Our View: The city giveth, and the city taketh away

Our View: The city giveth, and the city taketh away
Photo/Cody Mello-Klein

One of the great success stories of the COVID-19 pandemic is the way Alexandria’s government worked to boost restaurants and retail stores, which were particularly hard-hit by Richmond-mandated shutdowns. Creativity and ingenuity abounded.

Some restaurants utilized their wait staff as delivery drivers to enable them to continue earning money when their dining rooms were ordered closed. Restaurant Week, promoted twice yearly by Visit Alexandria, was for a time takeout-only and lifted sales when help was sorely needed.

Expanded sidewalk dining and parklets proved a lifeline for many restaurants and retail stores. Most people enjoy outdoor dining, and Alexandria’s climate is temperate enough that with heaters, tents and fans, the hardiest among us can eat outside much of the year.

The city collaborated with restaurants to help them set up outdoor operations quickly, with minimal red tape. Residents who had been shut inside their homes and were fearful of dining indoors even after the mandated shutdown ended ventured to dine outdoors.

Expanded outdoor dining, including use of parklets, has been a win-win-win situation. It’s been a boost to the mental health of Alexandrians who were starving for socialization and craving good meals. It helped many restaurants survive the pandemic. And it kept hospitality taxes flowing into city coffers.

The city was able to expedite the use of parklets because it already had a parklet program in the works, much the same way mRNA technology was able to expedite effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines because mRNA experimentation had been taking place for decades.

Now that the pandemic crunch has eased, at least for now, it’s understandable that the city planners who developed the idea want to move ahead with implementation of a permanent program with fees and design and maintenance parameters.

While predictable, we don’t think that’s wise. Instead, we think the current program should be extended indefinitely, not just by a few months, and the whole topic should be re-examined.

We are generally in favor of preserving as much parking throughout Alexandria as possible and have criticized the city for removing parking spaces and public sidewalks in favor of things such as bikeshare racks and scooters. But providing a helping hand to Alexandria’s restaurant and retail sectors is worth losing a few dozen parking spaces citywide.

First, most retail establishments are likely to value parking in front of their stores over parklets. For them, displaying merchandise on sidewalks on nice days rather than in parklets probably makes the most sense. Loss of parking spaces for retail use is likely to be minimal.

But for many restaurants, we believe the parklets they’ve established could be the difference between survival and failure. The city’s decision to let restaurants establish parklets was wonderful, but it would be a shame to undermine the initiative by imposing fees that would be a literal drop in the bucket to overall city revenues – but could be the difference between profitability and shuttering for restaurants.

For instance, the city says there are currently 37 parklets operating in the city. For argument’s sake, let’s assume that number increases to 50 parklets, utilizing two parking spaces each and that they fall in the $2,000 per space per year category, the middle tier of the city’s fee structure. This would raise a total of $200,000 annually for the city, which would equate to 2/100ths of 1% of Alexandria’s proposed fiscal year 2023 budget of $829,900,000.

The parklet boom was a boon to restaurants. Don’t ruin it with fees and regulations.