With the holiday season comes a welcome treat for those who work, eat and shop in downtown Leesburg. The town’s free parking program went into effect Friday and will continue through the rest of the year.
While there is little debate about the holiday program, downtown parking continues to be a subject that frustrates town leaders, merchants, property owners, residents and visitors. Does the downtown area have a parking problem, a perception problem, or does it lie somewhere in between?
Town Manager Kaj Dentler has the unenviable task of weighing the cries of those varied interests against the need to generate revenues from parking fees, both in the Town Hall parking garage and on the street.
Dentler said his staff does not envision adding any more parking downtown, with the recent addition of the Church Street parking lot near Market Station filling a need in that area. In addition to the on-street spaces, Town Hall garage and Church Street lot, surface parking lots also exist off Church and Liberty streets. And the planned construction of a parking garage in the Pennington lot off Church Street, with the possible addition of more parking associated with the Courthouse Square development, means that even more parking is coming on line, he notes.
But that has done little to quell the concerns voiced by downtown patrons.
Jan Forman has owned and operated The Jeans Whisperer off Loudoun Street for five years. Asked to describe the parking downtown, she is quick and succinct.
She says her customers often complain about the high price of on-street meters, especially since the parking fees doubled in 2014.
“People expect to be able to park near the store,” she said. Forman said her suggestion would be to do away with the parking meters entirely and keep the on-street spaces free.
She’s not the first to make that suggestion either, as both town staff and Town Council members have looked into this possibility. But Dentler said there is an important need not only to accommodate visitors to the downtown, but also to create turnover—empty spaces.
“You can do that by meters, you can do that by a two-hour limit but we have to create an incentive for people to turn over the space. You’ve got to do something or it just won’t happen,” Dentler said.
While the revenue generated by the on-street meters is modest at best, it has increased by more than $4,000 a month since the fees were doubled in April 2015. The coins collected basically cover the administrative costs of running the meters, Dentler said, but there would still be an enforcement cost associated with monitoring the on-street spaces for turnover if the meters are done away with. And while annual revenues for the Town Hall parking from FY15 to FY16 rose about 10 percent, that money covers only the administrative costs of operating the garage, and not maintenance or possible renovation.
“The myth is we need to make parking free to get people to come here,” Dentler said. “But the reality is business owners would then use the [on-street] parking. If it’s free then it’s quite possible there would be no parking for visitors.”
Rick Allison closed Pittsburgh Rick’s on East Market Street shop earlier this year, converting the business solely into a food truck. Now with a new venture on King Street—the King Street Oyster Bar—he has an interesting perspective when it comes to downtown parking.
He said there is a need to accommodate quick-service establishments with ample, available and accessible parking nearby. Whereas with King Street Oyster Bar, a full-service restaurant, the perception is that you will spend an hour or two at the establishment, rather than running in and out to grab a sandwich to go or for a quick bite.
“You want the people who haven’t been here to be able to come down King Street and say I can just pull over here and find a spot to park versus ‘I have no idea where to park’,” he said. “To me the parking issue has only gotten worse; people just don’t know where to go, especially if they haven’t been here in awhile.”
In an effort to accommodate more downtown visitors in the busy shopping and dining area near Market Station, the town in October began a lease arrangement with the Courthouse Square developer to provide 44 public parking spaces, paid via meter. So far, use of the lot has been relatively low, Dentler said, adding more outreach will be done once the holiday parking promotion ends in January. To date, about two months into the one-year lease, 695 transactions have occurred with the pay station and 332 transactions with the Parkmobile