Photo by Mr. T in DC (no relation to Mr. Thielen).

Election season must be getting underway. Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3), normally a strong proponent of Smart Growth, has proposed spending public money to build a parking garage in Cleveland Park.

Despite having a Metro station in the middle of its commercial corridor, some local merchants and visitors want to see a parking garage built in this walkable section of Connecticut Avenue.

According to the Current (huge PDF), “Cheh initially thought a garage could go next to Ireland’s Four Fields, a bar at 3412 Connecticut Ave., where a small parking lot fronts Connecticut, with businesses in the rear.”

This is a spectacularly bad idea.  With an operating deficit of nearly a half-billion dollars, the District should not use scarce public funds to subsidize driving.  According to a study for the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), the cost for above-ground structured parking is $26,000 per space.

In recent years, including under the leadership of current DDOT Director Gabe Klein, the District has prioritized investments such as the Circulator bus routes, streetcars, and SmartBike, which give residents and visitors in the region an alternative to driving. These steps are more appropriate uses of public funds to draw customers to Cleveland Park than the more expensive and traffic-inducing proposition of building a parking garage.

Instead of the circuitous approach of attempting to alleviate parking issues by subdizing driving and creating more auto congestion, DDOT and Ward 3 residents should look at demand-management strategies instead that will avoid a costly and permanent dead-zone on Connecticut Avenue. 

Photo by M.V. Jantzen.

Cleveland Park was recently excluded from the areas categorized as “premium demand zones” for parking meters.  As a result, while parking rates have increased to $2 per hour in Tenleytown, curbside parking is priced well below the actual demand in Cleveland Park. 

In the article, ANC Commissioner Leila Afzal suggests another way to address Cleveland Park’s parking problems: make the Residential Parking Permit (RPP) privileges only apply to actual residents of the area, rather than residents from as far away as the Maryland border. The original intent of RPP was to stop people from driving to a Metro station and parking on nearby neighborhood streets, but in Cleveland Park and Woodley Park, that’s still endemic.

As area ANC Commissioners have often suggested and David Alpert discussed last year, creating sub-zones in certain areas like Cleveland Park could reserve more of the area’s parking for residents and shoppers instead of distant drivers looking for free commuter parking.

Better alternatives than using taxpayer money to subsidize driving include extending the Circulator bus to Cleveland Park.  Currently, the Circulator ends at Woodley Park.  Assuming the proposed parking garage contains 30 spots built at DDOT’s estimate of $26,000 per spot, this would cost the District $7,800,000 $780,000, plus ongoing maintenance costs which parking fees might not cover. 

Similarly, another alternative that deserves consideration is extending the proposed streetcar from Woodley Park to Cleveland Park.  It is only 0.8 miles between the two Metro stations.  At the estimated cost of $40 million per mile for the streetcar, this extension would cost $32 million. The amount saved from not building a parking garage and revenue gained from a performance parking district in Cleveland Park can be used to fund this potential extension.

Finally, the District could help struggling businesses in Cleveland Park’s commercial corridor by allowing greater density in that section.  Moderate-sized residential buildings line Connecticut Avenue to the north and south of Cleveland Park, but the main commercial strip, especially the Park and Shop, is almost entirely just one and two story buildings.  Building 2-3 levels of new residential units above these retail establishments and restaurants would bring new residents to this area, immediately next to the Metro station, and adding more built-in customers for the restaurants and shops of Cleveland Park.

Ben Thielen is the founder and spokesperson of the Wisconsin Avenue Streetcar Coalition.