The dizzying tide of diners and dancers crowding downtown's sidewalks most every night of the week might embody a developer's wildest dream, but the crush of cars is turning into a nightmare for customers and smaller businesses alike. The problem is particularly painful in the vicinity of Market Square, designed in 1836 by the Allen brothers and bounded by Travis, Preston, Milam and Congress.
The parking lot on the southeast corner of Travis and Preston served Market Square quietly and cheaply for decades; for most of those years, it was dark and deserted after 5 p.m. Now, bordered by hot spots such as Cabo and Solero, it's brightly lit and packed with stylish club hoppers, even at the recently hiked rate of $8 per car. "Oh, great," grouses Kent Marshall, owner of the Market Square Bar & Grill just down the street. "That means my hamburger now costs you $10.50."
Directly across Preston the 16-slot parking lot walled by a colorful mural of garden produce is even more hotly contested. Customers of next-door Treebeards, Warren's Inn and La Carafe had parked there for almost 20 years -- but no longer. The lot is under lease to a valet parking concern that pounces on cars left after 6 p.m. and tows them away. Even Marshall sheepishly admits to having his car towed from that lot. "I knew better, but I was playing the odds, and I lost," he admits. "I guess my hamburger that night would have cost about $110."
"All I can figure is that the valet service leasing it must make more money from towing cars than parking them," speculates one nearby business owner. "There are hardly ever any cars in it, and people are confused by that. They see a lot with empty spaces, they don't see the little warning signs, and they park there anyway. Some of them even pay, because the biggest sign in the lot says, 'Pay Here.' They put in their money and get towed away anyway. It's legal, but it's just irresponsible."
A spokesman for R&R Valet, the service leasing the lot, denies that the company has anything to do with the towing and storage fees. "We leased that lot because we had a valet parking contract with one of the big restaurants; I don't want to say which one," says the spokesman, who also declined to be identified in print. "When we lost that contract we were still stuck with the lease, an expensive one that costs about $1,600 a month. So we're trying to rent contract spaces now to make the payment, and we can't have noncontract cars in there because of the liability. So what are we supposed to do?"
The downtown retailers fall into two camps: those who provide valet parking for their customers (e.g., Cabo and Sambuca) and those who can't afford to (Treebeards, Market Square Bar & Grill and La Carafe). Restaurateurs pay at least $24 per hour for valet parking services, in addition to the $5 or $6 the customer pays the valet directly. "I just don't think our customers would want to pay $6 valet parking for a $10 meal," says Jamie Mize, one of the owners of Treebeards.
The valet have-nots complain that the valet parkers take up all the free, on-street parking before filling the lots that they are legally required to lease. "Well, you can imagine that some 18-year-old kid who's gotta run five blocks is going to take something closer if he can find it," says Marshall. Another Market Square owner complains that the valet service employed by Tasca even set up signs charging patrons $4 to park their own cars on the street near the restaurant's entrance. "That's just not right," he says. "Those are city streets, and the valet companies shouldn't be allowed to block them or charge for them."
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Another bone of contention is the Market Square parking garage on Milam, next to Kim Son. "There's hundreds and hundreds of spaces in there that our customers can't use at night or on weekends," says Marshall. Operated by AMPCO, the garage until very recently closed at 10:30 p.m. on weeknights and stayed closed all weekend long. Now, Mize points out, "They are open on Fridays and Saturdays till midnight for only $2, but they don't have any signage, so people aren't aware that it's an option."
The Downtown Historic District is attempting to run interference in the increasingly heated debate between the retailers, the parking moguls and the city. "First of all, let's remember that the fact that we have a parking problem at all is a good sign of healthy growth," points out Jim Maxwell, the DHD's executive director. "It's a rising tide that will float everybody's boat." He admits, though, that its economic development committee spends about half its time on parking disputes; Steve Flippo, associate director of the committee, also serves on Mayor Brown's task force charged with developing a city ordinance to govern valet parking.
In the meantime, the DHD is formalizing a new division hoping to unite all retail, restaurant and club owners in the district and relay their concerns to City Hall and the parking lot owners. Membership is free, Maxwell says, and can only help the district participants, but in the long run, he believes, the parking problem is here to stay, particularly as the opening of the Enron Field ballpark draws closer.
"Let's just pretend we're a real big city, like Manhattan or San Francisco or Washington, D.C.," says Maxwell. "There's no parking anywhere there! But people learn to park where they can and enjoy the stroll to the restaurants or clubs they want to visit. The great thing about an on-foot destination for customers is that if the line's too long at one place or the music's too loud at another, you can just walk down a door or two to the next place. Once our district is all filled in with retailers and the streets are well lit and lined with trees, people will catch on to what a pleasant way of life that can be.