In the District’s Southwest waterfront neighborhood, the apartment buildings erected in the 1960s resemble oceanfront property, except their ground levels were meant to absorb cars instead of a storm surge. And when developers added townhouses years later, they also included suburban-style one-car garages.
The car-friendly vibe and then-plentiful parking lured Warren Ellis to a one-bedroom rental unit in a Southwest high-rise more than three decades ago. After his building converted to condominiums a few years back, Ellis lost his free, in-lot parking and now parks on the street with a residential parking permit.
“Parking for $35 a year is a good deal, if you can find a parking space,” said Ellis, 79, who estimates that he drives twice a week. “But it’s going to be harder because more people are moving in.”
With city planners estimating that thousands of new residents will move to the waterfront and other areas of the District in coming years, parking battles will gradually heat up. And owners of low-use vehicles, like Ellis, are in city officials’ cross hairs.
“Everyone wants a free parking space in front of their door, 24-7. It just can’t be anymore,” Angelo Rao, the city’s new parking czar, told D.C. Council members recently.
The comments delivered by Rao underscore growth’s double-edged sword: Planners must balance the benefits with the drawbacks of development in one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities. Now, D.C. officials are considering increasing parking fees, reconfiguring parking rules and possibly denying some residents street-parking permits. They caution, however, that any changes would be implemented gradually.
“It’s the brave new future,” D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said at a“parking summit” she convened recently.
A glimpse of that future could come as early as Tuesday, when council members are poised to approve a sweeping measure that erodes the expectation of on-street parking in urban settings and recalibrates residents’ relationships with their cars. The legislation, already preliminarily agreed to, would allow the city to strike agreements with developers under which residential parking permits could be denied to tenants in some buildings still to be constructed. Potential dwellers would have to swear off residential parking as a condition of sale or lease, meaning they would have to forgo owning a car or pay for private parking to avoid a summons.
City Planning Director Harriet Tregoning said the change, which developers requested, would allow more housing to be built without community concerns that new residents would want street-parking privileges.
“Some people moving to the city and living in 350 square feet are not the people likeliest to have an automobile and maybe not see it as a hardship if they have other things are like [Capital] Bikeshare, Zipcar, a Metro subsidy,” Tregoning said.
But John B. Townsend II, manager of public affairs and government relations at AAA Mid-Atlantic, slammed the proposal as ”discriminatory” and “fundamentally flawed.”
“It smacks at something that makes the District as an exclusive playground for the rich,” said Townsend, noting that those residents would have to pay for private parking if they have a vehicle. “What kind of city do we want to live in? Is this a city only for a certain class, or is it going to be an inviting community where all families can live?”
The disparate views are a challenge to District leaders as they decide how to manage — and price — on-street parking in a city that has added an estimated 1,000 residents a month in recent months.
With about 300,000 registered vehicles in the District, including about 200,000 with parking permits, car owners are a politically potent voting block. But census figures suggest that more than a third of city residents don’t own a car. They, too, are starting to show signs of electoral influence.
“It’s the third rail of District politics,” said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who was once hanged in effigy in a Capitol Hill bar after he pushed for new parking regulations in the neighborhood. “But one of the most inefficient uses of public parking is the storage of vehicles.”
Both Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and his predecessor, Adrian M. Fenty (D), faced the public’s ire over speed cameras and higher fees for meter parking downtown, where the average parking meter generates $1,700 a year. Yet city leaders said they will continue to nudge residents out of their cars, citing a long-term vision of a sustainable city.
In an overhaul of city codes expected to go before the Zoning Commission this fall, the District is proposing to stop requiring developers downtown and near Metro stations to provide a minimum amount of parking.
The D.C. Council and D.C. Department of Transportation are forming working groups to study how parking rules should be rewritten, including evaluating shrinking residential parking zones, repricing meters and increasing the cost of residential parking permits.
Some policymakers note that the District charges $35 for a year-long residential parking permit while an annual Capital Bikeshare membership costs $75. Tregoning called the permit fee “ludicrous” because many of the parking spaces could be worth more.
“In an ideal world, I would use a price signal to manage parking so it wouldn’t cost $35 a year to park on the street,” Tregoning said. “It would cost more, and in neighborhoods where there is a lot of demand, that number would be higher still.”
Christopher B. Leinberger, a visiting fellow for metropolitan policy at the Brookings Institution, told council members recently that “car storage” runs counter to the city’s recent success in marketing itself as a “walkable, livable” environment.
“I suggest people move to a market principle that forces us to make decisions like ‘Gee, do we really need a second car in our household?’ ” Leinberger said.
Nearly 50,000 households in the District own two or more cars, according to census data. One person in that category is Virginia Liu, a Southwest Washington resident who parks one car in a garage and the other on the street because she and her husband drive to work. But Liu said that finding on-street parking has become more difficult over time.
“As of five years ago, it was easy, because no one knew of Southwest. Now look — there is no space already,” Liu said one recent early afternoon. “It used to be just Dupont and U Street, but now everything is being pushed out.”
Townsend said some parking problems could be resolved if the District used the $140 million it collects annually from parking meters and fines to construct more public garages — a point repeated by some Southwest residents.
“It doesn’t have to just be parking and white lines,” said Richard Dallas, 36, an architect who doesn’t own a car. “You can put in a cafe, put in a dry cleaners [on the ground floor] and a green roof that is sustainable so people can sit up there.”
Tregoning counters that there is already an excess of garage spaces. Instead of building more spaces — many of which are used only 10 hours a day — Tregoning said the city will be encouraging more “shared parking,” not “capped for one use.”
For now, however, Ellis plans to keep his 18-year-old car right where it’s at. “At least until they take my permit away,” he said.
An earlier version of this article stated that some parking meters in the District can generate up to $3,000 per day. The information was revealed at a D.C. Council hearing. But D.C. Department of Transportation officials said Friday that they have since rechecked their records and concluded that that figure was inaccurate.