Tempers were already hot in Reston over increased traffic congestion, crowded classrooms and other problems triggered by a surge of development along Metro’s Silver Line.
The death of free weekday parking at Reston Town Center was the final straw.
Several hundred people marched in protest this month against the $2-per-hour parking fee that took effect in January. A group of residents and merchants is trying to convince Boston Properties, the town center’s owner, to scale back the fees or eliminate them — warning that the shopping district will lose customers if the company doesn’t respond.
“This wasn’t part of Robert Simon’s goal,” said Reston resident Guruang Shah, referring to the entrepreneur who founded Reston as a suburban utopia in 1964 and died 51 years later, at age 101. “Tysons Corner doesn’t charge for parking. We just don’t understand why this is happening in our small town.”
Boston Properties, which took over full ownership of the town center in 2015, had planned for years to implement fees for garage and curb spaces. In 2011, when it was moving to acquire town center parcels, the company estimated that the parking fees would generate as much as $8 million per year. Officials now say the amount will probably be lower.
The fees will deter commuters from leaving their cars in town center garages for long periods of time, Boston Properties says, taking away space intended for shoppers. Parking remains free on weekends and holidays.
“At the end of the day, Boston Properties continues to try to provide an environment and activities that make Reston Town Center a draw for people who want to come and shop and play and stay there,” said Kathy Walsh, a Boston Properties publicist.
But businesses in the Northern Virginia suburb, about 23 miles west of Washington, say there has been a noticeable drop in customer traffic since the fees took effect and parking enforcement officers began writing tickets.
Many customers are confused by the mobile-phone application Boston Properties uses as a primary method of payment, they say. Some are put off by having to share credit card information and license plate numbers just to eat a meal or catch a movie.
Parking validation from participating businesses on the property is also confusing. Customers can only get the discount if their car is in the color-coded garage assigned to the store or restaurant they’ve visited, which can get complicated for those visiting multiple shops.
“It’s a mess,” said Aaron Gordon, whose restaurant group owns the Red Velvet Cupcakery and who heads a group of merchants seeking to overturn the fees. He said some stores are considering leaving the town center once their lease expires. “This is absolutely killing the reputation of the town center, and it is hurting the fabric of Reston,” he said.
Im Sun “Sunny” Park, owner of Obi Sushi restaurant, said sales have dropped by about a third since January. As she spoke, she watched a Boston Properties parking enforcement officer outside the restaurant leave a citation on the windshield of a car parked on the street.
“I see them giving tickets all day,” Park said. “They are killing business.”
Inside one of the town center garages, Susanne Gaines puzzled over a sign explaining how to download the parking app. Her son Connor, 20, took over, tapping into his phone their credit card information and other data so they could head off to the Apple store. Susanne Gaines smiled impatiently, vowing out loud that this would be her last trip to Reston.
“I don’t want to come here and spend half an hour just to park my car,” she said.
Boston Properties says it is working to make its parking-fee system easier for customers. The company has hired more “parking ambassadors” to help navigate the phone app and point customers to kiosks inside parking garages where one can pay with a credit or debit card, Walsh said. Those pay stations are also being upgraded.
Sridhar Ganesan, president of the Reston Citizens Association, said his group has tried to persuade Boston Properties to allow free parking for three or four hours, which he argued would take care of the commuter problem. Boston Properties politely rejected the suggestion, he said.
Ganesan said that while the parking fees themselves are little more than “an annoyance,” the issue touches a sore spot for residents who have seen the cost of living rise as the Silver Line extension inches its way through Reston toward Dulles International Airport.
Rates on the nearby Dulles Toll Road have gone up to help pay for the project’s $1.2 billion second phase, including a Reston Town Center station scheduled to open by 2020.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors is considering a new tax district in areas of Reston near Silver Line stations; property owners would pay 2 cents per $100 of their property’s assessed value to help fund road improvements in the affected neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, residents say there aren’t enough parks or playing fields being built along with the townhouses and condominiums that have sprouted along the Silver Line route.
“There are a lot of heads spinning,” Ganesan said. “There are so many things going on at the same time.”