The search for a scarce parking space -- which can often turn into a battle at some of the county's busiest shopping areas -- has reached a new level in the town of Vienna.
Two major grocery store chains, Whole Foods Market and Safeway, have hired human "parking monitors" to chase away car-driving customers of a nearby shopping center, the Vienna Marketplace, who are looking for a place to park.
Town officials and the developer of the popular new strip shopping center on Maple Avenue are struggling to figure out a way to expand the number of parking spots available to its customers so they won't be forced to take up spots at neighboring businesses such as the grocery stores.
The Vienna Marketplace opened last year at the corner of Park Street and Maple Avenue on the site of a former Southern States hardware and garden shop that had closed after business declined.
The seven-store Vienna Marketplace -- featuring two restaurants, a Starbucks, a wildly popular ice cream store and a video-game outlet -- has only 48 parking spaces, not enough for the number of people pouring onto the site. So the customers are parking in the Whole Foods and Safeway lots even though they are not necessarily going inside the supermarkets.
Don Powers, team leader for the Whole Foods store on Maple Avenue, across Park Street from the Vienna Marketplace, said the health-conscious chain was forced to hire a parking monitor about two months ago after its customers complained that they could not find parking in Whole Foods' 100-car lot. The monitors check to make sure people parking in the Whole Foods lot are in fact going to shop there.
"It's great that new businesses are in the area," Powers said. "We want to do the best we can to support them, but at the same time, we've got to have parking spaces for our customers."
Although a formula in the town ordinance required Vienna real estate developer J. Donegan Co. to provide at least 72 parking spaces at the Vienna Marketplace site, the Town Council approved only 48 spaces. Vienna Mayor M. Jane Seeman now concedes that was a mistake.
"It's the kind of development we want along Maple Avenue," said Seeman. But "in order to get it, we gave [the developer] fewer parking spaces."
She added, "We probably should have been a little tougher on that. But it was kind of an experiment, and it has not worked out."
Jay Donegan, owner of J. Donegan Co., said that he is aware of the problem and is negotiating with Safeway, whose store next to the Vienna Marketplace has 90 parking spaces, to share its parking lot with the shopping center.
"We're trying to be good neighbors, and we're trying to work it out," said Donegan. "I have a lot of respect for the folks from Safeway, and my hope is that we will be able to work out something together."
Vienna officials, who have spent $2 million in the last several years to spruce up the two-mile-long stretch of the downtown area, said the problem isn't only with Vienna Marketplace. There are simply too few parking spaces for Vienna's burgeoning commercial district. The town plans to build a multilevel parking garage, but officials say that is still years away.
"Parking is a problem all over town," said Seeman. "There isn't enough, and we recognize that."