Council votes at public hearing to reduce parking

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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

City council voted at its public hearing Saturday to affirm a planning commission recommendation that will establish minimum and maximum amounts of parking that new businesses in Alexandria are required to provide.

The text amendment to the zoning ordinance in the city code related to parking requirements for commercial use passed by a vote of 6-1, with Mayor Allison Silberberg casting the lone dissenting vote. The amendment significantly lowers the amount of parking businesses are required to provide and establishes a new cap on parking.

The text amendment – along with the new parking minimums and maximums that come with it – was established by the Parking Standards for New Development Projects Task Force, a group that has been meeting since March 2017 to help update parking regulations that haven’t changed in more than 50 years. The planning commission unanimously approved the task force’s recommendations at its public hearing on Jan. 4.

Although parking was one of the most controversial topics slated for city council’s public hearing Saturday, council didn’t reach the topic until nine hours in, by which time most attendees had filed out.

Two residents spoke during the public hearing period, expressing opposing views of the amendment. Nathan Macek, chair of the task force and vice chair of the planning commission, spoke to explain the reasoning behind an imposed maximum and to urge council’s approval.

“The reason that we support the maximums is because this is helping drive behaviors that we want to see in terms of land use patterns in the city,” Macek said. “By having those maximums, you’re no longer saying that you should be building to the extreme, but should be focusing in on what’s needed to serve what it is that we’re trying to accomplish in terms of land use patterns.”

The staff report for the text amendment says that “right-sizing” Alexandria’s commercial parking requirements will support the city’s goals and policies to support small businesses, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase non-single occupant vehicle trips, support investments in transit and encourage high quality new development.

Robert Ray, a resident and small business owner who recently announced he will run for council this year, urged councilors to defeat the recommendation.

“I certainly agree that the task force took a lot of time, but I believe that their process was incomplete,” he said. “I sat in the audience observing the task force in action on several occasions. The potential impacts of spillover parking on residents and on already existing small businesses were not examined.”

Ray suggested the reason for incomplete research was the make up of task force members, claiming the group was missing a voice to represent the needs of residents.

“All of the members chosen for the task force, not counting the city staff and Mr. Macek, had a financial stake in reducing commercial properties’ obligation to provide parking,” he said. “Although it’s true that some of the representatives of the task force reside in Alexandria, there were none that solely represented current residents or small business interests.”

Yon Lambert, director of the Department of Transportation & Environmental Services, said there had been ample opportunities for community input in the project.

“We understand that any discussion of parking is complex and often emotional,” he said. “We heard many concerns in the numerous public meetings, open houses and listening sessions that we did as part of this project. Staff believes the recommendations from the task force reflect the city’s existing policies.”

Mayor Allison Silberberg expressed reservations about approving the project. She said she had heard from several small business and restaurant owners who were concerned about what the new minimum and maximum standards would mean for their customers.

“The times have changed in so many ways since the early 1960s, we all know that. But I think telling a business the maximum number of spots that they can have or not have is an odd thing,” Silberberg said.

Silberberg asked Katye North, a parking planner with T&ES, to use Royal Restaurant on North Saint Asaph Street as an example to illustrate the regulations.

North said under new criteria, a restaurant with the same square footage of Royal Restaurant would be able to provide a maximum of nine parking spaces. The restaurant’s current lot has 23 spaces, which Silberberg said are almost always used during breakfast and lunch.

“I do want to make an important point that any existing parking on these sites is permitted to stay,” North said. “Even though the maximum for the Royal is nine, and they currently provide 23 spaces, if a new restaurant were to go in there, they would not have to remove the difference of those spaces. This really would only apply to new parking that’s being built.”

“I just feel like we should spend more time talking about it with the community,” Silberberg said. “I’m very concerned about this really because I think parking is a quality of life issue … What you all have mentioned in the briefing, it’s comparing the West End of Alexandria to Gallery Place, the Verizon Center area. It’s just a totally different animal to me.”

Despite the mayor’s hesitations, other councilors backed the task force’s recommendations.

“Too little parking is a problem, and too much parking is a problem too, especially if we’re trying to prioritize walking and transit and bicycles,” Councilor Tim Lovain said. “I think a lot of great work has gone into the development of these standards, and they have my strong support.”

Without nearly as much discussion as topics earlier in the day generated, council voted 6-1 to affirm the planning commission’s decision.

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