Downtown Rockville business owners on Monday night told the city’s council that parking spaces requiring payment are to blame for their declining sales and that unless something changes, “you’re going to have a lot of boarded up businesses.”
That’s what Marc Sosin, who owns the Ben & Jerry’s location near the Regal Cinemas on East Montgomery Avenue, had to say about the situation, while bemoaning the free parking offered at the RIO Washingtonian Center and Downtown Crown retail developments in Gaithersburg.
Bob Daly, franchisee of the California Tortilla on East Montgomery Avenue, told the council the restaurant earned $1.45 million in sales in 2000, his first year operating the location, and did $900,000 in sales last year while paying a higher rent. Daly said he sold the restaurant and then took it back over in 2014 after paying for a half-million dollar renovation.
“It’s been a disaster for me now and I really regret at this point taking it back over,” Daly said. “I don’t think you guys realize how much we’re suffering here. We’re basically slaves now. We’re stuck in these leases.”
Business owners along East Montgomery Avenue and in Rockville Town Square have long complained about the impact of customers having to pay for parking at street meters or in garages, especially on Saturdays when parking is free in public garages in places such as downtown Bethesda.
In February, the council and Mayor Bridge Donnell Newton held a forum that included the business owners and a parking consultant for Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT), the developer of Rockville Town Square. The city leased three city-owned garages with a combined 958 total spaces on the property to FRIT in 2011.
FRIT operates the garages with daily paid parking under a 50-year agreement in which it pays the city about $315,000 in annual rent and an additional $50,000 annually in a revenue-sharing formula.
While FRIT does provide free parking for the first two hours if a driver gets the parking ticket validated at a local business, the parking consultant said in February the parking revenue is needed to pay for garage operating costs and the annual rent required by the lease agreement.
Marc Dubick, president of development company Duball, told the council during the same meeting that his company must charge for parking because it’s obligated to pay off the debt of building the parking garage under its Cambria hotel and The Upton apartment project that fronts East Montgomery Avenue.
On Monday, Newton directed city staff to study options such as hiring a consultant to improve parking signage, changing the length of time allowed at meters and the amount of money charged for a violation.
Council member Mark Pierzchala, concerned about the frequent angry complaints the city gets from drivers who have received $40 tickets at expired street meters, suggested a five-minute grace period.
He suggested parking enforcement officials carry a yellow card that can be placed on a vehicle’s windshield when its meter is expired.
“They get their five minutes free extra time, then they get the ticket,” Pierzchala said. “When people really get angry is when they’re 30 seconds late and the ticket’s being written. This way, they get the message but they don’t get the $40 ticket.”
Alice Nappy, executive director of the VisArts art gallery in Rockville Town Square, said she’d like the city to study how much revenue would be lost if parking was free during the weekends.
“I know that there are businesses that are going to leave” if there aren’t changes concerning parking, she said.