Demolition at 17th and K. Photo by elstudio on Flickr.

Rockville built a parking garage in their Town Square development. The plan was to finance the garage by charging for parking. But first, the Council delayed charging for parking because construction was inconveniencing motorists, among other reasons. Then, they limited paid hours to 7 am to 7 pm, even though the original plan was to charge until 10 pm.

This isn’t free. Because the garage is bringing in less revenue than planned, Rockville has to pay for it with general tax revenue, which reached $1.5 million last fiscal year. That’s coming out of everyone’s pockets except for the people driving in from outside Rockville. Residents who don’t shop in Town Square are paying the price, as are those who shop there but arrive by foot, bike, bus or Metro.

Now, reports the Gazette, Rockville is considering restoring the original hours of 7 am to 10 pm. But businesses oppose the idea, saying they need the free parking to raise flagging sales. I’m sure businesses are hurting, and we should help them. But spending general revenue on parking is not the way—it’d be better just to give them a tax break.

This example demonstrates why it’s bad to give something free and then charge later. Rockville built the parking garage to help business. When the garage opened, things improved. If Rockville had simply charged from the start, then having the pay garage would still have been an improvement over the previous no-garage status quo. But instead, Rockville made a bigger giveaway, spending a lot of their precious tax money to do it, and now is having trouble returning to the original plan.

DC faces a similar danger with guest parking passes. DDOT is piloting guest passes in Ward 4. But once we give a free guest pass, it’ll be harder to solve the guest parking problem with performance parking, a better solution, or to charge for guest passes. The guest pass program will cause further parking shortages, but once people come to expect free guest parking, we’ll face new political obstacles to solving that problem.

Meanwhile, in other parking news, the giant construction site at 17th and K could become a surface parking lot for two years or even more, according to the Post. The original law firm tenant decided to locate elsewhere, and the developer’s new law firm tenant won’t move in until 2013. Therefore, the developer is seeking zoning approval to turn the lot into parking until they start construction in 2009 or 2010 The biggest danger is that the worsening economy crippes the building’s financing, leaving us with an ugly surface parking lot for much more than two years.

Thankfully, Harriet Tregoning and the Office of Planning are having none of it.

Tregoning said she hopes to encourage developers to come up with creative alternatives, including outdoor retail and food markets. “A surface parking lot is not a great use for a prominent space,” Tregoning said. “It detracts from the experience of the street. No one wants to walk by a vacant lot.”

The Post article quotes some former tenants who’d have liked to stay. This developer chose to demolish the building, and we shouldn’t allow them to push the effects of a bad mistake onto the public. An outdoor market, special events, or other uses are welcome; parking is not.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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 in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.