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The InTowner
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On the very day we were thinking about what should be our topic for this space the Washington Post provided the answer. We refer to one of the Metro section’s lead stories of the day, “At NW Mall, So Many Spaces, So Little Need.”

The mall to which the Post referred is the one officially known as DC USA — everyone we know calls it by the name of its anchor tenant, Target. Located in the heart of Columbia Heights on 14th Street between Park Road and Irving Streets, directly across from the Metro, this shopping emporium is surrounded by newly burgeoning retail and restaurant activity along with a vibrant residential area now including a number of large rental and condominium buildings — all of which places customers within easy and convenient reach of the mall’s front door.

As the Post so aptly reported, “The prediction [at the time the project was conceived several years ago] seemed sound: A shopping mall dropped in the middle of Washington would deliver street-snarling traffic to an otherwise peaceful residential neighborhood.” Further, observed the Post, “The District’s solution was to build a parking colossus, a $40 million taxpayer-funded garage beneath the Target-anchored mall. . . . Yet, even as waves of shoppers come and go, the 1,000-space garage remains empty enough that the operator typically blocks off one of its two sprawling levels.”

We cannot blame the politicians and city officials for agreeing to pay for the garage given that at the time the project seemed to many to be speculative — the neighborhood was then only slowly re-emerging from years of downward spiral that followed the 1968 riots — and assumptions at the time, bolstered by various studies, corroborated the thinking that shoppers would not come unless they could drive and park conveniently. And, with such assumptions taking the lead, city officials feared traffic chaos unless on-site parking was included in the project. Furthermore, since the mid-1950s District law has required commercial and residential apartment developers to provide on-site parking spaces, the numbers of which are determined by a formula that takes into account the project’s size and, with apartments, the number of units.

For many years many have questioned the appropriateness of this policy, at least in areas already well served by public transportation or where customers mostly walk to their neighborhood shopping strips.

We recall that back in the 1970s when Safeway Stores decided that its inadequate store at 17th and Corcoran Streets — the only supermarket (which wasn’t very super then; in fact universally known as the “Soviet Safeway”) — serving the large residential areas from Dupont to Logan — needed to be doubled in size, the project nearly collapsed over the issue of the on-site parking requirement. At the time, the store building occupied half the lot, while the other half was for off-street parking. It took an eventual BZA special exception ruling to fix things.

But even back then most the store’s customers questioned why Safeway had to provide the parking when most walked or hailed one of the many cabs always around if their load of groceries was to heavy to carry.? Even then residents understood that the regulations requiring parking raised questionable urban public policy issues.

That Safeway example was just one of scores that caused unnecessary costs to builders and ultimately consumers. In so many parts of this city policies that make traffic even worse by in effect mandating use of cars and forcing developers to accommodate them even when the need is not there, as in Columbia Heights, must be reconsidered. We are very encouraged that city officials are, according to the Post, seriously considering a change in the applicable zoning regulations. We strongly urge the city council to support such a change.