Corner blues: Merchants say there's a slump

It's summertime, but on the Corner the living's not so easy, say some merchants who claim business has nearly bottomed out over the past two years.

"There are days when there could be tumbleweeds going down the road," sighs Joanna Palmer, owner of Trade Roots, a purveyor of imported gifts and clothes on 14th Street across from the parking deck.

Though Palmer admits she doesn't know exactly what would bring more shoppers to the University district, especially during the off season, she points out two big issues: not enough retail and parking.

Perusing the goods in Trade Roots on a recent morning, 34-year-old UVA grad student and former Corner employee Ali Wentz agrees that finding an affordable parking spot is tough.

"There's no parking here," she says. Just to pop into a store for a few minutes, she explains, "People don't want to pay."

In fact, there are several privately owned parking lots, including the 14th Street garage, making parking possible, if not totally convenient. But for merchants, says Palmer, the added expense of providing a spot for themselves and their employees can weigh heavy.

"I pay $75 a month for a parking space," says Palmer, who shares a spot with one other employee.

Downtown Mall monthly rates are typically higher. But the private Charlottesville Parking Center gives merchants a flexible deal for customers.

Downtown merchants pay a flat monthly fee to validate two-hour parking privileges for an unlimited number of customers in the Water and Market Street garages and in the Water Street hourly lot.

Corner merchants, by contrast, are charged face-value for each 30-minute sticker they validate. At 50 cents for 30 minutes, that can add up, says Palmer, especially when low-spending customers ask for several hours of validation.

That's "just a way of life," says Tom Woodson, general manager of Piedmont Virginia Parking Co., the major parking player on the Corner. The company, which operates the 14th Street garage as well as the lots on Elliewood Avenue and Chancellor Street, considers the claim of insufficient parking unfounded.

"I have 75-plus available spaces all day, every day, when the students are gone," says Woodson. "There's plenty of parking."

But for many would-be Corner patrons, to park or not to park isn't the only question.

Grad student Charles Sligh says he prefers Downtown eateries for their people-watching potential.

"It's enjoyable," he explains, "in a way that sitting here on a street just is not."

Palmer says that Downtown Mall factor is significant. She notes the recent Corner closings of retail businesses like O'Suzannah, Coastwear, and the Garment District as examples of recent casualties of the Downtown Mall effect.

The Corner is like the "adopted step-child of Charlottesville," she says, while the Mall basks in the glow of "favorite" status.

But that claim is simply untrue, says Jim Tolbert, director of neighborhood development.

"The city is not doing anything differently for any part of town," he insists, pointing out that plans to improve the West Main corridor between the Corner and the Mall are envisioned "as a way to improve the connection to get more people going back and forth between the two."

Tolbert also says the free trolley, which runs between the university area and downtown every 15 minutes Monday through Saturday, is a part of the city's effort to increase the flow of people to and from both areas.

But Vinnie Cricosta, owner of Frank's Pizza on 14th Street, says it's not enough.

"Nobody does anything for the Corner," fumes Cricosta, who's seen his business slump precipitously since he opened three and a half years ago.

"Every month a new restaurant opens," he sighs. "We need more retail or a show," he says, citing downtown's Live Arts and under-renovation Paramount Theater. "Something to bring the people."

The city is not the only culprit, says Cricosta, who feels that UVA's decision to put national food chains such as Sbarro Pizza in the new O-Hill dining hall was particularly unfair.

Palmer agrees.

"UVA could have given that back to the community," she says, by offering local restaurants the chance to open a stand in the student dining hall.

Brent Beringer, UVA's director of dining, says it's not that simple.

"We don't rent space," says Beringer, explaining that UVA purchases the rights to use the franchise name and then staffs the eatery with UVA employees.

As for which chains are selected, Beringer says the decision is made by students, staff, and faculty who are surveyed. Among chains in addition to Sbarro now on Grounds in various locations: Chick-Fil-A, Pizza Hut, Greenberry's coffee (a local franchise), and Freshens frozen yogurt.

Despite the reported hardships from Palmer and Cricosta, not all merchants are suffering. Longtime Corner businesses Mincer's, Ragged Mountain Running Shop, and Heartwood Books have seen business prosper in recent months, a fact the stores' owners attribute to summer school students and prospective 'Hoos with their cash-wielding families.

"Summer is a good time for us," says Heartwood books owner Paul Collinge, explaining that tourists are particularly interested in his array of books on Charlottesville history.

Mark Lorenzoni, owner of Ragged Mountain, says he's seen Corner businesses "cycle" in the 22 years since he first opened his running shop. "Things are a lot better," he says, "than they've been in the distant past," a fact he attributes to the responsiveness of UVA and the city.

"If you approach the city as an organized group with a good agenda," he says, you end up with "a good partnership. And it's the same thing with UVA."

UVA's decision to move orientation from the end of August to mid-July has been a boon, says Mark Mincer, owner of UVA-paraphernalia shop Mincer's, opened by his grandfather, Robert, back in 1948.

Class reunions on the first weekend of June, he says, "continue to be a strong kick-off for us."

As for the restaurants that aren't seeing packed tables, Mincer cites over-supply.

"There's an awful lot of choices in this town," he says. "I can't even go to all of them, and I've lived here a long time."

For merchants like Palmer and Cricosta, however, the fact that some of their neighbors are thriving doesn't ease the pain of books splashed with red.

"They tell us the economy is getting better," says Palmer, "but I don't believe it."

Mincer, Palmer etc.