Your irritations are justified: parking in downtown Durham has reached a dire and critical level. The good news is that people are working on it. The bad news is that it’ll be a while before anything improvesand it’s only going to get more difficult and expensive in the meantime.

Street parking is currently free for an hour, or two, or sometimes just thirty minutes, depending on where you are. The only cost to drivers is the fine assessed when they overstay their welcome. That fine used to be $10. Now it’s $20.

Soon, though, free street parking will be a distant memory. The city plans to implement paid on-street parking throughout downtown by early fall, parking systems manager Thomas Leathers tells the INDY.

“The primary purpose is not the collection of revenue, although this is important, but rather to allocate a scarce resource efficiently,” Leathers says.

It’s a good rule of thumb to assume that governments that say they’re not doing something for the money are, in fact, doing it for the money. But the city has other motives, too. Parking is scarce downtown, and forcing people to pony up their pocket change, the thinking goes, will encourage quicker turnover of spots, which will result in downtown shops and restaurants doing better. And it will keep people who spend a lot of time downtown from hogging the two-hour spots.

Paid street parking sucks for people who want a quick lunch at Luna, but it’s ultimately a small price to pay for living in a city with a robust downtown. For those who work downtown, though, the situation has reached a breaking point. There are simply not enough spaces to accommodate the companies that do business there. Weekday parking at the city’s garages is maxed out.

Lew Myers, interim president and CEO of Downtown Durham Inc., says downtown employers are “seriously threatened” by the parking crunch.

“There are currently no spaces available for monthly leases,” Myers says. “This is hurting our ability to fill vacant office space and hurting firms’ abilities to hire new employees and expand their workforce downtown.”

Entertainment venues are also feeling the sting. The Durham Performing Arts Center recently hosted a daytime event where attendees had to park at the Northgate mall and then shuttle the two-and-a-half miles to the venue. “Bob Klaus [DPAC’s general manager] told me the organizer said that next time they’ll just do it in Raleigh,” says city council member Don Moffitt.

Both the city and Durham County recognize that they have roles here, and their staffs have recently formed a joint committee to figure out the best way forward.

For its part, the county voted earlier this year to open its downtown surface lots for after-hours parking. That effectively means you can park there for free between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. and on weekendswhich is good for restaurants and events closer to the east side of downtown, where the county’s lots are.

Two county-owned lots on East Main Street are in play for development. The larger is a four-acre parcel adjacent to the Health and Human Services building; it parks over five hundred vehicles. The county is considering building a parking deck there. But the property is also one of the last chances to develop downtown affordable housing, another of the county’s most pressing needs.

It’s the same story with the smaller lot one block down, between First Presbyterian Church and Saint Philip’s Episcopal Church. The county may try to build a deck at one and affordable housing at the other, or it could build affordable housing around the deck on the larger property.

“We’ve been advised [by the joint committee] that we may be in a better position to get what we want if we bundle more than one property together,” says county commissioner Wendy Jacobs.

In other words, a developer might be more sensitive to the county’s twin needs for affordable housing and parking if both properties could be gobbled up in a package deal.

The urgency of the parking crunch has pushed the construction of a new parking deck to the top of the city’s priority list. The spot it has identified, at the intersection of Foster and Morgan, was supposed to be ready for cars (and some office and retail) by sometime in 2018. But there, too, the desire for affordable housing is holding up the process. A recent bid for the deck, discussed at last Monday’s council meeting, included twenty-four affordable units in addition to parking.

“It’s too different from a parking deck, so you can’t really rate it against the other proposals,” Moffitt says. “So if we want to also do affordable housing there, we need to rewrite the proposal and do more research, see if it will require a subsidy from the city for affordable housing to worka lot of stuff. And, at that point, it’s a question of how much this is going to slow down the construction of a parking lot, which is already an urgent situation.”

The council sent these questions to staff for review. Staff will report back in two weeks. In the meantime, enjoy your last summer of free street parking.

This article appeared in print with the headline “We Have No Parking in Downtown Durham”