The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Now there's really too much parking at DC USA

The latest casualty of the economic downturn is a second grocery store at Columbia Heights. Ellwood Thompson had planned a store in the DC USA complex, but has now postponed those plans indefinitely, telling Richmond BizSense, "It's just not prudent to expand into a new market with the economy the way it is." (Tip: Jon G.)

Photo by skycaptaintwo. (Not the DC USA garage.)

The grocery store was the last, best hope for the underutilized DC USA parking garage, which typically has about 50 cars in the 1,000-plus space garage, and even at its peak has never used the second of the two levels. The garage is costing the DC government $2.1 million this year, money coming directly out of the Neighborhood Investment Fund, which is supposed to pay for "affordable housing, mixed-use, and community facilities." That two million only goes to maintenance and operations; we're also losing out on the opportunity cost of the cost of construction.

Grocery stores do generally generate more car trips than other uses, and fewer of those trips could also happen using other modes. However, even Ellwood Thompson wouldn't have filled the rest of the garage, or probably even the first floor. Now that they're not coming to the complex, the garage will remain a drain on the DC budget. What can we do?

One option is to find other sources of parking revenue. Some neighbors have suggested the garage rent spaces for long-term parking. However, the garage would then need to pay attendants 24 hours a day, instead of just during business hours. Would enough people park there to make it worthwhile? Many other apartment buildings nearby also have more parking than they need, meaning there may not be much demand.

The garage could also become an off-site garage for other destinations without ample parking. Adams Morgan residents and businesses, for example, frequently complain about inadequate parking, as do those around U Street. Both neighborhoods now connect to Columbia Heights by a Circulator. Instead of building more parking garages in those neighborhoods, we could encourage people to park at Columbia Heights and take the Circulator.

What about the National Zoo? The zoo wants to expand their parking capacity. The Circulator already goes to Woodley Park. Could DC extend it to the Zoo, and allow the Zoo to avoid spending money and despoiling more of Rock Creek Park?

On the other hand, people are often reluctant to park at a garage and then take a shuttle bus to their destination. Just look at how much more airports can charge for parking near the terminals versus long-term parking, and there people are parking for days. Would people really pay enough to park at Columbia Heights and shuttle to Adams Morgan or U Street to raise enough revenue to close the budget gap?

At last week's Metro oversight hearing before the DC Council, Mr. Graham asked about using the capacity for Metro park-and-ride. That would seem to be the worst of two worlds, however: it would bring traffic through a very congested part of DC, and then add riders on a crowded Metro line at peak time, when Metro has less excess capacity and more riders require additional operating subsidy. Plus, DC pays more of the Metrorail costs if more people ride within DC.

A better alternative to Metro park-and-ride, Circulator park-and-ride, Zoo park-and-ride, or long term car storage is reusing the space for something else. What about storage? A storage company could partition the garage into rentable lockers. Last time we discussed the issue, commenters suggested roller hockey, a skate park, mini golf, bowling, an art gallery, or artist studios. Many of these could probably make the DC government more money and better utilize the space than parking, particularly unused parking.

The biggest obstacle may not be the DC government, but Target. According to Councilmember Jim Graham, Target insisted on lots of parking to locate in Columbia Heights. Target (or the DC USA mall operator, which runs all the other space) has the right to veto any parking garage changes. As long as they can get the DC government to keep paying to ensure ample parking, it might be difficult to persuade them to allow adaptive reuse.

In the meantime, there's one obvious no-brainer: bike racks. DC USA still has too few. There's no good reason to leave all that car space empty and make it hard for cyclists to park.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


Add a comment »

Every time I read about this I get more upset. This isn't even diverting money to cars and people who will spend money in the District bringing in tax revenue, this is diverting it to nothing.

This isn't charging too little for too crowded parking, which we could fix by just raising the price. If we were to try to charge more, the garage would empty, and if we were to charge less, you probably still wouldn't fill the garage if it were free.

I don't know the fix. If there were a limit to the number of RPP stickers, maybe this would be the place you could get people to store their 4th car. It's useful for overflow parking for the Verizon center? For the Ballpark?

by Michael Perkins on Apr 27, 2009 2:59 pm • linkreport

I don't think you'd need to have the booths staffed 24/7 if you rented out long term parking in the place, you'd just need to install some RFID things on the parking gates and hand key FOBs to those that rent the spaces. Easy.

The part about Target is key, too. Target has a great track record of putting their big boxes in urban and walkable areas, but they're still concerned about the transportation side of their business model, hence the reliance on parking in the lease. However, even though it may be too late for DC USA, it's worth talking to Target to see if they can't use this as a case study for future TOD stores in the region and across the US.

by Alex B. on Apr 27, 2009 3:04 pm • linkreport

Along the same lines of previous suggestions, it seems to me that practice space for bands is tough to come by in this town, and the vehicular access to this space (think vans) makes that an attractive option. Pair them with artist studios and DC's leading the way in repurposing big box spaces for urban uses.

by fartynonsense on Apr 27, 2009 3:06 pm • linkreport

Add to this that DCUSA will not allow motorcycles to use their garage. They told Jim Graham's office this was because the gates relied on "weight sensors", which is flat-out false. Parking gate systems for the past 20+ years have used inductive loop or IR sensors, both of which can be calibrated for bicycles, motorcycles or cars/trucks.

by ontarioroader on Apr 27, 2009 3:25 pm • linkreport

There is no excuse for banning two-wheeled vehicles from the garage.

Repurposing the excess space for a non-car use is ideal, but if we have to keep it car-ry, why not zipcars or a car wash?

by Ward 1 Guy on Apr 27, 2009 3:32 pm • linkreport

The thing about unobtrusive parking such as the garage in Columbia Heights is that it is very very difficult to add in when the need develops. It's like trying to add a lane to a highway where there's no surplus, now-not-used land on the sides. By the time it's really needed, the now-cheap-land on the sides of the road has been built on and it's difficult and expensive to retro-fit it in. Ditto the parking garage which Jim Graham wisely so fit to include in the commercial development in Columbia Heights. Columbia Heights is maybe one tenth along its development path. Ten years (or 20 years?) for now when this place is at a mature level, someone will read David's posts and laugh. They'll say "Just think, Columbia Heights never could have been all it is now, were it not that it had that big underground parking garage. If only David could have criticized Graham for not building enough underground parking, we wouldn't now be capped in our aspirations." (no offense David, but you're being shortsighted in this case ...)

by Lance on Apr 27, 2009 3:51 pm • linkreport

I admit I don't get it. Why doesn't DC just stop paying for it? (Is there some kind of contract?) If the owner/operator wants parking so badly, they can pay for it.

I don't much care what they do with the space: I just don't want to see government keep paying for this "garage to nowhere" at the same time we're cutting transit service.

by Gavin Baker on Apr 27, 2009 3:59 pm • linkreport

Lance, Columbia Heights is 1/10th developed?

Show me where all those undeveloped parcels are.

Underground parking will matter very little in the continued development of Columbia Heights. The presence of the Metro there is what matters. Future plans for cross-town streetcar service is what will matter. The garage is underutilized now and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.

by Alex B. on Apr 27, 2009 4:29 pm • linkreport

How about partnering with neighborhood churches and directing their parishioners to park there? I live at 16th and Park, and the entire area is an absolute zoo on Sundays even without construction... getting those cars off the street and into a garage would go a long way.

by John on Apr 27, 2009 4:35 pm • linkreport

"Lance, Columbia Heights is 1/10th developed?

Show me where all those undeveloped parcels are."

Alex B., Columbia Heights is maybe 1/10th along its development path ... at most. Ten or twenty years from now, that area will be a far different area than it is today. No one knows for sure of course, but Columbia Heights could be for DC what mid-town Manhattan is for NYC. It's certainly located in the right part of the city for that.

And having sufficient parking for its long term needs doesn't in anyway diminsh its needs for the mass transit you mention. On the contrary, it complements it.

by Lance on Apr 27, 2009 4:45 pm • linkreport

Let's take it beyond just bike racks - why not add long-term bike parking/lockers a la the Union Station development? Metro used to offer bike lockers at Columbia Heights but no longer do (anyone know why?)

by Erica on Apr 27, 2009 5:06 pm • linkreport

Why on earth would we want to turn a pleasant mixed-use neighborhood like Columbia Heights into an office-tourist district like Midtown? Because it already has Murray Hill beat.

Seriously, let DC develop other areas to a middle density first before repeating K Street

by цarьchitect on Apr 27, 2009 5:17 pm • linkreport

I don't understand why Target would exercise its right to block a reduction in parking at DC USA. If the new use for the lower level brought even a minor increase in shopper traffic to DC USA, that would benefit Target more than an empty parking deck does.

I can see why Target might want to retain excess parking for option value: even if it's useless now, there might theoretically be demand for more parking later during Target's lease term. But it seems to me that the garage is so far under capacity that they could safely give up a huge chunk of the garage without fear of later regretting it.

by Josh B on Apr 27, 2009 5:20 pm • linkreport

I'd bet that the tax revenue that Target and other DC USA retailers bring to DC's coffers really helps balance this parking deficit debate.

by mike capitol hill on Apr 27, 2009 5:54 pm • linkreport

The tax revenues are kind of irrelevant, though. If the retail can succeed without the parking, then DC wasted a bunch of taxpayer money that could be better spent other ways. Even if the cost of building the lot was a cost necessary to attract target et al., the city would have been better off just giving them the money and letting them decide how to get people to park (and they probably would have made a more careful decision).

by ah on Apr 27, 2009 6:02 pm • linkreport

Is there any precedent for municipal governments using underutilized parking garages à la DC USA as a carrot for getting rid of surface parking (lots or street parking) in the immediate vicinity?

Irving and Columbia between 14th and 16th could have dedicated bike/bus lanes on one side instead of street parking; churches like National Baptist Memorial Church at 16th and Columbia could sell surface parking lots to raise revenue while relying on dedicated space in DC USA for their parishioners; Carlos Rosario could get rid of its surface parking lot, too; and new apartment/condo/office buildings all over the neighborhood could downsize or cancel their garage plans.

by Patrick T. Metz on Apr 27, 2009 7:11 pm • linkreport

The "carrot" idea is a great, even if it is only applied to places fairly closeby and better than trying to get the space used by the zoo or all but the closet 16th street churches, which would never happen. The last thing the zoo needs is more visitors--weekends in warm weather create obvious stress for the animals, plus Columbia Heights remains too off the charts for a lot of suburban families. I'll bet that monthly parking at a decent price would appeal to people who live in older buildings like the one at 14th & Columbia.

by Rich on Apr 27, 2009 8:05 pm • linkreport

The extra spaces can be blocked off and used for something else--a non-parking use. If they can't be used for something else, let the cobwebs grow.

Any solution that involves generating more car trips to fill up the spaces is insane. The first mistake was building too much parking. There is no need to follow this with another mistake, which would be a deliberate effort to fill up parking. It's better to be grateful that the parking is not needed. Trying to deliberately fill up unused parking spaces is brain dead.

For instance, why encourage people to park in Columbia Heights and then take a shuttle bus to Adams Morgan? Encourage them to take transit for the whole trip!

by Omari on Apr 28, 2009 12:04 am • linkreport

Oh, I forgot another very useful purpose for this parking: leave it empty. Whenever a real estate developer or tenant insists on a huge amount of on-site parking, bring him to the garage and point to the empty spaces. Whenever a politician talks about public parking, bring him to the garage and point to the empty spaces. Then take them upstairs and point to all the customers who did not arrive in cars.

Seriously, this empty parking lot is a wonderful lesson. It should not be wasted. Attempting to fill up the empty spaces would show that we have learned absolutely nothing from the empty spaces and that we instead want to insist that cars need to be pumped into the city.

by Omari on Apr 28, 2009 12:11 am • linkreport


Saying that the lower level was "never used" isn't right. Follow that link, and you can see commenters who said that they parked there at least once. I did as well. "Hardly ever" would be a better phrase, since "never" just isn't right...

by IMGoph on Apr 28, 2009 7:36 am • linkreport

Thank God the planners aren't as shortsighted as some of the posters on this blog. I just find it incredible that they're complaining about what is a very very good thing. Columbia Heights has sufficient parking. We need more of that in this city. Certainly not less. And about the cost, I don't hear Target and the other stores ... i.e., the ones ultimately paying for this space through the taxes they pay complaining. Why is it always someone who didn't pay for something who thinks they know better how someone else should have spent their money? Too funny ...

by Lance on Apr 28, 2009 8:38 am • linkreport

Interestly enough, this $2.1M deficit was supposed to be mitigated by the proper implementation of Performance Parking by DDOT in Columbia Heights(turned out to be more a good sounding gimmick than a policy/program). One goal was to drive parking into the garage. It's a mistake to believe because the Garage is not better used that their is no demand or need for the garage.

Many of the ideas expressed here about how to better use the garage resource have been on the table at least since 2003. Most of this $2.1M deficit which may occur each year is large do to the nature of Ward 1 politics, not just Target's demands. Originally the garage was to be over 2400 space, got worked down to ~1650 then to ~1000.

Another contributor to the garage deficit was the poor implementation of the Columbia Heights/ Mt. Pleasant traffic study recommendations. Because the recommendation were not implemented traffic backups and etc. prevent good egress into the garage.

I've always warned that Columbia Heights would be the first real test of DDOT, TOD, New Urabanism and etc.. What we are seeing in Columbia Heights from the DC USA garage to the Tivoli North rebranding is Tangherlini's gimmicky approach to design and planning, running up against the reality of a neighborhood that really test Urbanist ideas. The delay of Ellwood Thompson is another example.

by W Jordan on Apr 28, 2009 9:28 am • linkreport

The multimillion dollar overparking fiasco argues for parking maximums rather than minimums. All the other new development in the areas is overparked as well. I hope decision-makers can now recognize that cities are ideal habitats for people rather than cars. Investments should focus on moving people more efficiently & safely rather than move & store cars. We tried to tell them before they built this and locked up nearly $37 million (and counting) in taxpayer funds.

by CCort on Apr 28, 2009 10:10 am • linkreport

I saw Robert Moore (CHDC) a few weeks ago and I suggested they look into getting an Aldi and possibly a Trader Joe's which is owned by Aldi. (We've been trying to get a Trader Joe's at 14th & S).

For those unfamilar with it, Aldi is the world's largest grocer and the store that drove WalMart out of Germany with lower prices and higher quality. It has only small no-frills stores that are very clean and incredibly efficient and it's customers are mainly tight-budget shoppers. It's boxed and canned items are about half Giant & Safeway prices and a lot of it's foods are from Germany and Austria.

Aldi is expanding rapidly in the Baltimore/Washington area. It's closest store to DC is just over the Maryland line on Queen's Chapel Road in Hyattsville. Aldi thrives in bad economies and is a perfect fit for the neighborhood stores we need desperately all over DC. Unfortunately even though Aldi has small stores it insists on parking so it's a perfect fit for DCUSA.

Moore was headed into a meeting with Graham and I haven't heard anything since. (I also suggested they get Target to let a big light sculpture go in it's huge corner window like Neiman has on Wisconsin).

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 28, 2009 10:22 am • linkreport

Aldi and TJ's are owned by the same people but they are different companies with separate management and ownership structures. If you proffered maybe $1.5MM, which is about what the Foggy Bottom assn. paid to TJ's (note: the city didn't pay it, the neighborhood assn. did), they might be willing to come to CH. Aldi doesn't do, generally, in-city locations, which is true of most supermarket chains. Still, isn't the Giant enough? + the proximity to Whole Foods. I don't think it's reasonable to provide more tax incentives to grocery stores in an area with grocery stores, and to provide tax incentives to new grocery stores when "old" grocery stores (not the Giant, but the Safeway in Adams-Morgan and the independents on Mount Pleasant Street, not to mention PanAm on 14th Street NW) never received a penny of tax incentives.

2. WRT the loan that built the parking structure, it was from an old HUD program that no longer exists. Sec. 108. It was about $42MM. I wrote about it and "against" the use of such funds quite a bit at the time.

3. Actually Lance, I think you're wrong about farsightedness vs. shortsightedness and this parking structure. More should be done to encourage optimal mobility, which is not focused on encouraging private automobile trips. The best use of resources in that area are transit (bus, subway, potentially streetcar).

However, one way to use that parking space would be to go back and build housing on top of the shopping center. (I don't understand why such wasn't done.) That would use up some of the space.

Frankly, e.g., a shared "package delivery service" for the commercial district would go a long way towards reducing demand to service automobiles, and would cost a lot less than the parking structure too.

But the transpo initiatives in CH and elsewhere, and this includes performance parking, are all piecemeal disconnected iniatives.

P.S. no one would ever drive to DC/USA, park there, and then take a circulator to the Zoo, in all likelihood. It's miles away. Again, better that people be encouraged to take the red line. Satisficing planning decisions, such as this, is almost always a bad idea. People are like water, their bias is towards the easiest solution, just as water seeks to flow at the lowest point in the topography. Rational planning can't change this reality, unless you were to do something, like pay each person $10 to do this, to pay them for their time to do something inefficiently and otherwise illogically. Of course, that isn't cost effective.

by Richard Layman on Apr 28, 2009 11:39 am • linkreport

Richard: Real estate in CH is much less than Foggy Bottom. IMHO DC would do well to entice the first Aldi to open in DC as I think with their rapid expansion the demand for more Aldi's in other neighborhoods would grow. The problem in DC has often been not enough big parcels that most chains demand.

The real motive is that there is a social obligation to help lower income people get groceries at the lowest price. Food stamps provide about $150 per month and that's very hard to live on even for skinny people. Aldi with groceries half Giant's prices would help a lot of people survive. We can't always think of more expensive grocery stores as being a social benefit, even if it makes a neighborhood more trendy.

I hate the above-ground garage at Giant across the street from DCUSA but it's free parking for 2 hours entices a lot of folks away from DCUSA's paid garage.

by Tom Coumaris on Apr 28, 2009 12:26 pm • linkreport

Financing for the garage didnot come from HUD. It was a TIF bond that paid for the garage. Every major project in Columbia Heights had parking reduced between 25% and 60% and density increased. Parking is under utilized because of management not lack of demand or need. It is unreasonable to ask a community to be a guinea pig based theories, especially when the folk pushing the theory will not stand with the community how took the risk. I thank it crazy to suggest a community absorb that much development with no parking.

What really caused over parking development was a financing market that allowed developers to develop proformas with park being financed at between $20K and $35K per space. It was becoming almost as profitable to build parking as housing for awhile.

I find it amazing the some who live under the protection of historical preservation and/or political projects would lecture other communities on how much density and parking they need.

BTW, Trader Joes rejected DC USA. As well folk stood almost silent as we fought for pedestrian flow infrastructure developments in CH and developers worked to undermine this pedestrian infrastructure and public space investment. And if we put housing above DC USA we would only have more empty luxury condos on the market and another deck or 2 of parking,

by W Jordan on Apr 28, 2009 12:37 pm • linkreport

Tom -- you don't really understand about incentive payments. They aren't about the cost of real estate, they are expectation payments. And because the cost of RE is less in CH makes it less desirable for retailers (I could explain it more deeply but...). Aldi, in my experience, doesn't have urban stores. Therefore, getting them to do one, especially in a shopping center, with high rents (they probably pay less than $20/s.f. in the spaces they tend to have, cinder block one story parking fronted buildings, is almost impossible as it is completely out of their comfort zone. Aldi doesn't care about social obligations. And if you are that concerned about low prices, just go shop at the PanAm supermarket. That's where I try to go...

w -- empty buildings rent out eventually. I am just saying it was a waste to not use the space above the retail. TIF bond covers the Sec. 108 loan guarantee probably.

by Richard Layman on Apr 29, 2009 10:04 pm • linkreport

Richard the Sec. 108 Loan was not done; however, the TIF would have been used to takeout the 108 Loan if that financing approach had been used. Unfortunately, we did not have the political leadership necessary to be creative, the deal barely got done. We forget today, but then some wanted to kill this deal merits or not.

by W Jordan on Apr 30, 2009 2:54 pm • linkreport

The government should focus more on the necessity projects rather than spending a lot of money for these car space and storage which has no use.

by Storage Sydney on Dec 16, 2011 9:25 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us