Image by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Development in the Union Market neighborhood of northeast DC has taken off since the market opened in 2012. With a number of new mixed-use high-rise buildings planned for the area, developers are now asking the District government for $82.4 million in tax increment financing bonds to fund, among other things, retail parking.

Union Market, or Florida Avenue Market as it is also known, encompasses a just over three-by-three block area framed by Florida Avenue, 6th Street, New York Avenue, and the tracks to Union Station.

A map of the Union Market neighborhood. Image by DC Office of Planning.

The proposed bonds, which would be an obligation of the District funded by tax receipts from the Union Market area, would finance $46.2 million in general infrastructure upgrades including utilities and streetscape design and improvements. The remaining $36 million would go to underground parking.

Developers want DC to pay for 600 underground parking spots

“Parking is critical to retail and especially critical in trying to create the massive retail [destination that is planned in Union Market],” said Edens chief executive Jodie McLean at a DC Council committee hearing in September.

This view is shared by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5), who said at the hearing: “For this project to work, especially the retail aspect, there must be adequate parking. There is not now, nor will there ever be, enough street parking to accommodate District drivers and our guests from other states.”

Edens, which developed the popular Union Market building that is open today, is pushing for the District funding, along with developer JBG Smith and Gallaudet University. They claim that the area needs about 1,600 parking spaces for the amount of mixed-use development that is planned.

The developers argue that they have to build extra parking in their own developments because it cannot be built under the market's “central spine”, which has historic designation. The spine includes the buildings located between 4th Street and 5th Street, and roughly Morse Street and Neal Street, that were built from 1929 to 1931.

Union Market's central spine includes some of the oldest buildings in the neighborhood. Image by DC Office of Planning.

Funds from the bonds would pay for roughly 600 underground parking spots, and the developers and Gallaudet would pay for the remaining 1,000 spots, said Edens vice-president of development Reynolds Allen at the hearing.

Questions over parking

Tax increment financing, or TIF bonds, are not new. The Wharf and the City Market at O developments both received similar funds from the District for infrastructure improvements.

Councilmembers McDuffie, Jack Evans (Ward 2), David Grosso (at-large), and Elissa Silverman (at-large) all voiced support for using District funds for general infrastructure improvements in Union Market. However, the parking aspect raised questions and some concerns.

“I support this project, I think it's an important project,” said Councilmember Grosso. “I just can't imagine why we would be spending this much money on parking in a place where we should be encouraging alternative modes of transportation.”

The NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station is a half-mile walk from the corner of 5th Street and Neal Place at the center of Union Market. There are protected bike lanes into the neighborhood on both 4th Street NE and 6th Street NE, and the frequent 90 and 92 Metrobus lines pass near the area on Florida Avenue.

Councilmember Grosso said he would support the bonds if the developers pledged half of the parking funds, roughly $18 million, to the proposed pedestrian tunnel under the Amtrak tracks that would create an eastern entrance to the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station. The tunnel would reduce the walk to the station from Union Market by about two-tenths of a mile.

WMATA's proposed NoMa pedestrian tunnel would connect the station with the eastern side of the tracks leading to Union Station. Image by WMATA.

A 2015 report by WMATA estimated the cost of the tunnel at between $16.6 million and $23.7 million.

Should DC pay for private parking, again?

DC has been down this road before. The city is on the hook for operating losses at the 1,015-space parking garage under DC USA, the development that includes Best Buy and Target next to the Columbia Heights Metro station. That garage has cost DC more than $2 million a year in the past.

“DC has had a rather disastrous experience the last time we paid for a parking garage [at] DC USA,” said Councilmember Silverman at the hearing.

Silverman, along with Councilmember Grosso, pushed the Union Market developers to fund more alternative transportation investments or to build the parking contingent themselves.

“The best way to provide an opportunity for people to park in [Union Market] is to give them more alternatives modes of transportation. Give people a streetcar going through there, give them a Circulator, give them a Metro,” said Councilmember Grosso.

Councilmembers Evans and McDuffie, who both supported the bonds at the hearing, agree that too much parking was built at DC USA, but view Union Market as different. They cited the fact that it is located on the major artery into the city–New York Avenue–and is not above a Metro station.

DC should encourage alternative transportation modes, not driving

Some parking is necessary for any large, mixed-use development like the one planned for Union Market. That said, the District's MoveDC plan calls for significant increases in trips by non-motorized transportation modes by 2040–something that requires investment in improved Metro, bus, pedestrian and bike facilities as well as discouraging people to drive into and around the city.

Building more parking at Union Market will likely induce demand–as the site is readily accessible from multiple major roads–and encourage people to drive there.

Completing projects like the eastern NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station entrance, Florida Avenue streetscape improvements that include a protected bike lane from NoMa to West Virginia Avenue NE, the proposed New York Avenue trail, and other pedestrian and bike access improvements would encourage more people to ride Metro or bike to Union Market.

The 6th Street NE protected bike lane by Union Market. Image by the author.

Unfortunately, the DC Council appears to be moving forward with the TIF bonds, parking included. The finance and revenue committee approved the bonds by a 4-1 vote on October 11, with Councilmembers Evans, McDuffie, Vincent Gray (Ward 7), and Robert White (at-large) voting in favor. Councilmember Silverman voted against.

Should DC pay for more parking at Union Market? Let your Councilmember know what you think before the full Council votes later this fall.