Parking in Old Town must help retailers thrive


By Elizabeth Todd, founder, The Shoe Hive; co-founder, The Old Town Boutique District

Alexandrians take great pride in our thriving downtown commercial district. Most municipalities our size around the country can only dream of one day building such a great place to dine, shop, work and meet, all in a distinctive and charming locale. We cannot take our downtown district’s commercial health for granted and it is imperative that the city’s parking policies be designed in a manner to foster that health and not damage it.

Old Town’s retailers succeed in spite of what can only be called a challenging parking environment. The primary competitors to our district are planned shopping malls in Arlington and Fairfax counties with acres of free and convenient parking. Those developments seek the same thing we seek: a place where customers can eat a meal, peruse multiple specialty shops and enjoy salons all on the same trip, all without having to move their car in the process.

Alexandria’s City Council needs to make this “park once” objective the driving force behind all of the city’s parking policies. That would include:

1)   Increasing the maximum parking time on a city meter from 2 hours to 3 hours, enabling a customer to shop and eat a meal without moving their car.

2)   Better signage so that parkers who like garages will know where to find them.

3)   Reasonable parking rates and maximum street spaces available for out-of-zone parkers during business hours.

4)   A more customer-friendly and less predatory approach to meter enforcement — the availability of digital meter information should not result in many parking fines issued at the exact moment a parking credit expires, as is now too often the case.

These four principles would go a long way to help Alexandria minimize the parking disadvantage our retailers face relative to our competition. And when our shops and restaurants thrive, the city’s tax base thrives.

Unfortunately, over the past few months, some discussion among city leaders has moved in the exact wrong direction on parking. For example, some in the city’s leadership want to “force” parkers toward garages, when the fact is many customers dislike garages and those garages are not even available for those visiting the Upper King Street corridor. The extension of parking meter enforcement to 9 p.m., which began this summer, sent a signal that the city prioritizes revenue over convenience. Recent debate has involved a potential increase of meter rates to increase revenue, when we should seek to keep meters as cheap as possible to lower the barrier to shop in Old Town. Our competition allows free parking — that’s the number Alexandria competes against.

Alexandria retailers are coming together to advocate “Park Smarter” policies — it’s critical to the success of our businesses, most of which are locally owned and a vital component of our city’s economy. We ask customers to join us in advocating these policies and holding city leaders accountable to make positive changes.