September 18, 2013 | by Mark Lee
Building tension: housing, commerce and parking
traffic, cars, gay news, Washington Blade

A growing tension in the urban confines of a maturing city with a growing population and integrated commercial zones is the battle over cars and where to put them. (Photo by BrokenSphere; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, a 105-unit apartment building planned for a lot next to a Metrorail station at the corner of 7th and R streets in Northwest Washington’s beginning-to-boom Shaw neighborhood east of Logan Circle encountered opposition. The issue? Not enough underground parking.

Some are unhappy that the mixed-use development, with a modest 5,000 square feet of ground floor retail, will include only 40 spaces for rental to residents with likely use of a small number of spots by storefront customers. However, the area neighborhood advisory group is upset that more parking is not being built.

Parking requirements, often higher than utilized, add astronomical construction expense and significantly inflate rents and prices. Each level burrowed into the ground costs significantly more than the one above and the first one eliminates usable space at ground level. Developers seeking permission to provide no dedicated parking is slowly increasing, usually requiring prohibition of tenant parking permit eligibility.

Lowered parking provision in transit-convenient locations is increasingly allowed and the Office of Planning has already approved the Shaw project. Anticipated adoption of new zoning regulations in the works for six years will soon codify this shift in official attitude, if only by limited measure.

Complaints over parking often originate with longtime house-dwelling residents with an astounding sense of entitlement. It’s as if they expect to tie up their horse outside the front gate like exurban gentry – regardless of whether they have a second, or even third, vehicle parked out back off an alley. Increasingly byzantine residential street parking rules leave many a neighborhood visitor or local business customer bewildered, even angry.

A growing tension in the urban confines of a maturing city with a growing population and integrated commercial zones is the battle over cars and where to put them. Following several years of intensifying new residential construction, nearly 17,000 additional apartment units and 2,000 condos are already scheduled for delivery in the next 36 months. More people, and inevitably more cars, are coming.

Although the District’s population increased by more than 40,000 over the past decade, car registrations have remained relatively flat. Offsetting new car-enabled residents is a reduction by some existing households in the number of autos owned. The ratio of all local registered vehicles to driving-age residents remains well over half.

Three-fourths of those moving into the District in the past 10 years have been 18-to-34 year-olds and single-person households are the highest in the country at just under 50 percent. Many of these younger singles do not own cars. Regardless, continuing influx of largely affluent inhabitants will likely maintain net car use at current levels or slightly higher.

As D.C. accelerates its ascent as a world-class destination for shopping, entertainment and nightlife, more metro-area residents are traveling into the District to take part. With an early-shuttering subway designed more for daytime worker inflow offering limited coverage areas and only scattered locations, many residents and most surrounding nighttime consumers rely on four wheels to partake in two-legged fun.

While a vibrant city with a walk-able environment in many areas may slowly see a reduction in car use over time, that process will be both slow and arduous. For those stuck in tedious peak-hour traffic or struggling to find parking space, it already is.

Despite a robust range of alternative options, from bike to bus to subway to a soon-to-be small-scale novelty retro trolley, it isn’t going to get easier anytime soon. In fact, to the chagrin of many drivers, it is explicit District government policy to not make it easy to own a car, or at least to use it – and with good reason. The city simply cannot remain as heavily reliant on them, or see ownership numbers increase, without exacerbating already clogged streets and curbsides.

That Shaw apartment building with easy access to public transit and convenient to commerce is the way to get there.

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

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