Photo by skycaptaintwo. (Not the DC USA garage.)

The latest casualty of the economic downturn is a second grocery store at Columbia Heights. Ellwood Thompson had planned a store in the DC USA complex, but has now postponed those plans indefinitely, telling Richmond BizSense, “It’s just not prudent to expand into a new market with the economy the way it is.” (Tip: Jon G.)

The grocery store was the last, best hope for the underutilized DC USA parking garage, which typically has about 50 cars in the 1,000-plus space garage, and even at its peak has never used the second of the two levels. The garage is costing the DC government $2.1 million this year, money coming directly out of the Neighborhood Investment Fund, which is supposed to pay for “affordable housing, mixed-use, and community facilities.” That two million only goes to maintenance and operations; we’re also losing out on the opportunity cost of the cost of construction.

Grocery stores do generally generate more car trips than other uses, and fewer of those trips could also happen using other modes. However, even Ellwood Thompson wouldn’t have filled the rest of the garage, or probably even the first floor. Now that they’re not coming to the complex, the garage will remain a drain on the DC budget. What can we do?

One option is to find other sources of parking revenue. Some neighbors have suggested the garage rent spaces for long-term parking. However, the garage would then need to pay attendants 24 hours a day, instead of just during business hours. Would enough people park there to make it worthwhile? Many other apartment buildings nearby also have more parking than they need, meaning there may not be much demand.

The garage could also become an off-site garage for other destinations without ample parking. Adams Morgan residents and businesses, for example, frequently complain about inadequate parking, as do those around U Street. Both neighborhoods now connect to Columbia Heights by a Circulator. Instead of building more parking garages in those neighborhoods, we could encourage people to park at Columbia Heights and take the Circulator.

What about the National Zoo? The zoo wants to expand their parking capacity. The Circulator already goes to Woodley Park. Could DC extend it to the Zoo, and allow the Zoo to avoid spending money and despoiling more of Rock Creek Park?

On the other hand, people are often reluctant to park at a garage and then take a shuttle bus to their destination. Just look at how much more airports can charge for parking near the terminals versus long-term parking, and there people are parking for days. Would people really pay enough to park at Columbia Heights and shuttle to Adams Morgan or U Street to raise enough revenue to close the budget gap?

At last week’s Metro oversight hearing before the DC Council, Mr. Graham asked about using the capacity for Metro park-and-ride. That would seem to be the worst of two worlds, however: it would bring traffic through a very congested part of DC, and then add riders on a crowded Metro line at peak time, when Metro has less excess capacity and more riders require additional operating subsidy. Plus, DC pays more of the Metrorail costs if more people ride within DC.

A better alternative to Metro park-and-ride, Circulator park-and-ride, Zoo park-and-ride, or long term car storage is reusing the space for something else. What about storage? A storage company could partition the garage into rentable lockers. Last time we discussed the issue, commenters suggested roller hockey, a skate park, mini golf, bowling, an art gallery, or artist studios. Many of these could probably make the DC government more money and better utilize the space than parking, particularly unused parking.

The biggest obstacle may not be the DC government, but Target. According to Councilmember Jim Graham, Target insisted on lots of parking to locate in Columbia Heights. Target (or the DC USA mall operator, which runs all the other space) has the right to veto any parking garage changes. As long as they can get the DC government to keep paying to ensure ample parking, it might be difficult to persuade them to allow adaptive reuse.

In the meantime, there’s one obvious no-brainer: bike racks. DC USA still has too few. There’s no good reason to leave all that car space empty and make it hard for cyclists to park.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.