An age-old debate appears to have new life, as the Town Council considers whether to give town staff members the green light to explore a comprehensive approach to downtown parking.
Monday night, the council heard staff feedback on a proposal by downtown property owner Mike McLister to tweak a controversial town regulation. The payment in lieu of parking policy gives developers of nonresidential uses and some residential uses in the H-1 District the option of meeting parking requirements by making a payment to the town’s parking fund instead of physically constructing new parking spaces. The money is to provide other public parking spaces downtown, according to a town staff report.
The council recently doubled the amount it charges developers for using the payment-in-lieu exception. Now set at $6,270 per parking space, the town has amassed some hundreds of thousands of dollars in its parking fund over the years, but council members have been quick to point out that the money collected falls far short of the cost of building new parking garages. Previous town staff research has indicated that the cost of a single space in a structured garage would be more than $20,000.
McLister’s proposed Zoning Ordinance amendment would waive residential payment-in-lieu fees in the H-1 District where it can be proven that a commercial building is being converted back to a residential use. In a letter to the council, McLister stated the hefty parking requirements placed on downtown residential developers amounts more to a penalty or fine, particularly when parking cannot be constructed on site and the payment-in-lieu option is necessitated.
“Property developers willing to take the risk of historic renovations (that already come with so many variables and unknowns) cannot afford a regulation that adds 10 percent to 33 percent additional costs to a project,” he wrote. “If downtown Leesburg is to be at the forefront of this urban momentum, we should revisit and remove an unnecessary regulation that a) doesn’t achieve its intended goal, b) adds huge costs to projects that enhance our core assets, c) prevents growth of our town revenue tax base and d) hurts our merchants.”
McLister said the regulations would halt needed residential development downtown, and continue to hamper the town efforts to meet the demand for leased housing. He points to his property at 107 Loudoun St., the former site of the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, as an example. Still about two months from completion, three of the five new apartment units are already leased. Conversely, his next door property, at 105 Loudoun St., has six single office suites available, with not a single offer.
Addressing the council Monday night, he said making the change would not have any impact on his projects, as he is already past the point and has paid the parking fees. His proposal then, he said, is about “how to get a better downtown asset base.”
Recent changes have created less flexibility for developers, McLister and others have argued. In addition to the increased fee, the area where commercial development can get a parking waiver—by being located within a certain distance to area parking facilities—has decreased. What has increased, on the other hand, is the amount of streets that include restricted residential parking zones.
Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning Brian Boucher cautioned the council that moving forward on such a change could create some unintended consequences for the town.
“The impact could be substantial—most buildings were all or partially residential at one time,” he said. “Staff doesn’t believe it’s necessarily wrong or bad; it just may need to be tweaked some.”
A comprehensive look at downtown parking is the approach suggested by staff, Boucher said, and examining potential changes would likely take town staff well into 2017. Bringing community members into the discussion is also an important part of the process, he said.
Studying parking downtown is certainly nothing new for the council and the town staff. A downtown parking task force has issued a long list of recommendations, and some of those changes have been put into motion by the council. A move to automate the Town Hall parking garage appears to be a fiscal year 2018 budget-time discussion and recently the town launched an online payment app to use for on-street parking meters. The town also recently signed off on a lease agreement with the Courthouse Square developer to make available more public parking spaces across from the Market Station development.
Studying further changes to downtown parking is something the town needs to partner with area businesses on, Councilman Marty Martinez said.
“We’re going to have to do some kind of impact study on any kind of parking. This is a problem we can’t lay just on businesses,” he said. “The town has to commit to study partnering with businesses to get this done and unfortunately it’s going to cost money. This is not an easy fix.”
Mayor David Butler said many developers see the payment-in-lieu fee more of as a fine, because it “is not actually creating more parking.”
Councilman Bruce Gemmill urged that the council set a date that town staff needs to report back on changes to downtown parking regulations, and the sooner, the better.
“We need relief now,” he said.