The owners of Café Eccell were so concerned that their business would fail without dozens of free parking spaces for their customers that they turned to the courts in November to stop the property's sale to developers.
With the redevelopment of that property, College Station's downtown will do away with the largest area of free, dedicated parking that any business in Northgate currently has. Staying in business without the front row of parking both in front of Café Eccell and the back parking lot would be impossible, the restaurant's owners say, even though both the city's paid surface lot, the Northgate parking garage and the city's parking garage are within two-tenths of a mile of the front doors.
But most other businesses on Northgate have relatively small, if any, parking compared to what Café Eccell has enjoyed. Some business owners agree that a fine dining establishment like Café Eccell could not have succeeded without its parking, but others say the prime location next to Texas A&M and the expectations for Northgate visitors don't necessarily make parking a necessity for a business to succeed on Northgate.
There are nearly 1,000 parking spaces on Northgate between the parking garage, surface parking and street meters -- 720 spaces, 117 spaces and 103 spaces, respectively.
By and large, however, almost no business has more than a dozen dedicated parking spaces outside its business, and the majority relies solely on private parking.
"The city's plan for Northgate is that it be an urban area and our goal is to make it walkable, bikeable and pedestrian-friendly," said Lace Simms, interim director of planning and development for College Station. "We put a lot of money and infrastructure in it."
Chris Steele, owner of Blackwater Draw and O'Bannons Taphouse, estimates he has between eight and 10 sparking spaces dedicated for his business, which is both for staff and customers, but the majority of his customers park in the metered lot.
Steele said the business has benefited from being the town's only brew pub.
"I think we're a little unique in that we're a brew pub -- it's a destination place," Steele said. "If they want to come to us, they don't really have a choice but to walk. Most of our customers are willing because they're coming for a reason."
The College Station City Council voted last year to raise most rates for the parking garage, surface parking and street meters to keep Northgate parking operations, an enterprise fund, out of the red. The lone lowered rate was to offer free surface parking during lunch, or between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Steele said he's using social media and flyers around the restaurant to promote the free metered parking during lunches, hoping that will entice customers to make the trip.
Chris Scotti, executive director of the Northgate District Association, said the move away from dedicated parking is affecting the type of business that can thrive on Northgate.
The bars may love having dedicated parking, Scotti said, but retail, restaurants, barber shops and banks -- places that people need easy and quick access to -- are considered too inconvenient to travel to in downtown. He said some people are afraid that parking at Northgate will take longer than the service they're going to receive, and it's limiting businesses that can thrive there to just bars and clubs.
"That wasn't the intention, but it's played a role and now we're trying to work with the city to swing the pendulum the other way," Scotti said. "We are having a rough time doing it because there's not a lot of parking."
For the city's part, Northgate is designed not to have a minimum requirement for commercial parking, and the city even knocks off 25 percent of the parking requirement for residential developments since it is meant to be accessible to campus and downtown on foot.
Simms said the reason the city doesn't require businesses to provide parking is because of the prime cost of real estate.
"It's very expensive and it seems to be getting more expensive every day," he said. "This allows a property owner to build out a site because when it costs so much for land, it does not make sense to use it for parking."
Scotti said he'll continue fighting for a variance that will allow for more "teaser" parking -- just a few, short-term, free parking spots in front of businesses.
Don Hackney, owner of Basil Whippit's, has no free or dedicated parking, including for his employees.
He said students have changed their habits because of the rising cost of parking. He said most don't show up until nearly midnight, sometimes already drunk, and only stay for one or two hours because they don't want to pay for several hours of parking, which cuts into the amount they're willing to spend on drinks.
He said he doesn't think customers of a nicer restaurant such as Café Eccell would've wanted to pay for parking and walk to the restaurant.
"Are those people going to want to park in the public parking lot and walk? I don't think so," he said.
Barry Ivins, owner of The Corner Bar and Grill in Northgate, said he's been able to succeed because of his business model. He said the nightlife is stretching thinner and later into the night, but The Corner keeps business up by benefiting from a strong lunch crowd, building clientèle from 5 to 10 p.m. and then staying steady with customers until 2 a.m.
The Corner has no dedicated parking, but Ivins said Northgate customers generally expect to have to walk when they go downtown.
"We've been able to thrive and never had any dedicated parking spots," Ivins said. "We capitalize on the 50,000 students being next to us when Northgate fills up."