Opinion Your Views — 12 August 2010

The issue of parking in Old Town, similar to religion and politics, has become one of those forbidden topics to discuss during local social engagements. Even before the recent meter rate increase from $1 to $1.75 per hour, the mere mention of it could set off some very heated debates between and among business owners and residents.

To its credit, the city is addressing the issue and, last winter, completed an 80-block study of parking in the Old Town business district and the adjacent residential area. Through this study the city now has a reliable summary of parking availability and trends in Old Town and a viable plan for mitigating both real and perceived parking challenges. Yes, thats perceived challenges. 

The study concluded that, overall, there isnt a severe parking problem in Old Town. There are, however, certain times on certain days that metered and residential parking is at or near capacity. We have about 7,300 spaces available and about 4,400 of those are on the street. The remaining spaces are located in public surface lots and public-access garages. 

The problem area is that people are creatures of habit habitually looking for cheap or free parking, that is. Many people will take the extra time to find an open meter or strike gold in the nearby residential areas with a free space, rather than pay a premium to park in a garage. This is going to be a hard habit to break. What will persuade visitors to use garage parking instead of street parking or worse yet resident parking?

The bottom line is we have to find ways to make off-street parking more accessible and economical than street parking. We can do that by providing and directing people to safe, inexpensive off-street parking in public and privately owned off-street parking lots and garages. 

The first tactic to shift people into garages is raising the meter rates. This increase has brought the price of metered street parking nearer to that of what one would pay in a garage if you plan to stay more than a couple of hours. Its generally a good idea that would help turn over spaces in the business blocks as well as encourage people to use off-street parking. 

But without adding mitigating factors very soon such as decreasing the time limits in the residential neighborhoods, adding signs to find off-street parking and adding multi-space meters (who carries that many quarters?) the creatures of habit will only look harder for a free space in our neighborhoods.

The bigger challenge is considering the fact that public lots and garages are not evenly spread out along or near King Street from the waterfront to the Metro station. The city will have to determine pretty much block by block the appropriate hours, rates and time limits that should be set to strike the delicate balance for optimum parking conditions. This is no easy task.

In addition, the city will likely need the cooperation of private operators since an additional 2,600 parking spaces are in private lots and garages. If somehow these private garages would be willing to consistently open to the public with economical rates on weekday evenings and weekends, perhaps some of the real problems with parking could be mitigated especially late afternoon on Fridays which have shown to be one of worst parking timeframes.

The city has convened a Parking Study Work Group with various representatives of business and civic organizations, including the Chamber, in order to tackle these issues this summer. The group will make recommendations to City Council this fall about which tactics should be applied and when they should be implemented.

The Chamber will continue to closely monitor and participate in these efforts to make Alexandria a better place to do business while respecting the needs of residents. One of several recommendations we at the Chamber have made is to encourage the city to use a portion of the additional revenue collected from increased parking meter rates to fund multi-space meters and the directional signs to guide people to affordable off-street parking. 

Please see our website, www.alexchamber.com, for more of our recommendations and background material and, for the complete parking study, please check out the citys website, www.alexandriava.gov/tes.

The writer is the President and CEO of  the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce

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