Nearly 50 years ago, a group of Charlottesville merchants saw that the downtown business district lacked sufficient parking.

Across town, the Barracks Road Shopping Center was bustling, thanks in large part to its ample free parking at the time.

To stay competitive, the downtown businessmen pooled their resources in 1959 and formed the Charlottesville Parking Center Inc. - a private company aimed at supplementing the city's metered spaces with parking lots.

"The downtown merchants said 'Hey, there's this big, new shopping center being built and we don't have any parking," said James R. Berry, president and chief executive officer of the CPC. "They decided they better get on the ball."

Now, a half-century later, the Charlottesville Parking Center is preparing to close up shop and possibly sell its assets - including the 225-space surface parking lot on Water Street, the land under the 1,109-space Water Street parking garage and 284 parking spaces in the Water Street garage.

"We feel like we've accomplished our mission and that our shareholders should get their investment back," said Berry, who was appointed to his position by Hovey S. Dabney, the recently deceased longtime Charlottesville banker and business advocate.

The CPC's founders and board of directors have decided that selling or merging with another firm would best serve the interests of the company's 100 shareholders, Berry said.

The parking center's shareholders have seen a return on their initial investment as CPC keeps its earnings in reserve and has always reinvested its profits into the company, Berry said.

"Since 1959, our shareholders haven't seen a dime," said Berry, who is a business development official with Virginia National Bank. "That's a long time to go without seeing a return on investment."

The company's assets are considered prime real estate, worth millions of dollars. Fifty years after their initial investment, CPC's shareholders may soon be seeing a windfall.

Filling the need

By banding together to finance downtown Charlottesville's parking infrastructure, the Charlottesville Parking Center played a fundamental role in establishing the district as Central Virginia's retail and restaurant epicenter, said Cole Hendrix, who was Charlottesville's city manager from 1971 to 1995.

"They saw the need for customer and employee parking in the downtown area and they stepped in to fill that void," Hendrix said. "They had a very positive effect on the downtown business trade."

Today the Downtown Mall is home to more than 120 shops and more than 40 restaurants.

"Now that the CPC people are retiring or passing away, like Hovey Dabney, maybe it's the beginning of the end of an era," Hendrix said. "They provided a much-needed service in downtown Charlottesville for many, many years."

The parking company helped lure shoppers downtown with the promise of two hours of free parking with a ticket validated by a downtown shop. In 2006, the CPC provided 809,000 hours of free parking at the two parking garages. The surface lot does not accept validated parking.

For the privilege of offering customers free parking, downtown merchants pay CPC fees starting at $75 and ranging up to several thousand dollars per month.

The CPC manages both downtown garages and its surface lot on Water Street. In 2006, a total 717,300 vehicles parked in the three lots, marking the fifth consecutive record-breaking year.

A lot up in the air

Once the parking company ceases to exist, it is not yet known what will happen to the surface lot on Water Street.

Investors from Northern Virginia were interested in purchasing it last summer to build luxury condominiums, but pulled out over concerns of the softening real estate market, Berry said.

A letter sent to CPC shareholders at the time valued the surface lot at $7 million or more.

Whatever happens, Berry doubts a new owner would keep the surface lot's current use.

"The value of that lot, you certainly can't keep operating it as a parking lot."

The city has hired the Charlottesville Design Center to host a design competition to find a new, sustainable and innovative use for the surface lot and the adjacent metered parking lot.

If CPC sells off its assets, Charlottesville Mayor David Brown said he believes the city should attempt to purchase both the CPC's Water Street garage spaces and the surface lot.

"If they're interested in getting rid of their assets, we'd certainly be an interested party," Brown said.

City Councilor Kevin Lynch disagreed, saying the city should not "bail out" the CPC's shareholders, when the parking company declined to consult with the city last year when the surface lot was nearly developed into a condo high rise.

"They've already shown that they're not too interested in consulting with us, so I don't think we ought to be too interested in helping their shareholders cash out," Lynch said.

Regardless, Lynch said, any new development would be unlikely to win approval if it did not include parking to replace the lost spaces from the surface lot.

Mulling management

Another looming question is who would take over management of the two garages from the CPC.

Aubrey Watts, Charlottesville's director of economic development, said either the city or another parking firm could be hired.

"There's thousands of parking management companies that would probably be willing," he said. "A lot of cities do manage all of their parking."

For Berry, he thinks it makes the most sense for Charlottesville to take on CPC's role as manager of the downtown parking lots.

"The city seems like the logical one to take over management of the garages," he said.

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