Some Old Town parking meter time limits extended

Some Old Town parking meter time limits extended

By Chris Teale (Photo/Jennifer Powell)

Those looking to drive and park in metered spaces west of Alfred Street in Old Town will have more time to browse the shops and boutiques and digest their meals at restaurants in that area of the city after city council unanimously approved a resolution to extend the time limit for metered parking from two hours to three.

Council approved the change at its final legislative meeting before the summer recess last month, and it went into effect on July 1. It came approximately a year after the Old Town Area Parking Study work group was reconvened and started examining the issue. It was one of a number of recommendations to come out of the group’s meeting on April 29, and was the first to be adopted by council.

Danielle Romanetti, the owner of fibre space at 1219 King St., was a member of the work group and helped mobilize support among the business community for the change, something she said was necessary due to the constraints on parking west of Alfred Street beyond the metered spots.

“There was an initiative that started with myself and the [Alexandria] Chamber of Commerce to try to find some solutions that didn’t have budget impact to help businesses that were negatively impacted from the meters being extended until 9 p.m.,” she said. “The concept behind this idea was that there are no long-term parking solutions on the areas west of Alfred Street. There aren’t garages, there’s only one off-street city lot that you can park in for
more than two hours.

“Because there is nowhere to push drivers who are long-term parkers, there’s nowhere to push them to, we need to offer them the ability to stay in the street spaces longer. It also helps alleviate what’s happening to residents on our end of town who are unable to find parking when they get home from work because people can actually park in residential areas for longer than they can park at meters in many cases. This wasn’t a council initiative, it was something that started in the business community.”

Romanetti said she and her fellow business owners in that area of Old Town heard constantly from customers that they had to curtail their shopping to go and move their car or feed the meter for an extra two hours, something that is against city laws.

“We listen all day to customers telling us that they have to go because they have to move their car or they have to pay the meter again, which technically they’re not allowed to do, you can’t extend your meter,” she said. “We have brick sidewalks, boutique restaurants and businesses that provide experiences. You don’t just buy olive oil with my neighbor [Olio Tasting Room], you go in and you do tastings.

“When you have businesses like this, people need more than two hours to be in Old Town. We’re a destination and there’s an expectation you’re coming here for a certain experience, and that is an experience that certainly takes more than two hours. It is the No. 1 complaint we hear from customers, it’s not the price of the meters, it’s not the lack of parking because we have plenty of parking on this end of town. It’s that they can’t stay here long enough to do what they need to do.”

City councilors said they made the decision to extend meter hours having taken into account feedback from people in the area, who said it was starting to hurt their businesses, and that things should change.

“For the last couple of years, there have been pretty consistent comments back that, particularly in this area where there are no real parking options and there really aren’t any garages in that area, they’re bumping right up against residential neighborhoods, it’s a whole different dynamic up there than it is in the first four or five blocks of King Street,” said City Councilor Paul Smedberg. “In that west part of King Street, there’s really only one option, so a lot of people felt as there are a lot of restaurants up there and a lot of businesses that depend on people being there close to two hours or maybe more than two hours, that ability not to park slightly longer was starting to affect business in some way.”

Councilors approved a citywide extension of meter hours to 9 p.m. during the last add/delete session of last year’s budget discussions. Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg described the measure as “anti-business,” and was the solitary “no” vote against the ordinance to extend hours — separate from the overall vote on the fiscal 2015 budget. She touted the vote during her campaign in the Democratic primary for mayor to show that she was willing to stand up for her principles and that she was in favor of supporting businesses as much as possible.

“We want to encourage people to come here, to stay as long as they can to enjoy what Alexandria has to offer,” she said at the time. “I have heard from a number of businesses that feel it is anti-business, and that was my inclination as well.”

Romanetti believes that a more holistic approach should be taken towards parking issues in Alexandria. Such an approach would look to ensure that there is not one blanket policy enacted across the entirety of the city, and would be mindful of the different challenges facing people who park their cars in different areas.

“There were a lot of recommendations by the business community and a lot coming out of the OTAPS work group,” she said. “This was only one of them. If a lot of our recommendations are not put into place and a holistic approach is not done, we will not resolve a lot of the parking issues in Alexandria.

“It’s really important that the city look holistically at how to resolve the parking problem and not just choose items that don’t cost money or that are easy. It is really, really important that they look at everything we’ve recommended. This is just one item, it was the easiest one for the city to do, but there are certainly many.”

But Smedberg said uniformity has a number of benefits in the realm of parking, particularly making the rules easy for visitors to understand.

“On some basic level, having a baseline and consistency is important because it’s easy for everyone to understand in terms of how you move things forward, in terms of education and enforcement-related matters,” he said. “I think enforcement is really the key to a lot of parking issues we have, and if we have a baseline, uniform and consistent policy across the board on some level, it makes it easier and more understandable all around.

“If we do make any changes, I think we really do have to understand what the benefits are and what potential tradeoffs there are as a result of that. [If] you do one thing here, it’ll affect everything else around it.”

But City Councilor John Chapman is optimistic on a holistic approach, but only if the community is properly engaged and the pros and cons are weighed effectively by all parties.

“I think it’s very achievable,” he said. “I think if you have a work group that comes back with some solutions that get us there, I think you have a very amenable council. I do think that opportunity exists for the work group itself to really say, ‘Hey, this is the way we want to go, and we think we can get there by these policies.’

“One of the key things for us and city staff is to get ahead of the conversation and figure out who’s going to be affected by each decision and how do we communicate with those people when they’re affected and also before they’re affected to get their input. One of the problems could be if we adopt a solution without really getting input from enough of the folks that are affected, really talking to the community about how this is going to change things.”

Romanetti says the work group has made a number of recommendations to change parking rules in the city, and that she awaits word on whether any more will be adopted in future legislative sessions.