Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

Last week at the ANCE2E meeting, representatives of Eastbanc presented plans for the construction of a new office building behind the historic Georgetown Post Office. Unfortunately, the discussion on parking for the building focused on how to get more parking.

What was not discussed was how this project is a perfect example for why we need to bring performance parking to Georgetown.

The theory that dominates most parking planning is the same one that came about in the mid-twentieth century. It calls for all new developments to provide at least a certain amount of off-street parking spaces. More often than not, these spaces are offered for free.

It’s not hard to understand the thinking behind this theory. If a building is plopped down in the middle of a neighborhood, without enough off-street parking, the users of this new building could quickly use up all the street parking, thus hurting all the users of the existing buildings.

How that theory is playing out in Georgetown

In Georgetown, Eastbanc proposes to build 18 underground parking spaces in the new building. This parking would be accessed from the existing south driveway of the Post Office.

The urge to insist on more parking, as some Commissioners expressed, is consistent with the dominant parking theory. Commissioner Bill Skelsey stated “this is an office building. There’s no Metro, people are going to drive.” Eastbanc defended the amount of spaces, estimating that there would be a space for every 750 or so square feet of office space (downtown buildings have a typical ratio of more than a thousand square feet for every parking spot). Thus, Eastbanc was assuring the neighborhood that the old users would be protected from the new users.

If the conversation went on even longer, the question of whether to charge the employees to use the parking may have come up. The natural response based upon the dominant theory would be of course not to charge the employees. If you charge them then they may simply park in the neighborhood.

Given the fact that so much (essentially) free parking is so close to the Post Office — they only need to move their cars every two hours, annoying but not unheard of — pursuing the current strategy simply makes sense.

Why it doesn’t have to be that way

Performance parking (championed by UCLA Professor Donald Shoup) stems from the simple observation that street parking is too cheap. Garages in Georgetown charge anywhere between $4.00 to $12.00 an hour. Street parking is either free (in the two hour zones) or $2.00/hr at meter spaces.

Since street parking is so cheap compared to what the market rate is for commercial parking, it is quickly used up. Performance parking merely suggests raising the cost of street parking just to the point that some spaces are always available.

I have laid out my plan for performance parking for Georgetown before. It would call for most streets near Wisconsin Ave. and M St. to become metered. Residents would be exempt from the meters (there are a host of reasons why that is the right choice but the main two are that the neighborhood wouldn’t accept the opposite and if residents aren’t exempt it would create an additional incentive to drive to work, which isn’t a worthy goal).

All non-residents would be required to pay to park on the side streets just like on the main streets. The rate would ideally be set at whatever rate it took to discourage enough drivers from parking on the street such that at least 10-15% of street parking spots are open at any given time.

How it would affect the Georgetown Post Office project

Around the Post Office there is a mixture of metered spaces and two-hour zoned spaces. If the new building were built with zero parking, it is likely that some portion of the employees of the new building would in fact park on the street.

Technically, people aren’t allowed to keep moving their cars every two hours. But it’s not that easy to enforce two hour zones and at least some workers would figure that they can be less diligent and simply pay the occasional $50 parking ticket. That’s acceptable compared with the monthly parking rates in Georgetown, which vary from $210 to $300 per month. Also, those with Zone 2 stickers, even if they live in Dupont Circle or Shaw, can simply leave their cars parked all day.

With performance parking, people could park on the street, but would have to pay a rate more comparable to or greater than that of a monthly garage space. And meters are a lot easier to enforce than 2 hour zones. It doesn’t take multiple observations spaced two hours apart. Also, those with Zone 2 stickers would not qualify as residents unless they are actually Georgetown residents.

There are seven garages or parking lots within two blocks of the Georgetown Post Office. There is no need to create a new one. Particularly since the driveway can only accommodate one lane. That block of 31st St. is already frequently backed up. There is simply not enough room for cars to maneuver around each other, as would be necessary with the current plans.

Eastbanc has been quick to say they’ll be happy to build whatever parking the neighborhood demands. It’s a shame and it’s not in line with Anthony Lanier’s views on pedestrianism and city planning. While some are working behind the scenes to bring performance parking to Georgetown, it probably won’t be here until it’s too late for this project. Also, any plans for parking maximums proposed by the Zoning Rewrite (which would potentially cut the parking lot in half) also won’t be online in time to affect this project.

As a result, we’ll end up encouraging more driving and creating more congestion all because we’re stuck in an outdated theory.

Cross-posted at the Georgetown Metropolitan.


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Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and daughter in Georgetown.