Changes to the rules for parking at the County Office Building are already in place and will soon become more apparent to COB visitors and other members of the public who use its lots. The multi-tiered lots at the corner of McIntire and Preston have long been used by the public for both county business such as attending board meetings or paying taxes, and as a place to park during games at nearby Lane Field or to walk to a concert downtown.
In a series of meetings from June to October of last year, the Board of Supervisors (BOS) approved new restrictions on parking at the COB to better manage spaces for both employees and citizens. “If, for instance, there happens to be an evening event [in town] that’s near our building, and people take up the spots closest to the building for public parking, then others who are there for county meetings can’t find a space to park,” says Lance Stewart, Director of Facilities and Environmental Services for the county. “So it’s important for us to ensure that parking is available.”
The rules pertain to the three main parking areas: the upper lot closest to the COB’s main entrance, the lower lot nearest the ballfield, and the middle lot between the two. During weekdays, members of the public who have county business may still park in the upper and middle lots, but the lower lot is restricted to county vehicles and county staff (and requires a hanging permit tag to park there) between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m.
In the evenings, citizens attending county meetings such as those of the School Board, BOS, Architectural Review Board, or other official groups may park in any of the three lots between 5 and 10 p.m., but general public parking (unrelated to county business) is allowed in the lower lot only. After midnight, however, all three lots will be closed, and county staff are currently placing temporary barricades at the lot entrances at night to prevent overnight parking. On weekends, no public parking of any kind is allowed in the upper and middle lots, but the lower lot is available to the public from 6 a.m. to midnight on Saturdays and Sundays.
Trevor Henry, Assistant County Executive, said the revised policy represents a hybrid between more and less restrictive rules. “It’s really a reasonable blend of a little tighter security for the perimeter and grounds while making sure parking is available as a public service.” Henry noted that the COB hosts an average of 48 local government or school-related meetings each month that run into the evening hours, so available parking adjacent to the building is an important priority.
To enforce these restrictions, the county will be installing bollards—short poles that stick up from the ground to limit access—at the McIntire Road entrance to the upper lot and the within-lot entrance to the middle lot. County staff will put the bollards in place at night and remove them in the mornings. An automatic gate, accessible with a county ID after hours, will be installed at the Preston Avenue entrance, and a paved path will run from the edge of the middle parking lot down to the public sidewalk for pedestrians. Cost estimates are from $44,500 to $88,500 for the changes.
While some board members supported the new rules in the name of simply providing adequate parking to COB visitors, others, such as Scottsville District representative Rick Randolph, expressed deeper security concerns, pointing to the events surrounding the August 12, 2017 Unite the Right rally in downtown Charlottesville.
“I really do think that we have had the equivalent of a ‘9/11’ in our community in terms of its impact on the way we view security,” said Randolph during the BOS discussion last October. “We’re living in a different era.” Randolph said he would have preferred to keep the lots and grounds open to the public, but a more formally defined secure perimeter is needed. “In the aftermath of August 11th and 12th a year ago we have no choice but to go in that direction.”
Because the COB’s grounds near the building will be restricted to county use only, the internal sidewalks and lots may not be used by groups for protests or demonstrations as has been done in the past, most recently by the Hate Free Schools Coalition protesting School Board policies on allowable symbols on clothing last August. Samuel Miller District representative Liz Palmer said that aspect of the new county rules gave her pause.
“In my opinion, these spaces are necessary for a healthy democracy,” she said. “I was reluctant to restrict the county office building property given that there are so few public spaces nowadays. Therefore I would have preferred a less restrictive policy.” Palmer noted, however, that the “violence and gravity” of the Unite the Right rally has raised counterbalancing concerns. “None of us wants to offer Nazis a space, [but] we cannot deny one group and let another group demonstrate. Hence we developed a policy that we believe will protect the public and county property by restricting activity generally.”
County officials may also construct a fence surrounding the entire perimeter of the COB property. “We are considering a decorative fence, offset from the sidewalk with mulched planting beds, to make it a little clearer that although it is publicly owned property, the grounds are not available for any group to use,” said Stewart. This concept has not yet been presented to the BOS, but Stewart says it may serve both an aesthetic and functional purpose. “We want the property to look and feel and be welcoming to the public, while at the same time keeping a separation.”