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Does Downtown Richmond Have a Parking Problem? 

Some say there aren't enough spaces downtown. Some say there are too many. Does it matter what Richmond wants?

click to enlarge cover32_parking_no_headlines.jpg

Ed Harrington

“I got lucky today,” says Tony Maggio, as he pays for parking on East Clay Street near 11th. He works near the Capitol, where he has parking, but he often stays downtown for events — and only finds places to park with varying success.

“Downtown parking is difficult, very difficult,” Maggio says. “If you’re trying to go to a restaurant on Grace … forget it. You’re never going to find something. Or you can park in one of those hotel lots, and it costs more than I’m willing to pay.”

Maggio, who lives at Rocketts Landing, says he once circled for 35 minutes, looking for street parking near Rappahannock on East Grace Street.

Downtown parking spaces are a hot topic. A 2009 study by the city of Richmond put the number of downtown spaces at 24,017, but the peak demand occupancy was only 17,000 — a surplus of 7,000 spaces. “This overall surplus seems to be in direct contradiction to the public perception of inadequate parking in downtown Richmond,” the study by Timothy Haahs & Associates says.

One reason for the contradiction is, many of those spots, like most of the 13,385 spots in garages, are closed to visitors at night.

Some Richmonders have a different complaint about parking: There’s too much available. A bird’s eye view of downtown reveals large swaths of space dedicated to surface lots and parking garages — not to mention the highways that plow through the city — all designed to accommodate people who want to park in the city for eight hours a day.

As Richmond seeks to encourage denser development, especially around the new rapid transit bus stations, a tide is shifting away from parking requirements. And some advocates see the shift as a move toward more market-driven parking costs, which will allow demand to drive supply.

But will disparate views on Richmond’s so-called parking problem also converge during the process? And will bureaucratic barriers impede those efforts?

And, even if market-based parking is the city’s goal, that bird’s eye view reveals competing forces. Virginia Commonwealth University and the state government, entities that bring thousands of employees downtown, can skew the market with tax-free garages and surface lots. Will they stand in the way of the city’s vision?

click to enlarge The 1900 block of Grove Avenue requires a city permit to park for extended periods. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The 1900 block of Grove Avenue requires a city permit to park for extended periods.

“In my opinion, Richmond does not have a parking problem, anywhere,” says Andrew Moore, an architect with Glavé & Holmes and the board president of Partnership for Smarter Growth. “I think of the worst-case scenario — Carytown on a Friday night — well, you park one block away. That’s like the extent of our problem.”

It’s a bold statement, sure to elicit disagreement.

“We have this perception that free parking is a right, but it’s never free,” Moore says. “It’s always being paid for. Like in the city of Richmond, there’s the infrastructure cost of maintaining that land as parking — the asphalt, snow removal and all the stuff that goes along with it.”

For Moore and others who advocate for smart growth, the spaces are a public amenity and the market should dictate their pricing and availability. Especially in downtown Richmond, where Moore says parking prices are inverted. The most expensive places to park are decks, the least expensive on the street. “That’s completely the opposite way you want it to happen,” he says.

Convenient street spaces should have high demand, high prices and high turnover. The city could do demand pricing — similar to the way in which ride-share companies such as Uber operate — with its new digital meters, Moore says.

A desire for market-driven parking decisions led Partnership for Smarter Growth board members, among others, to object to 2016 plans to put residential and commercial towers at Sixth and Grace streets with 800 parking spaces. That number seemed far more than the market would dictate, says Moore.

The proposal for the Grace Street project was scrapped in April.

“The more sophisticated zoning takes into account real conditions rather than imagined conditions,” Moore says. “It’s data driven, instead of just arbitrary. The classic case of saying you have to have one parking space for every 100 square feet of store, or whatever it is, is kind of a dumb metric that is intended to be a one size fits all. And it doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.”

That’s the sort of formula that has guided zoning and city development since the 1950s.

Mark Olinger, the head of Richmond’s department of planning, didn’t respond to an interview request. However, recent zoning and planning initiatives suggest that certain areas of the city are headed for more density and fewer mandated parking spaces.

But plans for things such as the downtown towers are guided through the Planning Commission by the city’s Economic and Community Development Department. And the city’s 1,500 on-street paid parking spaces and 6,169 off-street spaces, as well as the residential permit program, are run by the Department of Public Works. Planning department objectives may be lost in those of other city departments.

A cross-departmental study is coming. The city issued a request for proposals, due in May, for a new parking study in conjunction with both the planning and public works departments. The consultants will examine eight neighborhoods, including downtown, for continued development “while balancing the multimodal transportation demands of its growing population” in conjunction with the city’s master plan process.

Moore hopes the city will hire a group that thinks progressively. “There are folks who are cutting-edge in thinking about parking policy,” he says. “If the city got one of those firms, it’d be huge.”

The department says it’s in the process of reviewing the applications.

click to enlarge At rush hour, police direct traffic leaving the Virginia Commonwealth University lot on Mayo’s Island. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • At rush hour, police direct traffic leaving the Virginia Commonwealth University lot on Mayo’s Island.

It once took Evan Puckett an hour to make it the 1.1 miles from her office on Virginia Commonwealth University’s downtown medical campus to Mayo Island in the center of the James River, where the university operates a large parking lot.

“It was a doozy of a commute,” she says. “I called my grandma and complained the whole time.”

The university operates a shuttle to connect its campus to the island, where Puckett pays $52 a month to park. There, five days a week, for several hours at a time, VCU police officers act as temporary stop lights, helping drivers turn north on 14th Street and head straight back to the busy intersection at Broad.

In another city, an island set between two formerly independent cities, on a picturesque portion of the river, might hold more than a recycling plant and satellite parking. A long-term plan for Mayo Island in the 2012 Richmond Riverfront Plan hopes for city acquisition of the seven privately owned parcels and the development of green space, outdoor event space, hiking and art installations.

But for now, VCU Health workers such as Puckett will leave their cars there during the day.

Puckett is looking for an apartment in the city but is constrained by the needs of her large dog — and price. She’d like to live alone for around $800, but most everything she finds is $1,100 or $1,200.

A study in the journal Housing Policy Debate last year finds that in cities like Richmond, where there are minimum parking requirements, 16 percent of the rent for residents without cars is subsidizing parking infrastructure they don’t use: They’re paying for the extra property a developer had to buy, the space where parking had to go and the cost to maintain it.

If, hypothetically, the rent on one of the apartments she liked was 16 percent less, would Puckett jettison the car for it?

“I would absolutely do that,” she says, adding some caveats that the area would need to be both convenient for bicycling and connected to bus lines. “But I’d love to not have to use my car. It’s a hassle and getting rid of it would eliminate even more expenses.”

click to enlarge This Virginia Commonwealth University parking deck between Shafer and Harrison streets is diagonally across Broad from the Siegel Center. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • This Virginia Commonwealth University parking deck between Shafer and Harrison streets is diagonally across Broad from the Siegel Center.

Harriet Tregoning, the Washington director of planning from 2007-2014, oversaw a massive shift toward less car-centered infrastructure. She says young people partly drove the change. “It took millennials to show what terrible value proposition cars are,” Tregoning says.

Cars are driven about 5 percent of the time, she says, and parked 95 percent of the time. “College graduates are coming out with enormous debt,” Tregoning says, and options such as Zipcar, Lyft and car-sharing services offer cheaper options.

In addition to eliminating most parking minimums, Washington later required developers to unbundle parking — that is, allow people to rent an apartment or buy a condo with or without parking.

“Once developers started to see that people weren’t actually using the parking, they became much more willing,” Tregoning says.

Robin Miller, a long-time local developer with Miller & Associates, thinks Richmond developers might already be on board with such changes. He certainly is.

“The unbundling or relaxing of parking requirements is a good thing for development,” Miller says. “It’s good for business, for the environment, for the city.”

He knows his market and would build parking spaces accordingly, if allowed. “But I think the city is moving in the right direction, particularly in last two or three years,” he says.

Miller chalks the slow pace of change up to the nature of Richmond and the right that some folks feel to park near their homes.

Regardless of the planning department’s ability to muster the boldness or political capital to keep that momentum going, there are a few big challenges. VCU is one and the other is another big entity downtown: the state government.

Nearly 11,000 VCU Health workers want to get in and out of the area within a10-block radius of the campus every day. Mayo Island is not the only chunk of otherwise prime real estate devoted to surface parking. Down the hill, Shockoe Bottom is a sea of asphalt, moderately full of cars during the day and empty at night. Some of it is owned by the city and destined for development or memorialization. Other parts are privately owned and leased to VCU.

But, as long as the university and health system don’t pay real estate taxes in the city, is the market for housing and parking skewed? Does the cost of parking for staffers and students and faculty — such as Puckett’s $52 a month — cover the buses and police officers and garages needed to sustain the system or is some of it subsidized by other university funds?

VCU’s department of parking and transportation, which oversees that system, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Mike Porter, the university’s associate vice president for public affairs, says that it is in the early stages of a study of parking needs on both campuses. “While we’ve started to collect information from representatives of our VCU and VCU Health community and from our partners in surrounding neighborhoods,” he said in an email, “it is too early in the process to be able to share additional information at this time.”

click to enlarge A bus heads west on Broad Street into Virginia Commonwealth University’s academic campus. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A bus heads west on Broad Street into Virginia Commonwealth University’s academic campus.

Virginia Sen. Creigh Deeds hears about Richmond parking from constituents every year when they come from his rural district to visit the Capitol. Even he wishes it were easier.

“I live in the country, so any sort of city traveling makes me nervous,” says Deeds, who lives downtown during the session and serves on the Senate Transportation Committee. “I’ve never been a good parallel parker.”

Not all legislators live downtown, and some use their cars every day, but Deeds is part of an interesting capital city infrastructure problem. A small group of outsiders comes to Richmond for a brief part of the year, bringing hoards of lobbyists and constituents with it.

Delegates and senators such as Deeds get free parking, and their legislative aides pay the same rate as other state employees — $49 a month, according to the clerk of the House of Delegates, G. Paul Nardo. General Assembly members, according to city code, also receive license plates and permits that absolve them from following city parking meter rules.

And these seasonal workers are only part of the concern.

The state employs nearly 22,000 people in Richmond, at least half of whom work in tax-exempt buildings around Capitol Square, next to the VCU Health campus. The state’s Department of General Services manages 21 parking facilities with more than 7,500 spaces for employees and contractors who work for Virginia. The director of communications for the department, Dena Potter, says each state agency — there are about 80 — is responsible for its own internal parking policy. Some agencies have community incentive programs.

“That’s a unique thing for the city of Richmond and perhaps any capital city with a large public entity like a state government. … You have a lot of potential for a large number of commuters to come downtown and have it be not market-driven,” Moore says. “They are driven by the public interest of providing parking for the state employees, right? So there’s no incentive for those to be a private parking deck and used for a secondary purpose.”

And there’s little the city can do to influence their building and infrastructure priorities besides ask nicely.

In May, Chris Beschler, the director of the Department of General Services, showed City Council’s Land Use, Housing and Transportation Committee the state’s plan for $300 million worth of construction for its buildings around Capitol Square. What is now a small dirt lot at Broad and Ninth streets will become a parking garage, Beschler told the councilors, a seven-story structure of about 500 spaces.

“The parking garage that’s going to be built on Broad Street — I’m sure you’re quite aware of the city’s desire to make sure the first floor of parking garages provides a different use other than parking,” Councilor Ellen Robertson said.

Beschler said they intended to put office space in the first floor to encourage foot traffic, but designs are still pending.

Asked if he would pay $5 for a spot in one of the garages nearby that sit mostly empty in the evening, Tony Maggio says absolutely.

“If I were going to Penny Lane [Pub] in the evening, I’d love to have something like that,” he says. “That’s a missed opportunity. A spot occupied for five bucks is better than a spot not occupied at all.”

Like VCU’s, the state’s decks are mostly available only to state employees,. That means they’re used for a small portion of the day.

Jeannie Welliver, the city’s point person for the Main Street train shed renovations, worked out a deal with the state for the deck at 14th and Main streets. Groups holding events at the newly renovated train shed will be able to lease that deck, via the city, on evenings and weekends.

And, of course, maybe all of this debate is for naught. In 10 years, perhaps self-driving cars will drop people off and then slink back into the margins to wait for their owners’ summonses. Or, in 20 years, they’ll fly off into a parking garage above the clouds.

Moore says architects have begun to plan for autonomous vehicles and a future where parking infrastructure is obsolete.

“There are people out there saying right now that you are foolish if you are designing and building a parking deck that can’t be adapted into something else,” he says. S

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