A space counter outside Garage A at Rockville Town Square Credit: Aaron Kraut

Downtown Rockville business owners regard free parking offered at the RIO Washingtonian Center and  Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg and on weekends in downtown Bethesda with envy, a feeling that has led to longstanding frustration with the parking rates and policies of the city and major property owners.

“We’re at a competitive disadvantage on Saturdays,” Rockville Ben & Jerry’s owner Marc Sosin told city council members during a special meeting on parking issues Thursday night. “[Customers] have a choice. They can go to RIO. They can go to downtown Bethesda. People have choices and we don’t have that choice.”

Many of the concerns come from restaurant and shop owners in Rockville Town Square, the project built and operated by Rockville-based developer Federal Realty Investment Trust that includes three city-owned garages with 958 total spaces.

In 2011, the city decided to lease the garages to Federal Realty. The company continues to operate Garages A, B and C with paid parking seven days a week. The lease is under a 50-year agreement in which the developer pays the city about $315,000 in annual rent and an additional $50,000 annually in a revenue-sharing formula established in the contract.

While many of the business owners who spoke Thursday said Federal Realty and the city should allow free parking on Saturdays and Sundays to match the policy in downtown Bethesda’s county-owned garages, an official representing the developer indicated the company isn’t on board with the idea.

“There is no such thing as free parking,” said Rick Siebert, a parking consultant representing Federal Realty and the recently retired chief of the county Department of Transportation’s Parking Division.

Federal Realty does provide free parking for the first two hours of a driver’s visit to the center, if the driver gets his or her ticket validated at one of the local businesses they patronized.

There are also short-term free parking spaces near Dawson’s Market and a drycleaners on the west side of Rockville Town Square.

“There is parking that is not paid by the people who are using the parking spaces, but the garages still have to be operated, they still have to have the lights on, they still have to be clean, we still have to have security,” Siebert said. “We also have an obligation under our lease for a ground-lease payment to the city. So there is no free parking.”

The city built the garages as part of the Rockville Town Square project and city staff said the city is still paying off debt on their construction. In 2012, the city began providing $50,000 annually to the Rockville Memorial Library and VisArts to help validate parking for all visitors to those facilities.

Payment in the three Rockville Town Square garages is $2 for the first hour and $1 for each additional hour with a daily maximum charge of $10. But Siebert said 80 percent of people who park in the garages get their parking tickets validated.

Despite a recent surge in the number of new restaurants at Town Square, business owners there have long complained that charging for parking was one of the reasons behind rapid tenant turnover.

“There’s a perception that Rockville Town Square is not a place to go, that it’s not friendly. There are too many other places in the surrounding areas where you can get nice restaurants and go shopping and have a nice experience,” said Alice Nappy, executive director of VisArts. “For five years, we’ve been talking about these issues and the parking, making longer validation periods or making nights and weekends free. People are frustrated because there hasn’t seemed to be any movement on that.”

Danny Trehan, owner of the Mellow Mushroom pizza restaurant set to open this spring in Town Square, said parking should require payment from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. each weekday to ensure that Metro commuters don’t unfairly take advantage of free parking spots. But he said the parking gates should go up at 4 p.m. each day to help businesses.

“This way you can attract people here,” Trehan said. “That will increase the revenue for everybody. New merchants come in. The taxes go up. We hire more employees. Federal [Realty] gets more revenue on the percentage of the sales.”

Merchants in the shopping center anchored by the Regal Cinemas Rockville are, in some cases, facing even more pronounced problems.

An apartment and hotel development project from developer Duball was built on one of the surface parking lots that used to provide plenty of parking for moviegoers, or those eating at Ben & Jerry’s, California Tortilla, CremCafé and Giuseppi’s Pizza Plus.

An underground parking garage under the now-completed building is open for the public and those businesses can still validate parking for drivers who park there, but many say their businesses have suffered.

“[Customers] live a lot closer to here, but they’d rather drive an extra 10 minutes to go to RIO than to spend 15 minutes trying to find parking around us and then pay the additional parking,” said Bob Daly, the franchisee of the Rockville California Tortilla. “People are very sensitive to even a $2 or $4 parking charge.”

Regal recently underwent a multimillion dollar renovation of its theater to add in larger, reclining seats.

“Nationwide, when our theaters renovate, we usually see a 50 to 60 percent increase in attendance, even with half the seats we used to have,” Regal assistant manager Eric Franklin said. “We’ve now been in business with our new recliners since mid-November. We’ve only seen a 20 percent increase. This is something that is concerning.”

Franklin said another frequent issue concerns moviegoers who park and go out for dinner in the adjoining Town Square property before coming to a movie. Regal cannot validate parking for those who park in Town Square’s three garages, leading to costly parking fees.

Some business owners took issue with the city’s 195 on-street parking meters in the downtown area. Most of the meters are enforced from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Maximum time limits vary from 30 minutes (to encourage customer turnover) to two hours and rates are $1 an hour in the commercial areas.

“We’ve gotten some feedback from customers, some who we’ve had for 26 years and that we haven’t seen anymore,” said Scott Feldman, owner of Giuseppi’s Pizza Plus. “These are people that have come in every week on the same night of the week to pick up pizzas for their families and they don’t come in anymore because they’ve come in, waited in line and they’ve come out and found a $40 ticket on their windshield. That gets to be an expensive night.”

Marc Dubick, president of Duball, told the council his company agreed to honor the parking validation arrangement the Regal Row merchants had with the previous property owner. But Dubick warned that one way or another, the parking garages of downtown Rockville and other similar mixed-use projects must be paid for.

Downtown Bethesda garages are paid for in part from taxes on central business district properties. Last year, the fund to pay for maintenance and operations of Bethesda’s garages was on the verge of going broke before the county changed its funding structure.

“We have debt. We have obligations,” Dubick said. “So who’s going to pay for it? The tenants, the customers, the government, somebody has to pay for it. That’s just the reality of it.”

Dubick also agreed with council member Julie Palakovich Carr’s suggestion that more density could put more people and potential customers on the street, especially during the workday. He disagreed with Trehan’s comparison of Rockville to Reston, where parking is free part of the day.

“If we had 10 more office buildings [like Reston], there would be nobody sitting here tonight,” Dubick said.

Rita Gale, who oversees the Montgomery County Public Libraries facilities and strategic planning division, told the council the county is currently paying for Rockville Memorial Library employees to park in the area. The library is one of the anchor tenants in Federal Realty’s Town Square project.

Gale said her experience with library patrons at the system’s downtown branches provides a good explanation for the feelings of potential customers when it comes to parking.

“In their minds, in a suburban environment, the concept is that you have free parking. I think in many peoples’ minds, in an urban setting because there’s public transportation, people are more likely to pay for parking,” Gale said. “But we don’t consider Rockville to be an urban setting. We consider it to be suburban, and that’s part of the reason why people come here expecting free parking.”