Business owners and community leaders in the Mount Vernon Square neighborhood say they were caught by surprise last week when the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation took over three blocks of street parking near the Washington Convention Center for vehicles involved in the group's four-day legislative conference.
D.C. law allows groups and individuals to apply to the city's Department of Transportation for permission to take over street parking for a limited time for security or logistical reasons, officials said. Groups must post signs in advance announcing the no-parking restrictions and reimburse the city for revenue that would have been collected had the parking meters been in use.
Critics of the practice say it disrupts traffic flow and unfairly takes parking spaces away from residents and patrons of local businesses. An advisory neighborhood commissioner and a local theater owner said they will ask the D.C. Council to consider outlawing the practice later this fall, when legislators consider a previously introduced bill that would overhaul the parking sign system.
Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), who chairs the public works committee, has scheduled a hearing on the bill Nov. 2.
"The meters should be available to everyone," said Paul Ruppert, owner of Warehouse Theater, which is on Seventh Street NW across from the convention center. "I don't think a private organization should be allowed to rent the meters and make them inaccessible to everyone else."
Patty Rice, a spokeswoman for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, which organized the Sept. 21-24 conference, said the spaces along Seventh and Ninth streets NW were reserved so that limousines, television satellite trucks and other vehicles would have a place to park. She declined to discuss the issue further, saying that it was not worth the news media's attention.
Bill Rice, a spokesman for the District Department of Transportation, said the foundation initially asked to take about 150 parking meters around the convention center out of service. He said the agency agreed to restrict parking at 52 meters on the west side of the 1000 and 1100 blocks of Seventh Street and both sides of the 1100 block of Ninth Street.
But when employees of the foundation posted the No Parking signs, Rice said, "they unfortunately put out more signs, on both sides of the street, than we'd agreed to."
City employees then removed the signs from the east side of Seventh Street, Rice said.
The organization will be charged $1,318.86 for the lost parking meter revenue. Rice said officials with the foundation have indicated they may ask the city's deputy mayor for operations to waive the fee, a request they are entitled by law to make.
Alexander Padro, an advisory neighborhood commissioner and executive director of Shaw Main Streets Inc., said the parking restrictions have particularly angered merchants in the area -- who struggled with the mess of construction until the convention center opened in 2004.
"They lost just about every customer they ever had, because nobody could get to them," Padro said. "The disruption was massive, and we were always assured . . . that once the construction was over, we would never have these problems with parking again."
Instead, he and others said, groups using the convention center have requested parking restrictions every few months. During the inauguration of President Bush in January, parking was not permitted in the convention center neighborhood in order to establish a security perimeter. For other events, the restricted spaces were reserved for chauffeured vehicles to serve VIPs.
"They've got that zone down by the old site that's designated for tour buses. Why can't the limousines park there?" said Jeff Harrison, owner of Modern Liquor at 9th and M streets, referring to the site of the demolished old convention center, about two blocks away.
Harrison said his store's loading zone couldn't be used for much of last week because no-parking signs were posted and the space was filled with convention-related cars. On Friday afternoon, farther down the block, he said the parking spaces were empty -- but still off-limits to his customers.