My View: Retail activity in Old Town is not a function of cheap parking


As Old Town residents scramble on weekday evenings to compete with visitors for street parking, one wonders why residents who pay for parking are competing for parking with visitors?

The fact is that there are many main street retail destinations in the region that do quite well despite paid parking: Pentagon Row and Market Commons in Arlington, Arlington in general and Bethesda Row in Bethesda, to name a few. The issue related to retail performance has more to do with retail management and less to do with parking cost.

Those other main street retail establishments are well managed. That is, they have central management. Historic main streets are a challenge because they lack that central management and generally dont have the anchor stores (or well-run independent stores who can compete). Some of the things that create a destination and pull people in are sidewalk cafes, pedestrian friendly streets and movie theaters. But Old Town is already a great destination because of its history, waterfront, restaurants, sidewalk cafes and pedestrian-friendly charm.

So what is the problem? Again, a lack of central retail management to bring in the right mix of stores to fit the needs of the demographic. Planner Andres Duany argues: The social benefit of a pedestrian-friendly environment sometimes outweighs the commercial detriment of separation of traffic. Retail can thrive with good design and excellent management even if there is little drive-by traffic. In that case, retail becomes a destination and does not depend on the movement economy.
Old Town isnt doing all it can do to provide the best retail environment for consumers and owners.

Two years ago Old Town was on the right track when it shut down the first two blocks of King Street from the water, but they botched that experiment. They had it backwards: they had the caf tables on the sidewalks thus pushing people away from the storefronts/merchandise into the streets, discouraging sales. With the tables on the sidewalks, it squeezed down the already narrow path still does and made it very uncomfortable for strollers, wheel chairs, even pedestrians, so it was not a comfortable environment conducive to window-shopping. One had to instead focus on avoiding bumping into someone!

What should have happened?  A European-style piazza where sidewalks remain clear for people to window shop while the caf tables are on the street with boundaries around each restaurant seating area. This arrangement becomes a win-win situation for both the restaurants and shop owners.

People love to eat outside and while they are outside they can see the retail.

In conclusion, its not paid parking that is the bane of the shop owner, whether he knows it or not. Old Town is a great destination. People will come whether they have to pay for parking or not. It is the free parking, which isnt necessary. It encourages driving, traffic and pollution that is at odds with the attractive, safe, pedestrian-friendly environment not to mention unfair to residents that pay for it and are the retail owners best and most loyal customers.

The writer is a principal in WHA Architecture and Planning, PC, an Arlington firm specializing in pedestrian and transit oriented architecture and planning.