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Posts about DC USA


Churches work out pay parking deal in Columbia Heights

A solution to the chronic parking problems some Columbia Heights churchgoers face could be at hand. The Current reports (mammoth PDF) that the Washington Interfaith Network worked out a deal with the District government to let church patrons use the underfilled DC USA parking garage for a discount rate.

Photo by squidpants on Flickr.

Columbia Heights has a lot of churches with many congregants who lived in the neighborhood long ago. Many have taken advantage of better economic circumstances for themselves, or the rising value of their property in Columbia Heights, to move to houses in the suburbs which they desired. Others were pushed out by rising rents. Many of these former residents still drive back to the old church on Sundays.

At the same time, the population of the neighborhood has swelled. That means much fiercer competition for limited parking spaces on the street. As the Current story explains, parking rules in the area are suspended on Sundays, but only until 2 pm, which is too early for many who want to stay longer at church.

During a citywide "parking summit," members of many nearby church congregations asked DDOT for exemptions from the parking restrictions so they could continue to park for free, for unlimited lengths of time. Instead of more free parking, this deal will give churchgoers a $2 discount to park at the DC USA garage. The garage is never completely filled, as Target insisted on far more parking spaces than turned out to be necessary.

A key point here is that the churchgoers, who need parking, were willing to work out a deal with city officials without the promise of unlimited, unrestricted, free parking. In fact, the very fact that parking was not so available, thanks to greater demand and new restrictions, likely made people willing to think creatively.

It may indeed be worthwhile to subsidize, to some extent, parking for certain groups based on political necessity. What's important is not to subsidize it to the point of being completely free. When people share in the cost of parking, they might choose to carpool, or ride transit if it's available. They have a stake in keeping the total parking demand manageable. There's a reason not to drive, and take up a scarce space, completely unnecessarily.

Not all neighborhoods have a big, underutilized garage, but there are other solutions as well. Some areas have office building or hotel garages which don't fill up on Sundays, or other ways to procure some short-term parking. These can give churches an opportunity to satisfy their congregation's legitimate parking needs.

But first, it takes a city not willing to succumb to the first temptation, to just give out free on-street parking willy-nilly and create problems for others. If leaders resist this, many opportunities open up to solve the parking needs for churches and many other organizations which have a real place in a community, but not the right to monopolize all parking to the exclusion of others.

Update: negotiated with the city on behalf of the congregations to work out this deal.


Urban big boxes are becoming common

A few years ago the idea of a pedestrian friendly big box store was almost unthinkable, but the idea is catching on, with several examples locally and around the country.

Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

In this region, the Columbia Heights Target is an obvious example, but not the only one. We also have the Tenleytown Best Buy, and of course, the proposed downtown Wal-Mart. In the suburbs, Gaithersburg's new urbanist "Washingtonian Center" was an urban big box trail-blazer. Designed and built in the late 1990s, it features what may have been the country's first pedestrian oriented Target, Dick's Sporting Goods, and Kohl's.

Below the fold there are pictures of several other examples from around the country, including a Home Depot in Chicago that puts DC's to shame.

Home Depot, Halsted Street, Chicago. Photo by dmitrybarsky.

Home Depot, Halsted Street, Chicago. Photo by Payton Chung.

Target, Nicollet Street, Minneapolis. Photo by DesertDevil.

Target, Broadway, Chicago. Photo by Chicago Tribune.

Best Buy, Lockwood Place, Baltimore. Photo by Joe Architect.

Best Buy, Clark Street, Chicago. Photo by VivaLFuego.

Proposed Target, East Liberty, Pittsburgh. Photo by City of Pittsburgh.

Proposed Target, 4th and Mission Streets, San Francisco. Photo by SF Redevelopment Agency.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


WMATA reaches agreement to use DC USA garage

Employees at WMATA's Northern Bus Garage will be able to park at DC USA, under an agreement the WMATA Board will review on Thursday.

Photo by WABA.

The parking deck at the Northern Bus Garage was closed last year "as it was no longer structurally sound," and WMATA began looking for alternate parking locations.

DC USA was an obvious location given the plethora of unused parking, but according to sources familiar with the discussions, Target resisted allocating more parking to non-shoppers for the long term even though they don't use the parking.

Under the DC USA "condo" agreement, Target has to approve any change to the garage even though the DC government pays for the garage. After pressure from Jim Graham and Neil Albert, Target relented and allowed a deal.

Under the agreement, WMATA will lease 250 spaces at a cost of $125 per month, which is at a discount from the $145 retail rate.

WMATA will run a shuttle to carry employees the 1.2 miles up 14th Street to the garage. I've asked whether the shuttle runs at all times or just during times when Metrobus service up 14th Street isn't running.

Currently, they provide all parking to employees for free, and plan to continue that policy. Employees get free transit, meaning the parking won't be any cheaper than rail or bus, but it would seem to make sense to charge a little bit at least for those whose shifts begin and end during the times transit is operating.

The lease, shuttle and extra overnight security at DC USA, when the garage is otherwise closed, will cost $436,400 per year. According to the presentation, it will be included in the FY2012 budget but the bus division "will absorb this expense in FY10 and FY11 by achieving savings in other areas." I've asked for more information on what those are.

The DC USA garage cost taxpayers $2.1 million last year. The previous daily and monthly leasing to the public, plus WMATA's lease, should at least make a large dent.

Longer term, WMATA wants to replace this garage with a new facility at Walter Reed, once the hospital moves to Bethesda. WMATA would sell the Western garage at Friendship Heights in addition to the Northern garage, whose neighbors don't like living next to a bus garage. Both garages are obsolete and would need substantial capital improvement to rehabilitate.


DC making DC USA garage free

Tipster Thomas forwarded an email the Mayor's office sent around about the snow:

Photo by zontikgames.
DC USA parking garage will remain free for the next 48 hours: With street parking more scarce during this historic winter weather season, we will continue providing free parking in the over 2,000 space parking complex at the shopping center in Columbia Heights. The DC USA parking center is conveniently located a block from the Columbia Heights metro stop and can provide sheltered parking while ensuring that your vehicle is off of the streets so that we can quickly clear your street and return to normalcy as soon as possible.
The email also reminded residents that you have to clear your sidewalk and asks those who drive to please be careful not to park in ways that block snowplows from accessing streets.


DC USA garage to offer daily and monthly parking

The DC USA garage, which is never even half full, may finally see some more use, but at the cost of increasing congestion in Columbia Heights: ODMPED has reached an agreement to rent out 350 spaces for daily and monthly use in addition to the current hourly parking.

Photo (not DC USA) by skycaptaintwo.

The space will cost $6/day for parkers who arrive before 9 am and leave by 7 pm. Monthly spaces will cost $145/month. In addition, the hourly rates will increase, now costing $1.50 for each of the first two hours, then $1/hour for the next two, and jumping to $12 total for people who stay 4-12 hours.

As DCist notes, that would definitely bias the usage in favor of commuters and add to rush hour traffic. They presumably chose the "early bird" pricing structure to discourage shoppers from staying long periods of time, but will have the effect of forcing people to drive in during the morning rush and leave during the evening rush. Want to stay late until it's less crowded? Too bad.

The DC government pays for operating losses in the garage, but has to get agreement from Target and the mall developer to make any chances. Target had reportedly been resisting any other use of the space, especially a non-car use like storage or a bowling alley.

Operating the garage has been costing the DC government $2.1 million. While it's great DC was able to bring in these successful stores, it might not have been so smart to agree to pay costs for a garage while giving stores a complete veto over any changes to reduce massive losses.

A deal will be good for the DC budget by stemming the hemorrhaging of money from this overbuilt parking. Still, it seems that there has to be a way to structure a parking program that encourages off-peak driving more than peak driving.


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.


Then and Now: Arcade Market / DC USA

DC USA (northern section)
Click on an image to enlarge.

Then (left): Photographed ca. 1920, the Arcade Market at 14th Street and Park Road opened for business on December 12, 1910. It was scheduled to be razed in 1948.

Now (right): The northern half of the $150 million DC USA complex, which opened in March, 2008, is now on the site.


Give the robot your bike

Here's what we could do with the unused parking space at DC USA: build an enormous robotic bike parking system. We covered this before, but now there's an even better video with more information (though also ads). This system grew the Tokyo neighborhood's already-high rate of bicycle usage by another 20%. (Hard Drive, Nat)


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.

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