With apologies to Ben Franklin: Nothing in this world is certain except death and taxes — and parking problems.
There are some headaches that even money can’t fix, and parking in Washington is one of them. That shiny new Cadillac Escalade and dented Honda Civic will both get ticketed if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time — and sometimes when they’re not. The District issued almost 2 million parking tickets and raked in more than $92 million from fines in 2012.
And no, Metro and bikes and car-shares and Uber don’t work for everyone, rich or poor, so the parking wars are going to be waged for the foreseeable future.
Take multimillionaire Mark Ein, for example. He just wants to build a garage next to his house.
The owner of the Washington Kastles tennis team bought Georgetown’s historic 1784 Beall-Washington mansion for $8 million more than a decade ago. The home, which sits on an acre of prime real estate, has a circular driveway but no covered parking. That wasn’t a problem for the previous owner, Katharine Graham, who routinely used a car and driver. But it doesn’t really work for Ein and his wife, who are restoring the property and planning to move in soon.
He hired two architects who specialize in historic houses and came up with a design for two symmetrical garages connected to the original rear of the house. “We tried to do the minimum we could and still be a house that’s functional for a 21st-century family,” he says. Which means, among other things, not having to shovel your car out after a snowstorm.
The plan, one of dozens of proposed renovations in the neighborhood, was presented to the Old Georgetown Board last month for approval; the members weren’t convinced and have requested that Ein come back with alternative proposals.
In one respect, Ein is lucky — at least he can park on his property. Only one in five listings in Georgetown, even the multimillion-dollar homes, comes with off-street parking, which adds between $50,000 and $100,000 to the price of any home and can be rented out for big bucks. Many people are willing to trade in their existing car for one that fits a smaller garage or driveway. (One buyer, presumably with a teensy little car, just paid $95,000 for a 10-foot-wide garage off 31st Street NW.)
It’s a similar story in Old Town Alexandria, where homes in the historic areas have little or no parking because all those charming old carriage houses were turned into residences years ago. A Maryland couple told real-estate agent Susan Haughton, “We want to live in Old Town and we’d like to have a two-car garage, some lawn for the dog, and be able to walk to the river.” Their budget was $1 million, which is a lot of money until you’re talking about real estate.
After she stopped giggling, she explained the cruel reality: In the heart of Old Town, the active listings of historic homes with off-street parking have an average asking price of $2.5 million; a handful with one- or two-car garages start at $3.4 million. Adding a garage is unlikely, says Haughton, because Alexandria's Board of Architectural Review is “very, very dedicated to preserving the historic aspects of the area.” Her Maryland couple eventually bought in Old Town and settled, as most buyers do, for street parking. “They realized something would have to give, so they gave the garage up.”
And yes, they get tickets.
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It’s a constant war between historic charm and modern convenience. “Parking is absolutely one of the biggest issues in Ward 2,” says Sherri Kimbel, director of Constituent Services for Councilman Jack Evans, who represents Georgetown and Dupont Circle. “And there’s no perfect solution.” The District has stopped giving parking permits to Georgetown and George Washington University students, cracked down on space-hogging construction dumpsters, and created more “resident only” streets — and it’s only made a tiny dent in the complaints.
Permits are a huge bone of contention: A Residential Parking Permit allows homeowners and renters unlimited parking anywhere in their zone, day and night. Residents can also get a year-long Visitor Parking Pass, intended for out-of-town friends but used by nannies, maids and commuters who rent or buy the pass from homeowners. Last year, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) mailed out more than 111,000 VPPs to residents of Wards 1, 3, 4 and 5 and some parts of Wards 2 and 6.
Two years ago Capitol Hill residents, already besieged with too many cars and not enough legal spaces, came up with a proposal to deal with growing traffic near Eastern Market. Homeowners wanted more restrictions; businesses less. (The plan is still under review by the city.) Residents also were concerned about what they call the “dinner-party problem.” Suppose you want to host a lovely evening at your lovely home for some non-Ward 6 friends. Under the current two-hour rules, your guests would probably find a lovely pink ticket when they returned to their cars.
DDOT doesn’t issue dinner-party permits, spokesman Reggie Sanders said. But hosts can go to their local police station, which may issue one-day special event parking passes for a dozen or so cars. It depends, of course, on whether a neighbor in the same block is having a party at the same time and beats you to the punch.
Parking has become such an issue that many restaurants routinely offer valet service; more and more people automatically budget valets into the cost of any private party and include that information on the invitation.
Atlantic Services Group valets work the mean streets of Georgetown, Kalorama, Bethesda and even Potomac, where homeowners have more than enough parking space but guests don’t like to walk too far. Georgetown can be tricky because of difficult neighbors. Parties in Dupont Circle or Embassy Row are a little easier because there are more commercial garages nearby.
“We’ve done valet when someone said, ‘There are two important people coming to this party,’ ” says Atlantic’s Mia Laskaris. “And we parked two cars.”
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Last year, a post on the Cleveland Park listserv had this subject line: Frustrated! Reserved parking. “We live near a church,” it began. “And every week there is a funeral.” To be fair, the complaint had less to do with the inconvenience of people dying than the church’s habit of reserving three city blocks from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. for mourners, which neighbors believed was an unneighborly abuse of their parking exemption.
Deep in the primal brain, there lurks the belief that people are entitled to the public space in front of their house. Even when they have a driveway and garage — but especially if they don’t.
Most drivers operate on an informal honor system when there is no assigned parking, but there are always a few cranks — screaming, calls to 911, nasty notes on windshields — who go nuts when anyone dares park in “their” spot.
Parking can turn even the mild-mannered among us into bad neighbors. Consider just one of the many battles of Bethesda, where well-heeled suburbanites and their late-model luxury cars play chicken for parking spots. (One Jeep Grand Cherokee owner won a space but later found a $6,000 scratch keyed into the side of his vehicle, Bethesda Magazine reported.) Residents around Walter Reed are furious about employees who park on local streets because the campus doesn’t have enough parking.
There is, of course, the last refuge of the truly wealthy: the car and driver. Of course, there’s the issue of all those Town Cars double-parked — but that’s a different headache.