Think Green About Parking in D.C.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

On Oct. 16, the D.C. Zoning Commission met to discuss reducing or eliminating parking requirements for new developments. The meeting may have come a little late, considering that new developments such as the DC USA shopping mall, the Harris Teeter in Adams Morgan, and the Columbia Heights Giant all have huge parking garages with far too many unused spaces.

According to some parking requirements, retailers are required to provide a certain number of parking spaces per square foot of store space. But cities have begun to question the need for and sustainability of minimum parking requirements. In Tucson, there is a push to eliminate the minimum requirement for employee parking spaces. The same should happen in the District; in fact, employees should receive benefits for not driving to work.

It would be good news if new developments no longer came with enormous (and unnecessary) garages, but what is to become of those that are already built and essentially deserted? That DC USA's parking garage is never full is interesting to me, since I work across the street at a restaurant and am often asked about the lack of street parking in the neighborhood. The garage closes when the stores close, so it is an inconvenient option for later dinner guests.

These inconveniences force many who come to Columbia Heights to consider the plethora of public transportation available: two Metro lines and at least five major bus lines. However, I suspect that as new restaurants and retail spots open, demand for garage parking will grow, policies and hours may change, and the lots won't be as empty as they have been these past months.

The District should encourage developers to look at the extra space in these garages and consider some green alternatives, rather than hoping they are someday filled with personal vehicles, promoting pollution. Some spaces should be converted to bicycle parking. More spaces should be leased to car-sharing options such as Zipcar. The District should be creative: Chicago has "bike stations" for bicycle commuters, complete with showers, lockers and bike repair facilities. Similar ideas came up at last month's commission meeting.

Yet these discussions began in 2004 and don't seem to be wrapping up anytime soon. The next step will be for the District's Office of Planning and Office of the Attorney General to prepare text for the Zoning Commission to consider. I hope these proposals will gain momentum before we build even more parking that will never be used.

Until the city acts decisively, even the best intentions and greenest recommendations cannot translate into sustainability. It's time for the District to set an example for the country and take these issues seriously.

-- Ingrid Specht


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