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Excessive auto infrastructure gets attention

Fox 5 picked up the Medical Center "Secret Plan" story last night, with a short segment during the evening news. Yesterday, the Examiner's Bill Myers covered the issue, noting that he read about the controversy here on Greater Greater Washington. Fox reporter John Henrehan reached out in the comments to interview me and also ACT's Ben Ross:

As an extra bonus, you get to see my living room. Apparently Montgomery officials still aren't commenting on their supposedly not so secret plan. And why no captions for the interviewees?

There's a fascinating juxtaposition between the way the anchor introduces the issue and the way Henrehan does moments later. The anchor starts out by talking about how the commute is rough, but by showing a picture of cars, not the crowds of Metro riders, and how the tunnel is a plan to relieve the traffic. Henrehan, on the other hand, notes how hard it is for riders to get to and from NNMC, and how an entrance would relive that. This gets at the fundamental debate here: do you look at this area as a problem for cars alone, or a problem for people? And, of course, more riders on Metro also helps the drivers by taking other cars off the road.

Meanwhile, the Post discusses the grossly underutilized DC USA garage. Reporter Paul Schwartzman digs up some helpful facts: the garage's peak utilization is still only 47%, which was last November. In May, only 25% filled up. Many suburban retailers plan parking for the day after Thanksgiving, which leaves most of the lots empty the rest of the time; clearly, here, even by that overly generous standard the garage is still about twice as big as it should be.

Developers, who cited a $50,000 price tag per underground space, have started to get the message. The Highland apartments in Columbia Heights, for example, still have about 80 empty spaces, even now that they've rented out almost the whole building.

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. 


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The DC USA garage is a great idea that nobody's ever heard of. There's no signage around there. No clear indications that there's a parking lot. I live 3 blocks from there and I don't know the details of using the parking lot. How would someone from another neigborhood? There's no indications how to get in -- I know that I can get in on Park Rd. Can I get in on Hiatt Place too?

Before we jump to conclusions that the lot is too big, let's first give people a chance to use it. If nothing else, the parking on 14th St. is always packed, so there could be a use to the DC USA lot.

by Ditro on Oct 8, 2009 9:39 am • linkreport

We've given them a chance. The thing has been open a year.

The simple fact here is that based on experiences with suburban stores planners assumed everybody would drive to DCUSA, and in actual practice most people don't. End of story.

by BeyondDC on Oct 8, 2009 9:46 am • linkreport

Yeah, what's up with not identifying you or affiliation? It's not the first time, but it totally takes away whatever authority you might have to speak.

As for the merits, isn't it a problem for *both* cars and people (or people in cars and people on feet/bikes)?

by ah on Oct 8, 2009 10:02 am • linkreport

It's not just planners.

The Post's piece does a great job of laying out the case. The fact is that many of the tenants wouldn't have signed off on their leases without parking.

I do think there's far too much of it, but at the same time, we can't assess that in the abstract. There are a lot of moving parts here: DC USA isn't fully occupied yet - parking pricing in the garage hasn't been coordinated well with on-street parking, as Dr. Shoup would likely suggest.

As Ditro notes, on-street parking is packed but the garage is empty. There's the historical question of whether this parking should have been built, which is relevant in terms of setting precedents and using this as a teachable moment - but there's also the current problem of dealing with the assets we have now.

Perhaps, if DC is going to take the operational loss anyway, parking in the garage should be free, or much cheaper. On-street parking would be paid, at a much higher rate than garage parking. Since the parking now exists, the onus is on trying to develop a pricing system for the entire neighborhood (on-street, garages, residents, visitors, shoppers, etc) that makes sense.

At the same time, we need to document all of these actions to better inform future decisions by planners, developers, and tenants. Politicians don't need to require it, developers don't need to build it, and tenants don't need it when they're on top of a Metro station.

by Alex B. on Oct 8, 2009 10:06 am • linkreport

I've seen signs on 16th St suggesting the DCUSA garage (and the one on Park Road for the Giant) as suggested parking places, complete with rates on the signs. It isn't that they aren't trying, it's just that the demand isn't there.

by Jason on Oct 8, 2009 10:12 am • linkreport

I bet that parking at DC USA will be better utilized when that new grocery store goes in.

by Adam L on Oct 8, 2009 10:39 am • linkreport

A VA resident, I drive to Columbia Heights about 3x/mo., always in the evenings or on weekends, and always find parking on the street within ten minutes or less (I usually park east of 13th and walk a block or two). Given the ease and convenience of on-street parking, there's no logical reason for me to use the DC USA garage. If DC made all the street parking within a half-mile radius of the metro into two-hour parking through 9PM -- like it is in the Penn Quarter -- I'd probably have no choice but to park in the DC USA lot. It's against my personal interest, but I definitely recognize that it would be in the collective interest.

by Simon on Oct 8, 2009 10:51 am • linkreport

I wasn't satisfied with the explanation of why all that extra parkng space couldn't be rented out to hospitals, schools, and other organizations that need parking for their employees. If I were a commuter, I might be willing to drive to there, park in that garage and then finish my trip downtown via Metro. Or park there and have a shuttle bus take me to my final destination.

There was a brief, throwaway line about how the DC USA tenants would have to approve that kind of a use for the parking, but the writer never explored whether or not that's likely to happen, what the objections would be, etc. I'd like to know the full story but I feel like there are details we aren't hearing about.

by mccxxiii on Oct 8, 2009 11:04 am • linkreport

There most certainly are details that we'd need to hear about, but I think the point about the tenants and landlord signing off on the issue was merely to show that the city can't just rent those spaces out on a whim.

Let's say you did rent them out. What incentive would the stores have to agree to such terms? They've got lots of available parking. To get them to give that up, you'd probably have to give them a cut of the revenue. And then, it becomes a question of why are we renting out this parking - is it to close the budget gap, or is it to use the parking?

Anyway, the full story would have so many details that it wouldn't fit into a nice news piece. As it is, I thought the article did an excellent job on laying out the story.

by Alex B. on Oct 8, 2009 11:09 am • linkreport

When the District was first laid out in its 10 square miles, more than one person was heard to wonder 'What are we going to do with all that space? It's just a little country. How big a capital does it really need?'

by Lance on Oct 8, 2009 11:11 am • linkreport

Why are you always wanting us to see your house?

by Nick on Oct 8, 2009 11:19 am • linkreport

It's misleading to talk about DCUSA's garage usage rates when the building complex itself is only half full b/c it opened at the beginning of an economic recession. In the future, if you're going to criticize the garage, please include the % of the building that is tenant occupied so that we have some basis for real comparison.

by DC_Chica on Oct 8, 2009 11:33 am • linkreport

Yes, there are some empty storefronts, but the major tenants are already in place. The building is much more than half full. Future stores won't generate nearly as many shoppers as the existing ones already do, so it is extremely unlikely that the remaining empty spaces will come close to filling up the garage.

by BeyondDC on Oct 8, 2009 11:44 am • linkreport

By the way, one thing nobody has brought up yet is the Giant grocery / Tivoli parking garage 1 block away, which was also subsidized by taxpayers and is also never full.

That building has been fully leased in the past, and its garage has always had plenty of excess capacity.

by BeyondDC on Oct 8, 2009 11:47 am • linkreport

All this talk about parking demand is useless unless we factor price into the equation. Dr. Shoup notes that the major downfall of ITE parking generation and trip generation rates is that they're based on demand for parking at a price of zero. If we're assessing what to do with this garage, we shouldn't fall into the same trap.

Specifically, any future changes need to be coordinated with the on-street parking policies.

by Alex B. on Oct 8, 2009 11:49 am • linkreport

The problem of unused space also has to do with the type of stores and the area they surround.

If the metro-rail station was not there more of the spaces would be full.

Most of the people who do use it are probably going to Best Buy which sells large products ( TV's, Computers, Stoves etc.)kinda hard to carry those on a bus/train or walk with them.

The area has a lot of residential buildings around it, why drive when you can walk, but for those outside of the area and are purchasing large products or many products driving may be a better option if they have to take more than one rail line or more than one bus.

If each of the apart./condo buildings around there were offices there would be many more people driving there.

It all depends on the surroundings of the area. I bet the majority of the shoppers live no further than maybe 2 miles in all directions from there.

by kk on Oct 8, 2009 2:52 pm • linkreport

Interesting that the majority of comments are not about the 'secret plans' alleged by Action Committee for Transit. Much ado about not much.

I would ask that ACT please articulate what they do want. With regard to the Medical Center metro area, representatives from ACT have frequently raised concerns about the WMATA plans, specifically that escalators, elevators and stairways that would be integral to any of the alternatives are not seen as 'bike friendly.'

The communities surrounding the Naval Hospital who are directly impacted by changes in this area have been working toward a forward thinking approach that includes bike ways, ped safety and better access to a robust public transit system. ACT is not offering anything constructive and is misrepresenting meetings that its own representatives have attended.

by Ilaya on Oct 8, 2009 3:30 pm • linkreport

My question is with the costs of the operation of the 2/3 empty garage.. Why are the fixed costs so high that there is a loss of 100.000 a month?
And although I think it's great news that the metro has kept a lot of cars out of the area, I do think that the opening of new stores, especially the grocery store will beef up the occupancy rate sooner or later..

by Tom on Oct 8, 2009 4:03 pm • linkreport


I doubt that the operating expenses are that high. However, I have no doubt that debt service is quite expensive.

by Alex B. on Oct 8, 2009 4:11 pm • linkreport

I've never been to DC USA, for the same reason very few of my neighbors shop there. For many people in the city, the same big box retailers can be found closer to home, but outside of the city, especially if you are driving. So those cars that aren't in the DC USA lot are likely in the lots at Potomac Yards, PG Plaza, or the strip malls in Southern PG County.

For example, if you live on Capitol Hill and need to drive to Best Buy or Target, it is much quicker to just cross the bridge to Potomac Yards.

If DC USA had stores that simply weren't available elsewhere, I think you would see the garage pretty full. Move the IKEA from College Park to DC USA, for example, and you wouldn't be able to find a spot.

by metronic on Oct 8, 2009 5:52 pm • linkreport

Metronics you make a very good point. While there are some notable exceptions, for example the new Harris Teater in Adams-Morgan which is definitely first class (with great service and great facilities), too often our District chain stores are shabby cousins of their suburban counterparts ... For example, the Home Depot in the District is closer for me to get to than the Home Depot out in Falls Church, but after repeatedly bad service (and a less-than-well-maintained-and-cleaned store), I find myself taking the extra few minutes to drive out to Falls Church. It's good the chains are finally realizing they have a big untapped market in the District, but they need to realize we'll be demanding the same level of service they give our suburban neighbors ... and ample and free parking is but one small, but important, part of that 'service'.

by Lance on Oct 8, 2009 6:07 pm • linkreport

ACT's position has been perfectly clear. We wrote to the County Council on July 14:
a pedestrian tunnel would provide essentially no benefit to pedestrians and transit riders. Another alternative, an elevator connection from the east side of Rockville Pike to the Metro mezzanine, is far superior.
According to Ms. Hopkins, the plan we have not seen is "much ado about not much." This claim is hard to evaluate without knowing the entire scope of the plan. Perhaps Ms. Hopkins can enlighten us.

by Ben Ross on Oct 8, 2009 6:21 pm • linkreport

How about adding some parking in Columbia Heights that will get used: bike parking.

Driving to DC USA or Giant is plain stupid. Have you seen the traffic around there? Those side streets and intersections have been dysfunctional for over 2 years. People who drive in the city (generally, not the most intelligent lot) have learned that driving to Columbia Heights to shop is an exercise in futility and a waste of time. So they don't drive.

by Biker Mark on Oct 9, 2009 11:24 am • linkreport

"Driving to DC USA or Giant is plain stupid."

LOL ... Yeah, and going grocery shopping with a bike is smart ... ? How many bags can you fit in your basket? Let's see typical shopping trip for my household is something like 15 bags ... plus bulky items like paper towels and cases of spring water.

And on those rainy or snowy or just plain humid days/weeks, what do you do? ... not eat?

If you're going to make stupid statements about others' judgement, please be prepared to hear back about your judgement.

by Lance on Oct 9, 2009 12:07 pm • linkreport

Lance, the chains don't care which one of their locations you shop at, only that you spend money with them. As such, I think it's important that we force them to serve our market. You have a store in DC? It better be good, because I am not going to any of your stores if you won't provide my neighborhood with a decent quality product.

This does mean I haven't shopped in a Safeway in 20 years now, that I don't go in Sears any more, that I won't shop at Home Depot - it isn't always a convenient stance to take, but I would rather reward businesses that treat the city decently and not give my money to those who abuse us.

by Sarah on Oct 9, 2009 12:14 pm • linkreport

That's a good point Sarah. Additionally, it's really in their bests interests to have the urban stores live up to the same standard as their suburban stores (even if city costs probably make them a little more expensive to run). For example, in addition to returning to the Falls Church Home Depot (in lieu of the badly run DC Home Depot), I've also found myself shopping more and more at our smaller, local hardware stores ... at least for the smaller purchases. And I've found they're not necessarily more expensive. And most even have convenient parking nearby. There's no reason why our stores can't be as good as the suburban stores in every respect ... including ample and free parking.

by Lance on Oct 9, 2009 1:43 pm • linkreport

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