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Parking tops the agenda as work begins on downtown master plan in Elon

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The opening remarks about a new downtown master plan in Elon seemed to be double stacked with complaints about the shortage of parking in this small college town.

These parking-related concerns ultimately claimed more than their fair share of the attention on Monday when a pair of hired consultants briefed Elon’s town council on their preliminary research in preparation for the new master plan.

During their presentation, Jason Epley and Dan Douglas of Raleigh-based Benchmark described the approaches they’ve used to get the lay of the land since their firm was retained to develop this plan in October. They went on to share the results of a land-use inventory and an infrastructure analysis that they conducted as part of this “background assessment.” The pair also shared some of the additional insights they gleaned from an online survey and a series of “listening sessions” with various “stakeholders” in Elon’s downtown.

“I don’t think you have a parking problem. But that’s the way that America works – if you can’t get a parking spot right in front of where you work, it’s a problem…and what we heard in the listening sessions is that students tend to take the best parking, and they don’t mind getting a ticket because their parents pay for them.”

– Benchmark consultant Dan Douglas

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Douglas admitted that parking emerged as a particularly consistent concern for many of the people that his firm conferred with during the course of its initial reconnaissance work.

“I don’t think you have a parking problem,” he added. “But that’s the way that America works – if you can’t get a parking spot right in front of where you work, it’s a problem…and what we heard in the listening sessions is that students tend to take the best parking, and they don’t mind getting a ticket because their parents pay for them.”

Douglas and Epley went on to note that Elon’s downtown currently boasts 577 parking spaces north of the railroad tracks – an increase of 24 spots since the town’s previous parking census in 2016. The pair also observed that this area boasts well-maintained public utilities, a low vacancy rate among its commercial properties, and other assets that make it a natural draw for residents and visitors alike.

All in all, Benchmark’s associates presented a rather flattering first-blush impression of their core study area. Girded by Church Street to the west and West Summerbell Avenue to the south, this zone also extends to the north and east to include land on both sides of West Haggard and North Williamson avenues. Included within this roughly 90-acre swath are large chunks of Elon University’s campus as well as Elon’s municipal building and a hodgepodge of businesses and other attractions.

Epley acknowledged that the public perception of this area was generally quite favorable based on the results of a survey that Benchmark posted online at the end of December. He recalled that some of the 269 people who completed the survey complained of an alleged parking shortage, traffic backups, and a dearth of restaurant options in the downtown area.

But none of them aired the sort of concerns that indicated they wanted to avoid the area entirely.

“Nobody said ‘it’s unsafe.’ Nobody said ‘it needs improvement’; nobody said ‘I don’t care for downtown’; and nobody said ‘it’s unattractive.’”

– Benchmark consultant Jason Epley

“Nobody said ‘it’s unsafe,’” the consultant added. “Nobody said ‘it needs improvement’; nobody said ‘I don’t care for downtown’; and nobody said ‘it’s unattractive.’”

Epley also pointed to a decade’s worth of crash data to show that car accidents involving pedestrians and bikes are a relative rarity in Elon’s downtown. He admitted that crashes involving two or more vehicles are considerably more prevalent due to the area’s confusing street configuration.

Meanwhile, Douglas delivered a glowing report on the public infrastructure within the firm’s study area. Although he mentioned the proposed replacement of a waterline along Williamson Avenue, the consultant generally found the town’s public utilities to be in decent condition. He also noted an abundance of street lighting in most areas that pedestrians frequent, and he pointed to various parcels that may be ripe for more commercial development – if, that is, the property owners are amendable.

Douglas also discussed a number of problem areas that his firm gleaned from its listening sessions with municipal leaders and other “stakeholders,” who included some of the university’s students. Douglas recalled that some of these students complained of a lack of activities beyond campus, while one of the nonstudents fretted that the downtown area is increasingly seen as a hangout for college kids. The consultant also noted some gripes about students who drive back and forth between locations on campus as well as a growing concern that the high rents students are willing to pay for off-campus housing have effectively priced out working class residents.

During Monday’s discussion, councilman Randy Orwig opined that the profitability of student housing could make it difficult to open up new areas for retail development.

“My experience is that we have some obstinate owners.  They don’t want any changes. They’re making good money – $1,300 a bed.”

– Elon town councilman Randy Orwig

“My experience is that we have some obstinate owners,” he added. “They don’t want any changes. They’re making good money – $1,300 a bed.”

In the meantime, the perceived problem with parking proved an even more fertile ground for the council’s own ruminations.

“I won’t say that I’m sold just yet on paid parking [in response to the potential method of dealing with the parking situation in downton]. But I was blown away by the kind of revenue a town can see from paid parking.”

– Elon mayor Emily Sharpe

Elon’s mayor Emily Sharpe observed that a number of other communities have introduced parking fees in order to address similar dilemmas with parking. She recalled that during a recent mayoral convention, her counterpart from the seaside town of Holden Beach gushed about the $500,000 that his community had raised in the first year after it debuted its own parking fee.

“I won’t say that I’m sold just yet on paid parking,” Sharpe added. “But I was blown away by the kind of revenue a town can see from paid parking.”

Douglas cautioned that, in Elon’s case, he wouldn’t expect metered parking to bring in more than about $20,000 to $25,000 a year. He added, however, that fees for public parking can do much to ensure the availability of spaces in high-demand areas.

“People want to be able to think in terms of when I leave my home, will I find a parking space near where I want to go,” he went on to explain. “The way you do that is you keep raising the price of parking in the highest demand area so that at any given time there’s a free parking space.”

The council also gave some consideration to an increased fine for drivers who overstay the posted limits for on-street parking. Sharpe lamented that these penalties seem to have little effect on students whose parents pay their expenses. Elon’s town manager Richard Roedner agreed that the town’s current $25 fine is “pocket change for some people.”

“But I’d take notice,” he added.

In either case, Benchmark’s associates said that, with the background assessment behind them, they will now begin work on the actual composition of the new master plan. This phase will culminate with a trio of public workshops this spring where the consultants will roll out various competing drafts to see which get the most favorable response from the audience.

Douglas encouraged the council to do what it can to ramp up attendance during these workshops, which are slated to take place at Elon Community Church on April 25, May 4 and May 11.

“I believe downtown is everybody’s second neighborhood,” he insisted. “So, any way you can, get the word out.”


Read the newspaper’s editorial views on Elon’s downtown parking situation: https://alamancenews.com/and-elon-wonders-why-it-has-a-parking-problem/

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