On June 3, Daryn O’Shea discovered an alarming email in his inbox from Kristi Cannistraci, a property manager at Regency Centers. O’Shea owns The Computer Cellar, one of a string of small local businesses that line the east side of Durham’s Ninth Street. Regency owns the Shops at Ervin Mill complex, which stretches along the street’s west side from Markham to just below Perry Street.
Included in that row of properties is 725 Ninth Street, a forty-five-space parking lot nestled in front of a grassy slope that leads to the offices in the Erwin Mill No. 1 building. For three decades, the city has leased this lot for public use. But now, Cannistraci told O’Shea, the acting president of the Ninth Street Merchants Association, that arrangement had ended.
The merchants were stunned. Though the city had informed Regency of its decision not to renew the lease a year earlier, it never told them. Nor had it alerted the merchants before the change took effect.
“We need the city to care about the fact that we exist,” says Carol Anderson, who has owned and operated Vaguely Reminiscent since 1982.
The merchants say their businesses rely on this lot for customer parking, which isn’t always a sure thing on the busy corridor. Had they been included in these conversations, they could have helped the city pursue options to pay the $6,875 monthly rent, including soliciting monthly contributions from the merchants or seeking financial assistance from Duke University. The city considered these avenues five years ago soon after it moved the lot from free to $1-per-hour parking.
“But since we weren’t consulted, these options were never explored,” says Tom Campbell, the founder of Regulator Bookshop. (Campbell owns the building but no longer runs the bookstore.) “We supposedly have a progressive city council, but they need to let the staff and the manager know that they shouldn’t be treating our citizens this way.”
Now, it looks like the parking lot may turn into a branch of Chase Bank.
It’s not clear why the city never reached out to the merchants. On July 30, some merchants and other interested parties met with parking systems manager Thomas Leathers. They say he blamed “former colleagues” for the miscue.
“During the meeting,” Leathers told the INDY in an email, “the Transportation Department apologized that the decision to terminate the lease was not effectively communicated with the merchants association. However, the Transportation Department affirmed that the decision to terminate the lease was the correct decision.”
It wasn’t just the merchants caught unaware. On September 24, at a Board of Adjustments hearing concerning the possible Chase Bank branch, the board asked about the status of the parking lot. A member of the city-county planning department said the lot was “currently subleased to the city,” though that lease had expired almost four months earlier.
Still, the merchants say, while the city’s decision was shocking, it wasn’t altogether surprising. Rather, the lease’s lapse is the logical endpoint of years of Ninth Street parking wars.
Starting in 1985, a company called SEHED II leased the lot to the city for a waiver of its lighting costs and property taxes, worth about $3,000 per year. In May 2012, this agreement ended when SEHED sold the parking lot to Chartwell Property Group, the Raleigh-based developer that partnered on the Erwin Mills retail project with the Florida-based Regency Shopping Centers.
That October, the city drew up a proposal to lease the lot from Chartwell for an “anticipated” twenty-year term, according to an October 12, 2012, memo from then-director of economic and workforce development Kevin Dick to city manager Thomas J. Bonfield and deputy city manager Keith Chadwell. At a city council work session a week later, Dick outlined the proposal as a ten-year lease with two five-year options.
The city planned to pay for the lease—estimated at $77,500 a year—and other improvements along Ninth Street through the increased tax revenues the Shops at Erwin Mill would generate, as well as by charging customers to park, and agreed to set aside about $15,000 a year in a reserve fund to cover any shortfalls. The council approved the proposal 6–0.
But that version of the deal never came to fruition. By June 2013, the rainy-day fund had disappeared, and site-plan diagrams soon showed an almost exclusive focus on improving infrastructure on the street’s west side, not the east, where the longtime small business are clustered. Most notably, the development agreement no longer mentioned incremental tax revenues as a mechanism to pay for the lease.
In February 2014, the city agreed to a sixty-three-month lease on the lot at a rate of $82,500 a year. Days later, the council voted to charge drivers $1 per hour to park there. The change was expected to generate $46,000 annually, but after five years, the total revenue totaled just $86,000, less than 40 percent of the city’s projection.
The merchants blame an awkward juxtaposition between free and paid parking for the deficit. On-street parking along Ninth Street is free. By introducing paid parking, the merchants say, the city falsely limited the parking supply, thus damaging their bottom lines.
In 2015, they lobbied to make the lot free, volunteering to chip in $2,200 a month toward the cause, with Duke matching their contribution, given the school’s “continuing interest in the ongoing success and viability of historic Ninth Street,” Duke vice president of Durham and regional affairs Phail Wynn Jr. told The News & Observer at the time.
That amount would have surpassed the city’s actual take, but it didn’t match its projections. The hourly rate stayed.
The merchants say they suffered as customers refused to pay for parking—and now, they’ve taken a permanent hit to the area’s parking supply.
“We’ve all got eyes, we all can see [the empty lot],” Anderson says. “At some point, it becomes a financially losing proposition.”
The merchants have begun mobilizing. On September 30, several of them—Anderson; Campbell; O’Shea; Danielle Martini-Rios, co-owner of Blue Corn Cafe; and Larry Wood of Ninth Street Flowers—met with city council members Jillian Johnson and Charlie Reece to press their case.
The discussion was a useful primer on the paths not taken. In November 2008, the planning department compiled a “Ninth Street Plan,” which identified a parking shortage as a key issue. In July 2013, the city commissioned a parking study.
Of the fourteen recommendations in that study, however, only two tweaks have been implemented: a reduction of time limits in on-street parking (from three hours to two hours) and a restriping of the crosswalk that bisects the shopping corridor. More substantial suggestions—an adjustment of lane structures on Markham Avenue to create eight-to-twelve on-street parking spots, for example—have gone unheeded.
“These people, Jillian and Charlie, aren’t responsible for this,” Anderson says. “They weren’t on the council [in 2013].” (Both were elected in 2015.) “It made me feel badly for them, because they’re going to have to clean up this mess that began under another council.”
What the merchants say they really want is respect. In their eyes, they built this corridor, and now they’re watching the city roll out the red carpet for newer businesses at their expense.
“It’s all about ‘new development, new development,’ but the reason why there is new development is because we are here. We brought them here,” says Michael Bell, owner of Hunky Dory. “We established Ninth Street as an absolute cool-ass place, and they piggybacked on us, and now we’re getting left by the wayside.”
“It’s a shame to put so much of our life’s work into something that we believe in and to not be felt worthy of investment,” says Martini-Rios. “What we do now is going to dictate the next twenty years on the street.”
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Essentially the entirety of the land around 9th st is parking…what are they suggesting?
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