"There is no such thing as free parking," a representative of Rockville Town Square owner Federal Realty said. Lighting, maintenance and ground lease payments are just a few of the expenses involved in providing parking, he explained. He described the current parking policy at RTS as a "very generous first two hour validation program," taken advantage of by 80% of garage patrons. That is "effectively, free parking," he added.
However, many competing lifestyle centers in the County are offering parking that is literally free parking, much to the chagrin of businesses in the town center. And, yes, there is validation, but you usually have to buy something in order to get it, which means it is not "free."
In contrast, Federal Realty's Pike & Rose development gives you the two hours free without needing a validation. Downtown Bethesda, as unpleasant as parking is there, provides free parking in Montgomery County garages on weekends. Rockville Town Square doesn't. And Rio/Washingtonian Center and Downtown Crown provide the best deal of all: free parking all day, every day.
But becoming more competitive is easy or challenging, depending upon who you ask.
Federal Realty pointed out that fees alone rarely cover the full cost of parking for a property owner. "What we don't collect," the representative said, "is essentially paid for by the leaseholders themselves." Changing parking policies requires a lot of research, and a long-term commitment to that new policy, he warned.
Mellow Mushroom's Danny Trahan offered a simpler solution. Trahan, who lives in Virginia, said the evolution of parking policies at Reston Town Center are very instructive for Rockville's parking dilemma. Reston originally had free parking, he said, until the policy was abused by Metro commuters. When Reston Town Center then instituted paid parking, business declined severely, he recalled.
Reston then changed to charging for parking only between 4:00-10:00 AM. The result? Business was "booming again," Trahan recounted. Taking into account the daytime demand for parking related to local government and the courthouse, Trahan suggested implementing a Reston-type policy, but charging until 4:00 PM on weekdays. After that, and all day on weekends, parking would be free.
"Heavily market that" on Facebook and in newspaper ads, Trahan advised. In response to Federal Realty's concern about the reality of parking costs, Trahan predicted that under his suggested policy, the firm would recoup "millions of dollars of revenue you guys are losing."
Trahan also proposed that Federal Realty allow merchants to advertise in the garages, to generate revenue to cover parking costs. He offered to buy a Mellow Mushroom sign and install it in the garage. Another novel idea Trahan threw out at the meeting was to relocate the library, and fill its space with more retail to activate the square at all hours.
"We're at a competitive disadvantage on Saturdays," a Regal Row merchant said. And a former draw at lunchtime on Wednesdays, the farmers market and live music, has been lost to Dawson's Market during the construction of the Duball project across the street. A representative of neighboring CremCafe said that the loss of the surface lot the Duball project was built on has made it harder to hire workers. They can't afford the price of parking, and "not everyone is using the Metro," he said. The owner of Ben & Jerry's said "customer counts plummeted" during the Duball construction, and today are "not nearly as much as they were prior to construction."
Scott Feldman of the legendary Giuseppe's Pizza on Regal Row told the Mayor and Council that some of his longtime customers "don't come in anymore" after finding a "$40 ticket on their windshield." Or, as one of his customers termed it, "that little surprise we had waiting when we got outside." Combine that with competition that can offer free parking, and Rockville town center businesses suffer as a result. "The problem is," Feldman said, local consumers "have too many other choices." Read the pizzeria's Yelp page, and you'll find that when customers aren't raving about the pizza, they're warning that "parking is a ***** during business hours."
Regal Cinemas has been hit as hard as anybody - and not for a lack of trying. The cineplex recently renovated its auditoriums, adding reclining seats. Ordinarily, a representative of the theater said, adding recliners would initially boost sales by 50-60%. In Rockville, the fancy chairs have only generated a 20% increase in business, he said, "something that is concerning." He also said that the theater had to end its free family matinee screenings, because "nobody wants to pay $12 to see a free movie."
But the perception of parking problems may be killing business as much as the practical experience of parking. "I hate to come into downtown Rockville. I can never find a place to park," Rockville Chamber of Commerce board member Brian Barkley said friends often tell him. Barkley said it's actually not that hard to find parking if, like him, you know where it is. He recommended better wayfinding to address that issue.
That still doesn't solve the cost issue, though. "You can't have everybody around you with free parking on the weekends, and you don't have it," Barkley said.
A town center merchant who lives in Potomac said "nobody in my neighborhood comes here," they go to downtown Bethesda instead. And a representative of VisArts said Rockville town center "has a reputation that it's not a friendly place to go. You have to pay for parking."
"If [merchants] want to have free parking, they can have free parking, It's just a matter of paying us," Duball, LLC president and principal Marc Dubick said of his garage in the Upton/Cambria Hotel and Suites building he developed. Echoing Federal Realty's accounting concerns, Dubick noted that "we have lenders, and we have to pay our obligations." He also noted that his garage is only 17% occupied on Friday nights currently.
That could change when World of Beer opens, though.