Downtown Greensboro’s greatest building may be a parking garage.
The Bellemeade Street Parking Deck at the corner of Bellemeade and Elm streets on the north side of downtown wears a marbled façade on the Elm Street side with art-deco lettering and slots for retail facing the sidewalk. A stylized spiral staircase of bleached concrete and aquamarine guardrails, circa 1989, climbs up the full eight stories at the northeast corner of the structure, while a daredevil exit ramp corkscrews down to ground level at the northwest, the most tempting skateboard ride in town.
It’s great because it doesn’t look like a parking garage in the strict architectural sense, but also because it is a parking deck, that most necessary and much maligned staple in any downtown district. The urban parking deck is necessary because there will never be enough on-street parking in a thriving downtown, and it is a constant issue for growing cities.
But people don’t like parking decks. They have their reasons.
A lot of people assume that there is a cost, sometimes exorbitant, for off-street parking. Several years ago, while driving in downtown Greensboro with a friend visiting from New York City, he shrieked when I pulled into the Greene Street Deck, my go-to when I can’t find a spot.
“How much is this going to cost?” he asked.
“It’s free on nights and weekends,” I told him. “City-owned deck.”
He was visibly shocked.
Even at its highest rate, the Bellemeade deck charges just 75 cents an hour, with a free first hour and a 6 p.m. cutoff, after which parking becomes free and clear.
Others resent the dead space they make — parking decks are basically just open-air lockers for our cars — in a downtown landscape where space becomes ever more dear.. There’s a Joni Mitchell song about it, though most people would cite the Counting Crows version. For its part, the Bellemeade stands in part on what was once the site of the original O. Henry Hotel.
Still others think parking decks are dangerous, in a vague sort of sense: hostage-takings, perhaps, or gang standoffs. And while a quick perusal of Greensboro Police Department press releases indicates that a lot of crimes do happen in parking lots — a shooting at the mall, a murder on Florida Street, a thwarted bank job on Battleground Avenue — in large part our parking decks remain crime-free, unless you count DWI. Even a recent spate of car-break-ins targeted by police happened by the tracks on the South End, away from city-owned decks, of which there are four, clustered around North Elm Street and the Friendly/Market axis, encompassing a total of 2,814 of downtown’s 7,677parking spaces.
Of those, 1,276 are in the Bellemeade, the largest deck by more than 500 spaces, almost 17 percent of the total.
The worst thing that’s happened here is the suicide in 2015 of a 62-year-old Summerfield woman. And the best thing about it is that it’s a city resource, able to ease pressure from surface parking at little or no cost to consumers, creating a boon to downtown businesses and events while at the same time allaying an often-heard complaint about the center city: There’s nowhere to park.
But really, there are plenty of places to park in downtown Greensboro, and soon there will be even more.
Most of them will be in parking decks like this one.
I can see the entire northeast corner of downtown Greensboro from the eighth-floor staircase of the Bellemeade Parking Deck: wisps of hanging sculpture in Lebauer Park, the Wrangler Building and its stately lawn. Like a structure in a suburban office park, the Wrangler Building wears its parking like a skirt on the surface around it. From up here, those empty parking lots dominate the view.
Directly below and behind a fence, a lone bulldozer scrapes away the remnants of a former parking lot, the first signs of work on the Tanger Performing Arts Center since the demolition. It comes online June 2019, creating even more vehicle stress on a district that already has a baseball stadium and two downtown public parks, with a massive retail/residential complex emerging from Lindsay Street all the way to LoFi, developer Roy Carroll’s project.
Though current plans for the complex include a parking lot along the lines of the Greensboro Coliseum, which charges between $5 and $20 for event parking, the Bellemeade and another city deck, the one on Church Street, factor heavily into the parking equation.
The Church Street deck, next to the Central Library and convenient to the Greensboro Cultural Center, has 417 spaces. Catty-corner from the center, another city-owned deck on Davie adds 415 parking spots.
The rest of the muscle comes from the Greene Street Parking Deck, 706 spaces on five floors, integrated into the city grid with walkways to both the Kress Terrace and Triad Stage. This one is my go-to parking deck when I’m in downtown Greensboro at night.
It went up in 1972, its outside a pebbled Romanesque structure that got an artistic makeover in 2009: tile accents on the façade and a series of cement cars, trains and other conveyances along the ground-floor retaining wall. Inside, a clever double-helix design allows for a high density of spaces, and is also the secret to finding a great spot in this deck: Go up two floors and then down one; there will always be a spot.
Like the Bellemeade deck, pricing is 75 cents an hour, and free from 6 to 9 p.m. And here’s a little inside tip from a veteran: Even though all city decks say they charge a flat $2 fee from 9 p.m. onwards, there is never anyone there to collect it — at least not in my experience. Not once.
From the top of the Greene Street Deck looking east, a sprawl of surface lots dominates the view, most of them on the News & Record property, which is also designed for an exurban office park and not downtown in one of the state’s largest cities. Davie Street itself, which runs north through this no-man’s land to LeBauer Park, consists mostly of private surface lots that push up against the backs of buildings: the ass end of downtown.
Here is where the city’s newest parking deck will be. It was announced last week after the sale of the Dixie Building on the corner of South Elm and February One — the property owners chopped off the lot behind the building and sold it to the city for $1.1 million. An 850-space parking deck will rise over the next couple years, designed to interface with the Westin Hotel planned for the Elm Street Center across February One Place from the Dixie. The state General Assembly passed a specific law allowing for the deck to straddle February One with elevated lanes that will turn the street into a sort of tunnel.
The city’s got another deck in the works, too: a massive, 1,200-space garage at the corner of Bellemeade and Eugene streets by the ballpark. Even with the proposed new hotels — three of them — and the TPAC, the addition of more than 2,000 parking spaces to the city’s inventory is significant.
It’s significant, anyway, for those of us who use parking decks. Everybody else is welcome to try their luck on the street.
There are 1,401 on-street parking spaces in downtown Greensboro, and Audrey Stephens, who has been working in the center city since 2001, may have used every one of them.
“It was never a problem [in the early 2000s],” she says now from behind the counter at the Green Bean on South Elm Street, where she has been working as a barista since 2011. There was no ballpark, no Center City or LeBauer Park, no slate of restaurants, breweries and bars. Downtown festivals were few and far between, and residents could be measured in the hundreds.
The downtown parking infrastructure has always taken into account the people who work in the office buildings and for larger companies with private decks and lots, but restaurant and retail workers are on their own, unless sympathetic business owners allocate some of their spots to employees. Alex Amoroso says seven of his nine spaces in the small lot off Cheesecakes by Alex generally get taken by his shift workers during the day. At night, the lot is notorious for towing cars.
Stephens says the parking situation downtown got worse before it got better: For months, she and fellow downtown retail and restaurant workers complained about the aggressive ticketing policy.
“I got a lot of tickets,” she says. “Maybe 15. But I figured it was less expensive to pay my tickets and the late fees, it was still less expensive than leasing a parking space.”
In May 2016, 58 downtown business owners along with former mayor Keith Holliday and Downtown Greensboro Inc. President Zack Matheny petitioned city council for two free hours of downtown parking in all city decks and on-street spots. They went for it.
Now, the first two hours are free in every on-street spot, with a charge from 75 cents to $1 per hour afterward. This month, the city added a phone app that allows users to pay for parking online, an effort to alleviate its outstanding parking-ticket debt, which is more than $2.7 million and goes back more than 10 years.
As in city-owned decks, the first three hours are free in surface lots like the one across from the Green Bean. That’s where Stephens parks if she can, keeping her eye on parking enforcement through the coffee shop’s picture window, often jockeying her car around the block to avoid getting ticketed.
“If you park on the street and the meter person comes by,” she says, “you have to move at least two blocks away.
“It’s better than it used to be,” she continues, though she admits she still has a few lesser-known spots where she can usually park her car, though she is reluctant to admit where they are.
“I don’t want to give myself away,” she says.
How much parking is enough in a downtown district? Hard numbers are difficult to come by, and have to do with population density, public transportation, residents and hotel rooms, and the amount of engagement the residents and visitors have with the district and its various day parts.
Charlottesville, Va., with a smaller population and larger downtown, has about 4,000 public spaces. A parking study commissioned in 2015 suggested converting some metered spaces to a two-hour limit during the day, at a price of $2 per hour. The spaces become free after 8 p.m.
Downtown Berea, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland with a population of about 18,000, studied the parking in its 13-block downtown district in 2012, assaying its 379 on-street and 588 parking-deck spaces after 41 percent respondents in a survey said that they chose not to patronize a downtown business because they could not find parking.
Among its findings: “The downtown is not suffering from a parking deficit but from a lack of perceived ‘convenient’ parking.”
That perception is one of the biggest problems with parking in downtown Greensboro, according to my own anecdotal evidence.
I am in downtown Greensboro at least twice a week, and I always park on the street during the day, usually within a couple blocks of where I’m going but sometimes in a few lesser-known spots I’ve collected over the years (see sidebar). Sometimes I get tickets — one so far this year. I rarely, if ever, pay for parking.
This year’s Fun Fourth Festival on the Fourth of July brought almost 80,000 people to downtown Greensboro. I got there right in the thick of it all, and because parking on the street was tight I drove directly to the Greene Street Deck which was not nearly half full, though it was free for the holiday.
Because I suspect the decks are underutilized, on Friday evening I visited all four city-owned parking decks around the peak dinner hour of 6:30. I saw more than 1,000 free, empty spaces, though the street spots all along Elm were taken.
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