Parking lot owner says deal makes good sense; mayor pro tem not so sure

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 22, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — A downtown property owner says City Council’s vote to close an alley that runs through a private parking lot will benefit Salisbury.
But critics say the alley closure was a giveaway and the city should have held out for payment or guaranteed improvements to the deteriorated lot, which is surrounded by restaurants and a future nightclub.
Owner Victor Wallace said the deal makes sense for everyone involved. In exchange for the city closing an unused alley where people have parked for more than 60 years, Wallace Realty will give Salisbury an equal amount of land located closer to buildings and more suited for running utility lines and water pipes, Wallace said.
Closing the alley allows Wallace Realty to unite two parcels at 110 S. Lee St., a large private parking lot in Salisbury’s entertainment district near Cooper’s, the Salty Caper, The Norvell, Uncle Buck’s, the future Nashville Nights and a Thai restaurant. Wallace Realty, which owns most of the buildings surrounding the lot, has started $90,000 worth of planned improvements to the parking area.
Wallace Realty will grant easements for a strip of land on the north side of the parking lot that runs directly behind the Hardiman Building and other businesses on East Innes Street, Wallace said. The city can more easily install fiber optic cable for Fibrant and water lines for fire protection in that strip than in the alley that ran down the middle of the parking lot, he said.
While Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell said she doesn’t oppose parking or Wallace Realty, she cast the lone dissenting vote Sept. 6.
“The alley that City Council ceded to this private business is larger than Salisbury’s favorite hot dog place,” Blackwell wrote Monday on her re-election website. “It is about 18 percent as large as either one of the parking lots, and they are valued at $100,000 each.”
Other council members said the public was served by closing the alley because Wallace Realty promised to improve the lot. Technically, the city didn’t own the alley and could not have sold it, but Blackwell said Wallace Realty should have compensated the city for the valuable land.
“I feel the alley is worth something, particularly to the developer who needs it to create one large, profitable, private enterprise,” she said in her blog.
Wallace said Blackwell was playing to her political base.
For decades, people have paid to park in the lot. Currently, Wallace Realty offers a monthly lease for $20. At night, parking is free.
That could change with the alley closure.
Wallace Realty has asked the city’s Historic Preservation Commission for permission to enclose the lot and install a gate and pay kiosk. If the changes are approved and Wallace Realty decides to move forward, the business still would offer monthly leases, but short-term parkers would pay by the hour both day and night, Wallace said.
“Nothing wrong with that, on private land,” Blackwell said. “But to incorporate public land into a private, for-profit business is hard for me to go along with.”
Especially, Blackwell said, when sales tax revenues and property values are down, decreasing city coffers.
Wallace said his request to the close the alley wasn’t to turn a profit. Upkeep of the parking lot already exceeds the roughly $500 it generates each month, and the $90,000 in upgrades will take a long time to recoup, he said.
The company requested the closure to improve the lot with new curbing, lighting and landscaping, he said.
“We agree that it doesn’t look good,” Wallace said.
Wallace said he wants the parking area to look like his neighboring lot on Fisher Street where the company spent $45,000 recently. That lot serves Cooper’s restaurant.
Similary, an improved parking lot on South Lee Street would provide better service to Wallace Realty tenants in the area, as well as to the general public, and bring more customers and business to the area, Wallace said.
“Yes, we would like to make money operating it, but that isn’t the ultimate thing driving our decision to upgrade the lot,” he said.
Granting easements in exchange for the alley closure has substantially lowered the cost of running firelines to the area, Wallace said, making sprinklers in downtown buildings more affordable. Wallace Realty and Nashville Nights are installing sprinklers in four Wallace buildings on East Innes Street, he said.
So far, Wallace Realty has applied a seal coat, or a thin layer of asphalt, to the lot and restriped it. Above-ground improvements such as trees and lights require approval from the Historic Preservation Commission, which will consider the request next month.
Neighboring business owner Bob Lambrecht of Critters Cards & Gifts, an outspoken opponent of the alley closure, said the city should have demanded higher quality rehabilitation of the parking lot.
“They are just hiding imperfections,” he said.
While Wallace Realty would have preferred new asphalt, the $60,000 price tag in addition to other improvements was out of reach, Wallace said.
“That’s just not going to happen right now,” he said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.