Your Views: Old Town has reached its bursting point

Photo Credit: Cody Mello-Klein
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To the editor:

A recent Washington Post article reporting on development along the Alexandria waterfront had an interesting quote that also was in the article’s headline: “Failing communities never have parking problems.”

That statement may — or may not — always be true. But, equally likely, communities with traffic and parking problems can fail, or at least have serious problems, because of a lack of parking as well as clogged streets. Frequent restaurant closures along King Street and vacant retail space are probably exacerbated by traffic congestion and a lack of convenient, nearby parking.

The current lack of parking along and near the waterfront, especially during many evenings, will worsen in the southeast quadrant when new restaurants open at Robinson Landing, which certainly will be harmful to nearby residents and possibly existing restaurants.

Some assert there is ample off- street parking in nearby garages to accommodate the additional restaurant patrons. But off-street parking is expensive, adding to the cost of an evening out. This is why some restaurant patrons, as well as employees, try to park on nearby streets, squeezing out residents trying to park near their homes.

Worse, the parking supply in the waterfront area has shrunk in recent years, and continues to shrink, as parking lots are closed and on- street parking spaces are eliminated as new buildings create parking demand.

Some have suggested that restaurant patrons increasingly use Uber, Lyft and similar ride sharing services that reduce parking demand in the waterfront area. No doubt this is true, but those vehicles add to already intense traffic congestion. Do we really want even more cars trying to get through the King and Union intersection?

Worse, tour buses and dinner pick-up-and-delivery services, such as Grubhub and Uber Eats, add to traffic congestion and often park illegally.

Valet parking, another oft-touted solution, not only is costly to restaurants and their patrons, but adds to traffic congestion. Worse, some of those cars may end up parked on nearby streets, with the valet operator gambling on not getting a parking ticket due to the city’s well-known lax enforcement of its on-street parking restrictions.

While there arguably could be better use of existing off-street parking spaces, the capacity of the city’s streets to handle heavier traffic volumes cannot grow. Increasing the number of one-way streets in Old Town would create as many problems as it might attempt to solve.

Bottom line, street and parking constraints, as a practical matter, limit the amount of restaurant activity that can take place along and near the waterfront area if the residential character of Old Town is to be maintained. Old Town is not, nor should the city attempt to make it, another National Harbor or The Wharf.

There is an old saying – you can’t pour 50 pounds of sand into a bag with a 40-pound capacity. What has happened in Old Town is the size of the bag has been shrinking as parking capacity has shrunk while the amount of sand to be poured into that bag – restaurant patrons – is steadily increasing. If Old Town has not reached its bursting point, it soon will. Old Town will fail as a restaurant destination, and more importantly, as a community.

-Bert Ely, Alexandria

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1 COMMENT

  1. Old Town is a fourth-tier restaurant destination because many restaurants are mediocre and overpriced. Tearing down all the blocks on the north and south sides of King St from Union to Washington to add parking lots or garages won’t change that. Thankfully, many restaurants are seeing some turnover and there are new options. King between Fairfax and Union should be closed to all vehicle traffic. Parking in Old Town is the most overblown political issue in the City, besides stadium lights at TC. 25 year resident, now drive to OT 3x a week. Never have to park farther than a block or two from my destination. Now I hope somebody finally sues and forces change after they break an ankle on those horrid brick sidewalks.