Council seeks new approach to parking regulations

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Council seeks new approach to parking regulations
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By Susan Hale Thomas (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)

City councilors sought to protect residents along Alexandria’s waterfront from an onslaught of new residents looking for on-street parking earlier this month, but loosened parking requirements for other new developments across the city.

In its deliberation over the Robinson Terminal South development, council voted against staff recommendations, banning future residents from obtaining residential parking permits. At the same time, the city unanimously approved new parking regulations for other multifamily residential developments in other areas in an effort to “right-size” parking in the city.

What is right sizing? City planner Carrie Beach described it in her presentation to council as a paradigm shift from a “Field of Dreams” approach — build parking and the cars will come — to a more model encouraging people to use a variety of transportation modes. The idea is to find the balance where parking garages aren’t sitting empty or underutilized and aren’t totally full and overflowing into residential areas — adjusting supply to match demand.

“The goal is to provide enough parking, not more,” Beach said.

Beach said more than 60 percent of Alexandria households have two or fewer cars. Driving has been on the decline in recent years, while transit ridership has grown by 14 percent between 2004 and 2012, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Beach said adjustments to parking — dropping parking requirements for new projects within half a mile of a Metro station to 0.8 spots per bedroom and one spot per bedroom elsewhere in Alexandria — would bring city standards in line with demand, allowing for a more efficient use of land, maximizing space for people instead of vehicles, and would reduce impervious surfaces.

But the thought of the city tampering with parking at all brought many worried residents and businesses out to address council. Speakers voiced their concerns that the new Robinson Terminal development’s request for a parking reduction of 29 spaces would result in an overflow and would impact on-street parking, increasing an already tight competition for precious parking spaces.

Trae Lamond, general manager of Chadwick’s restaurant, told councilors businesses are reliant on there being ample parking to stay afloat and a reduction for the Robinson Terminal South project would adversely affect both residents and businesses.

“Taking parking away from the waterfront will severely damage local businesses and downgrade the quality of life for local citizens,” Lamond said.  “Reducing retail parking from local popular businesses will force patrons to park in front of citizens’ homes.”

While members of staff said they were comfortable that their data accurately reflected trends in automobile ownership and driving habits in the city, City Councilor Del Pepper was skeptical.

“I don’t buy some of the arguments that have been presented,” she said. “[We] are trying to bring a lot of people here. Where will they park?”

Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg agreed.

“We already have a problem … and it’s going to get much worse,” Silberberg said. “[We] can study it but we also just have to bring common sense to the table and say we have a problem and [not just] say we’re going to apply some complicated rubric.”

Mayor Bill Euille said he wanted to work to solve the problem but also wanted the group to be aware that what was being discussed was about changing the city’s approach to quality of life issues.

“Parking is of concern, and it should be,” Euille said. “It’s not isolated just to Old Town. The whole city has a parking issue, [which is] all the more reason we stress multi-modal uses of people getting around.

“[That’s why] people move into developments like these: So they can not have to have a car and they can bike, they can walk or whatever, and have groceries delivered.”

City Councilor Tim Lovain called the behavior “induced demand,” a term used by urban planners.

“When you build that highway, people change their behavior to use that highway and it fills up again,” he said. “When you build new parking garages, people change their behavior to fill up those parking garages. It’s just an endless, endless cycle. There’s a reason people are going to parking reductions and why they work and why they’re good for social policy.”

In eight data collection sites near local Metro stations, staff counted 718 unused parking spaces, equivalent to nearly five acres of vacant parking. For reference, staff said the size was roughly that of the Target parking lot at Potomac Yard and that the construction costs for those spaces reached upwards of $35 million, or 50 new DASH buses.

And councilors said the new parking rules could be a boon to the city’s waning affordable housing stock. City planners said that since affordable housing tends to see lower demand for parking, developers looking to build low-income housing will see further reductions in parking requirements.

Staff pointed to the under-construction Jackson Crossing project, where officials were able to secure 78 affordable apartments in exchange for a lower parking requirement.

The new parking standards likewise include the chance for developers to secure a lower parking requirement if they include affordable housing. Affordable housing projects that serve residents at 60 percent of the adjusted median income would need parking at 0.75 spaces per bedroom, 50 percent at 0.65 spaces, and 30 percent at 0.5 spaces.

City Councilor Justin Wilson felt the new regulations would have a positive impact on the city’s affordable housing stock.

“This is essentially a very, very large financial incentive for creating affordable housing around this city.” Wilson said.

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