Friday, February 16, 2007

S is for Software (for Parking and Permits)

Parking, along with traffic, is one of those issues that transcends neighborhoods. The City has reluctantly acknowledged there is a growing parking problem here in Parker-Gray, but a quick glance at the letters in the Post's Alexandria Arlington Section yesterday shows that other areas of town are also constrained.

It's not hard to understand why there is a problem. The population of Alexandria is more affluent than in past generations and more people own cars. Some families own multiple cars, and the Growler has even heard anecdotally there are individuals in the neighborhood who own as many as seven or nine vehicles. One former resident used his cars as moving storage units for his overflow stash of belongings.

Parker-Gray as well as Old Town is in worse shape than many areas because between one-third to one-half of all homes have no off-street parking whatsoever. Residents are forced to rely on on-street parking for their vehicles.

On top of this we have new development. Most projects provide off-street parking, typically in underground garages, but there are often not enough spaces to hold all of the residents' or visitors' automobiles. Developers are naturally reluctant to provide more than the zoning ordinance requires. It's expensive to dig out garages and it eats into profit. But that means there's going to be spillover onto residential streets from new projects.

Couple these two trends and you've got a brewing parking firestorm in many parts of town.

So what is the City doing to ease the crisis? Pretty damned little.

Take for example, 1210 Queen Street. When this former commercial building was proposed for redevelopment as condos, the owner refused to provide the mandatory 14 spaces that were required by ordinance for residential projects.

The neighborhood would not swallow a complete reduction this large, so Planning & Zoning Development chief Jeffrey Farner proposed a "compromise" whereby only one parking permit would be issued per unit.

Problem was, as the Growler testified at the time, the City's parking permit software was too primitive to handle a restriction of this kind, since the City has never before placed limits on the number of permits issued to each household. That was confirmed in conversations with City Treasurer David Clark and now-retired Finance Department Director Dan Neckel.

Nevertheless, the smooth-talking Mr. Farner assured Planning Commission and its chairman Eric Wagner (who pressed Mr. Farner repeatedly about it) that the software would be modified to handle this task by the time the condos were ready for sale.

That glib promise was easy enough to make, since Mr. Farner and P&Z have no direct responsibility for the software, which is under the purview of the Finance Department.

And 19 months later, with the condos nearing completion, the City has yet to launch the proposed upgrade of its financial software, which includes the personal property tax management module that handles parking permits.

Money was allocated for the upgrade in FY 2006, but the project was pushed out to FY 2007. Last month, Deputy City Manager Mark Jinks requested City Council to approve various capital expenditures, including an upgrade of the cash register software. But there's no sign of any activity relating to the main financial systems or to the personal property tax software. And Mr. Jinks is dodging repeated questions about its status.

Then there's the City's GIS or Geographic Information Systems. This powerful software has many interesting uses but one of them could be to determine just how many on-street parking spaces are actually available in Parker-Gray. In essence, to define and address a shortage it's important to have reliable numbers about what already exists.

The zoning ordinance defines the dimensions of a valid parking space, and it would be feasible to use GIS to map these out on each street, while accounting for restrictions like alleys, driveways and curb cuts. (Other nuances such as handicapped-only spots would have to be added after an on-site walk-through.)

The Growler discussed this with some of the staff techies and they actually thought it would be a great project. In fact, one even suggested it wouldn't be that hard or time consuming to map out parking beyond Parker-Gray and Old Town (where the supply is most constrained) to encompass the whole city.

But will this ever happen? Not likely. The GIS staff report to Planning & Zoning and so far their activities appear to be strictly subordinated to the goal of promoting development at all cost.

So will the parking problems in Alexandria ever be addressed or eased?