With for-hire cars like Uber and Lyft becoming the predominant mode of transportation for their customers, Il Mercato event venue on Magazine Street plans to dramatically reduce the amount of valet parking it provides based on a new agreement with its neighbors.
Joel Dondis — founder of Sucre and Le Petite Grocery — renovated the former Spanish-style marketplace at 1911 Magazine into the Il Mercato event venue in 2013. At the time, he worked with the Coliseum Square Association to create a good-neighbor agreement that, among other conditions, required he use valet parking.
Far from a hardship, that clause initially struck him as mutually beneficial, Dondis said, as he believed patrons would see valet parking as a luxury associated with the venue. But by 2014, Uber’s system of for-hire vehicles was being legalized in New Orleans, and Dondis said very few of his guests arrive by car.
“We’re providing the valet parking, and it’s not getting used,” Dondis told the Coliseum Square Association on Monday night. “I thought it was going to be the biggest upsell, and it was going to be great for our business. But they don’t care.”
That point was well-received by the Coliseum Square Association, who had actually witnessed it firsthand during an installment of their “Live Oak Supper Club” fundraiser there in September. They had to pay $800 for the valet parking — a condition of their own good-neighbor agreement — and about four cars used it, said association vice president Karon Reese — a price of parking each car for about $200.
Dondis proposed modifying the agreement to create a class of “non-valet” events — those when private transportation such as buses are available (such as corporate or convention receptions), those when the hosts live more than 200 miles outside New Orleans (and thus are likely to have out-of-town guests using Uber-type services as well), or those with fewer than 150 guests.
Il Mercato hosts slightly more than an event per week, Dondis said, for about 60 per year. Of those, 90 percent would fall in one of the above categories, meaning that only about six events per year really need valet parking services.
“Our asking for this comes from where we know our business to be,” Dondis said. “We love this neighborhood, and we are very cautious about our business. But we don’t want to be wasting this resource of valet parking that’s not being used.”
Chris Jones, owner of the Felicity Church venue where the association meets, said he sees similar numbers. He has a nearby lot he can rent for valet services, he says, but doesn’t even recommend it to his clients unless they are expecting more than 200 guests.
“I’m seeing maybe 10 percent with cars,” Jones said. “With Uber and Lyft, it’s like nothing.”
Not all neighbors were as supportive. Some said that parking is already an issue in the Lower Garden District, and that reducing the requirements on Il Mercato could only make it worse. Others said the venue’s employees are part of the parking problem.
Other neighbors, however, said that Il Mercato is hardly to blame for the abundance of traffic in the busy neighborhood. Ramiro Diaz, who lives across St. Mary Street, suggested that the city needs a better overall strategy for parking, but that Il Mercato has been a good neighbor.
“We haven’t had any real problems with street during events,” Diaz said. “We have issues with the success of neighborhood.”
The change will actually restore a few parking places during events, Dondis noted. When he uses valet parking, the New Orleans Police Department actually closes the public on-street parking spaces along the length of his block. By using valet less, those spaces will be available more often, he said.
Some residents asked to delay the vote to request actual per-event data from Il Mercato’s valet company, but Lou Volz, a former Coliseum Square president, said the association had seen the evidence for Dondis’ case firsthand.
“We live in a historic urban district, so you’re going to see issues. That’s the way it is,” Volz said. “There seem to be sufficient facts to warrant having this.”
The association approved the request by a majority vote. Once attorneys for Il Mercato and the Coliseum Square Association agree on the language of the modification, it will be recorded with the city, Dondis said.