The District's neighborhood municipal off-street parking law -- stalled since its passage seven years ago -- may finally get a kick start from an amendment proposed by D.C. Council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6).
The city adopted the law to keep its commercial areas competitive with suburban stores, where free and ample asphalt may lure shoppers who are frustrated by futile searches for legal parking or inflamed by fines imposed for their transgressions. The law directs the city to provide "low-cost, short-term parking" for neighborhood shopping districts.
But since 1980, Mayor Marion Barry's administration has neither built nor planned lots, has taken in hundreds of millions of dollars in parking fines, has been sued by exasperated Adams-Morgan merchants and has been harshly criticized by the council chairman.
"We were complaining about parking in those days -- that was seven years ago," said George Frain, secretary of the 18th and Columbia Road Business Association. Frain is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in August to force the mayor to act on parking. The suit was dismissed in D.C. Superior Court, but will be appealed, according to attorney Elaine Mittleman.
At a D.C. Council meeting May 19, Chairman David A. Clarke cited the parking delay as he criticized Barry for nullifying laws by simply not implementing them. "The law is regarded by the executive branch as a policy statement, which it can adopt, or not adopt," Clarke said.
But public works spokeswoman Tara Hamilton said, finding space for off-street parking is "very difficult, because land is so valuable in the District." Thus, suitably located lots already are owned by developers or by private parking contractors, she said.
Winter's amendment would require the mayor to establish 1,000 parking spaces annually for four years. To ensure compliance by the executive branch, the legislation would establish an 18-member citizens task force of five city employes and one representative named by each of the 13 council members. Heading the task force would be the member named by the head of the council's Public Works Committee, who is Winter.
But to aid in finding of spaces, the amendment would ease the law, by eliminating the original stipulations barring facilities on lots that currently hold housing, are within four blocks of a Metro station, or are zoned as waterfront, special purposes or higher-density commercial property. It would allow the city to exercise eminent domain and assume ownership of property needed for building parking lots.
Mittleman hailed Winter's amendment, including the loosening of restrictions, which, she said, city officials have used "as another excuse not to do anything."
The public works office plans to hire a consultant to determine where parking is needed.
"We are preparing a request for proposals, to have a consultant identify economic development areas," said Wallace Cohen, acting administrator of the public works office of policy and plans. He said the bidding should begin within months. Until then, Cohen said, the city will not establish any lots, because "we don't know what the needs are yet."
Critics, however, scoff at both the department's reasoning and at the seven-year delay, and say that the city's real motive is maintaining its $50 million annual revenue from meters and parking fines.
"D.C. is using parking as a revenue generator, not as a way to service drivers. It's no surprise they don't want to add parking garages or spaces," said Mary Anne Reynolds, an American Automobile Association spokeswoman.
As Frain sees it, the city penalizes residents who are not conveniently served by Metro by taking the fines and meter fees they pay to subsidize Metro, while not improving the accessibility of parking.
The D.C. Council's Public Works Committee will hold a public hearing on the amendmentafter the council's recess ends Sept. 29.