More than 150 downtown Charleston workers and business owners gathered Tuesday outside City Hall to rally against higher parking meter rates and the extra hours of enforcement planned in the peninsula's central business districts.
Many wore red and held up protest signs with messages such as "Don't bite the hands that feed y'all" and "Support affordable parking" in the hours ahead of the City Council meeting.
Demonstrators spilled over to all four corners of Broad and Meeting streets and packed the meeting room to capacity as they filtered inside to ask for council's help.
"Listen to all of us when we tell you that this parking meter increase is going to affect us," said Jonathan Graham, a downtown restaurant server who helped organize the protest on Facebook last week. "Make your priority finding a solution that works for everybody in this city."
The city plans to double meter rates from $1 to $2 per hour and extend the enforcement period to 10 p.m., which opponents say will be another burden on a workforce already struggling to afford the cost to live in Charleston.
There are about 7,700 hospitality employees on the peninsula, and 80 percent of them drive to work because housing prices downtown have soared well past what average workers can afford. Meter spaces are the cheapest parking option, and right now they're not enforced from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m.
Sarah Saunders, 25, lives in West Ashley and drives to her job as a cook at Brown Dog Deli on Broad Street every day. She said most employees rely on meter parking because garages are too expensive, and other modes of transportation aren't an option for those who work night shifts.
"I can bike to work, but it's just not feasible to do at night, and crossing that bridge just isn't safe," she said.
City Council didn't vote on the issue because it already approved the parking meter changes late last year during the 2018 budget process. The decision was part of the plan to avoid raising homeowners' property taxes to cover extra expenses this year, including a cost-of-living raise for city employees.
To soften the blow to hospitality workers, the city is launching a park-and-ride shuttle from a 175-space parking lot on the Upper Peninsula before the parking meter changes go into effect. The new route will be operated by the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority.
City officials say the $1 hike simply makes meter parking cost the same as parking in a city-owned garage. Longer enforcement hours are meant to encourage more turnover of spaces that right now are occupied for hours at a time.
"The spaces where meters are located are intended primarily for customers, who won’t be spending a whole day there or a whole shift," Mayor John Tecklenburg said.
City Councilman Mike Seekings, also chairman of the CARTA board, said only about 350 of the peninsula's 1,700 metered spaces are in the entertainment districts where most bars and restaurants are concentrated. That's why alternatives such as the park-and-ride offer a better long-term option, he said.
"We’re working to help you. We know you’re not making a bunch of money," Seekings said. "We need better and safer places to park and better public transportation."
Most workers who protested said the park-and-ride lot is vastly undersized.
"That's about half a parking space per restaurant downtown," Graham said.
Others offered different ideas, such as a long-term parking decal that downtown workers could use to park in city-owned garages.
Delia Smith, a server at Peninsula Grill, has been concerned about the transportation issues facing hospitality workers for years. She chose not to attend the demonstration because she felt like it was focused too much on parking, not better transit.
"We’re married to a car culture, and until we realize the car culture is not helping us, then you’re going to have fights like this and people are going to resent each other," she said. "There’s a more efficient way to get to work without worrying about driving and paying to park."
She said she thinks the park-and-ride is a positive first step, but it needs to quickly expand to meet workers' needs.
Seekings said the temporary lot at 999 Morrison Drive is almost ready to begin operations, and CARTA is ironing out details on two other park-and-ride facilities in West Ashley.