Traffic and Parking. Parking and traffic.
These two interchangeable issues are the unstated crux of the problem with business prosperity in Old Town. A BID won’t resolve them and every new development project city council approves only exacerbates the problem.
A case in point is the redevelopment of 115 S. Union St. into a 64-room hotel and 115-seat restaurant, approved unanimously at June 24’s public hearing. Regardless of the wisdom of another enterprise of this size in the most congested part of Old Town, it’s the parking reduction and this project’s impact on traffic congestion that are destructive.
This comes on top of the Hotel Indigo, which just opened at 220 S. Union St. and received a parking reduction to 69 parking spaces for its 120 room hotel and seat Hummingbird Restaurant. And this, of course, also comes on top of the 96-unit EYA development at the Robinson Terminal South site, which received a parking reduction to 242 on-site parking spaces.
The goal of all this building – and a BID – is apparently to make Old Town competitive with Georgetown, the Southwest D.C. waterfront redevelopment, Ballston and other trendy newly redeveloped parts of D.C.
But Old Town differs greatly from these areas in its essential character. To Georgetown-ize Old Town or make it like Ballston is to destroy it.
The Southwest waterfront, Ballston and other newer mixed-use developments in the D.C. metro area were built to have residences and dense business developments, hotels and restaurants in compact areas. Most are served by a Metro stop right in their midst. That very compactness is the draw for the mostly millennial population that flocks to areas like these.
This is not Old Town. Our economic twin engines are tourism based on our history and small businesses. Our history is not enhanced by modern overbuilding right on top of our treasured historic neighborhood. And our small businesses are definitely harmed by the lack of parking and increased traffic congestion that overdevelopment brings.
Somehow, studies on the traffic and parking impact of Old Town redevelopment projects are either conducted after the fact or their conclusions are laughable. Parking reduction requirements are justified by “studies” showing ample garage parking availability in Old Town.
Here’s the problem: Busy local residents don’t want to park in a garage to grab a quick lunch or run into a boutique shop, so they increasingly go to malls or shop online, or go someplace else where it’s easier to park and get around.
Old Town residents, particularly those who have been here the longest, many who were drawn to the Port City by the colonial, federal and Victorian architecture of its buildings, certainly didn’t sign up for the modernization, overbuilding and lack of parking that increasingly define the waterfront area.
Residents of historic homes, most of whom lack off-street parking, should be able to park near their homes without fighting for spaces with patrons from the new restaurants and hotels that received reductions in their parking requirement.
Old Town residents within a few block radius of these new developments deserve to have their streets turned into resident-only parking. If the parking reductions were legitimate, i.e. there really aren’t more patrons than provided spaces, then these businesses won’t be negatively impacted by resident-only parking districts.
And if the businesses are impacted, it would mean the parking reductions weren’t justified. Either way, this is long overdue.
As for the BID, council’s decision to let affected businesses and property owners vote on whether to authorize a BID, with concrete to-do items in front of them as they vote, was the right decision.
If a majority of businesses want the specific items presented to them, more power to them.
But, surely, everyone realizes that pretty flowerpots, well-kept tree wells and better signage are not going to compensate for a dearth of parking and the excessive vehicle congestion that is choking Old Town.
It all, ultimately, boils down to traffic and parking.