Valet parking pilot program proposed

The city is considering changes in valet parking downtown, locating two lots off King Street, one off Broad Street and one off East Bay Street. Here, Dale Reimer (from left) does valet parking for O-Ku Restaurant on Wednseday evening helping Laura Tyler a

Downtown Charleston's busiest restaurant corridors soon could offer an organized valet parking option for diners.

City officials met with residents and business owners at a public forum Wednesday to answer questions and hear concerns about the proposal, which calls for a six-month pilot program. It would set up four valet stands around town: two off King Street, at Radcliffe and John streets; one on Broad Street near East Bay Street; and one off East Bay at Cone Street.

Police Chief Greg Mullen said the program would develop guidelines under which valet services could expand. The pilot would take metered spaces -- two to five in each location -- and franchise them out to valet services, much like the city franchises out spaces to other vendors, such as hotdog stands.

The valet companies that win the spots through a bidding process then decide who to serve, whether restaurants, the public or both. A restaurant could choose to participate and share the expense of the service, Mullen said.

He said valet parking fits into "the natural evolution in a city" and helps "create an experience" for diners. Mullen also said the service should free up parking for other downtown patrons.

Some business owners disagree.

Jerry Spencer, owner of the two Spencer Art Gallery shops on Broad Street, said the public should have first right to every metered spot in town.

"We have customers come in and when they can't find a parking space, they go home," Spencer said. "Those are public spaces."

He added that one gallery employee spent an hour and a half searching for a parking spot during an art walk. Spencer asked during the forum if anyone there had ever paid to valet a car for a visit to an art gallery.

Seabrook Island resident Jan Genosi, president of the Charleston Artist Guild, said bigger cities with valet services run them out of retail lots, such as banks and funeral homes, that typically are closed in the evening.

"When I drive all the way here from Seabrook, 45 minutes, and I can't find a parking space, I'm aggravated. I go home," Genosi said. "That's not good for any of us."

Jane Borden, an attorney for the city, said valet operators primarily would park cars in private lots and use public metered spaces only for queuing.

Chef and restaurateur Brett McKee, who offers valet parking at his Oak Steakhouse on lower Broad Street and O-Ku on Upper King Street, pointed out that the city cannot identify its needs without knowing how many restaurants plan to participate, how much space the city would provide and whether parking lot landlords would make space available.

He asked for that information to be made available at the next public forum, which is to take place at a yet-to-be undetermined date later this month.

"It's great for the city," McKee said. "But is it really well thought-out?"

After the next public meeting, city officials plan to bring a proposal to the Traffic and Transportation Committee and then to City Council.