the impact the increased fee would have on employees. Monthly parking permits are extremely limited in quantity, so most downtown employees pay for parking by the hour, unless they live within walking distance. Recently, the University of Delaware began allowing Main Street employees to buy monthly or yearly passes to park in the university’s lots, but they can only be used at night and on weekends.
Joe McCoy, owner of Catherine Rooney’s, said the increase will be a hardship for his cooks and servers.
“A lot of people can’t afford it,” McCoy said. “They’re going to be looking for other jobs. I would love to increase their wage by another dollar to offset it, but I can’t incur that cost as a business, either.”
Barbara Day, who works fulltime at Unique Impressions, said she pays about $60 per week to park, which would increase to $120 under the new rate structure.
“I’m willing to pay more; I’m not willing to pay that much more,” Day said.
Charlene Bertheaud, owner of Heart and Home, said many of her customers already dread coming downtown because of the parking situation.
“How long will it be until we as a business have to move off of Main Street just to survive?” she asked rhetorically.
She told council she didn’t know about the proposed increase until one of her employees read about it in the newspaper.
The parking fee changes were unveiled Sept. 27 at a sparsely attended afternoon meeting of the planning commission’s parking subcommittee, with little notice to the public or business owners.
The plan quickly got a stamp of approval from the committee, which includes just two business owners – Lee Mikles, co-owner of Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen, and Chris Locke, general counsel for Lang Development Group and the owner of Formal Affairs – neither of whom are affected much by parking lot fees. Both their businesses have private lots and are located on the east end of Main Street, where on-street parking is often easier to find.
The proposal was mentioned again at the Oct. 2 city council budget workshop. Though it took a backseat to more pressing and complex budget issues, most council members informally signaled support for the increase.
Under city code, only parking meter fees require a formal vote by council to change. Lot rates are controlled by the city manager.
At last week’s meeting, Councilman Jerry Clifton said he would like to see that law changed.
“It really needs to be a conversation at the table,” Clifton said, noting the level of opposition to the rate hike. “If I’m going to get the calls and letters telling me how wrong it is, I at least want it to be something stupid I did.”
Mayor Polly Sierer later reminded Clifton that he was one of the council members who supported the increase Oct. 2.
“You are absolutely correct. I did say that,” Clifton admitted. “I would have to apologize to our business owners out here, [for] not fully understanding the laws of unintended consequences.”
He added that he now feels doubling the rates is “unthinkable.”
Councilman Chris Hamilton, though, reiterated his support for the plan.
“I’m not going to apologize for wanting to have a parking increase. Let’s just make that clear. Folks, your expenses have gone up and so have the city’s,” Hamilton said, though he did add he is worried about the effect an increase would have on employees.
Council is tentatively scheduled to discuss the parking rates again on Dec. 11. Along with the peak/off peak plan, council will also consider a proposal to increase the cost of parking at meters in the core downtown area – Main Street west of Chapel Street – from $1.25 an hour (12 minutes per quarter) to $2 an hour (7.5 minutes per quarter.)
Meanwhile, lesser-used meters east of Chapel Street would be reduced to $1 an hour.
Also in the works is a proposal to eliminate the city’s subsidies for parking validations. Businesses would still have the option to validate their customers’ parking but would shoulder the full cost, rather than half as the current policy spells out.
The city loses $60,000 to $80,000 each year due to validation subsidies, officials said.