Post #289: A more-fully-worked-out plan for municipal parking at the Sunrise facility

Posted on May 31, 2019

In Post #282, I outlined the evolution of the proposed Sunrise assisted living facility at Maple and Center.  In a nutshell, it is a history of the building becoming steadily better as more retail space was removed.  More functional as a 100-bed assisted living facility, and with somewhat better parking for that facility, and so less likely to burden the already-overburdened parking in that area.

In that post I made a plea for the Town Council to step up and finish the job.  Get rid of the oddly-shaped 2200-square-foot vestige of retail space, and, in effect, convert that to municipal parking.   The lack of parking in that area was brought up repeatedly in public testimony about Sunrise.

In this post, I will lay out a plan in greater detail.  The upshot is that metered parking spaces would almost certainly pay the Town’s interest on the money used to buy those spaces.  And, plausibly, over a 10-year time horizon, metered parking at that location could cost the Town nothing.

In a nutshell, I now propose that the Town ask Sunrise to get rid of the remaining 2200 square feet of retail space.   See the post cited above for why I think that retail space is unlikely to be successful.  And then ask Sunrise to tweak the building design, to the extent possible, to convert that space into ground-level parking.

Plausibly, this might create perhaps 20 – 25 ground-level parking places — the 12 originally required for the retail plus maybe that many again from the 2200 square feet of (former) retail floor space.

I would propose that the Town buy those spaces from Sunrise and make them into metered municipal parking spaces.   So, say, 20 ground level metered parking places at the corner of Maple and Center.

The setup

I would not make these free.  You want to charge enough to discourage those visiting the Sunrise facility from using those spaces.  You want to divert the Sunrise traffic to the adjoining free (or really, pre-paid) spaces dedicated to Sunrise’s use.

Also, separately, to an economist, it’s just-plain-nuts to have free municipal parking in an area that is short of parking.  If a resource is scarce, people should pay for it.

I would set up the fee structure so that this provided nearly-free parking to anyone who wanted to pop into one of the local stores.  So, perhaps 25 cents or 50 cents for the first half-hour.   But elevate the parking rates for longer stays, again, to discourage Sunrise visitors from using this space.

A nice thing about modern metered parking is that a) you need just one credit-card-swipe device to serve a lot this size, and b) the rates are set by software.  There would be no bar to having peak and off-peak pricing, for example.  And it would be no technical challenge to have a modest sign at the entrance showing the number of empty metered municipal parking spaces available.

There are enforcement and contracting issues that would have to be dealt with.  If you have municipal metered parking, you have to have somebody to write tickets for the scofflaws.  And Sunrise would probably have to dedicate some resources to keeping non-Sunrise users from parking in the Sunrise space.  (Although, in all likelihood, they are going to have to do that anyway, at this location.)  And there has to be a contract with the entity running the metered parking, whose cost I could not even begin to guess.

This may be unattractive to Sunrise for a variety of sound reasons.  Liability, for one.  More traffic around an elderly and impaired population, for another.  Loss of the modest income stream from rental of the retail space.  Potential conflicts with ambulance and truck traffic.  So I would not for a moment think they would jump for joy at this proposal.

But if the sticking point for this location is parking, then this turns them from villain to hero.  Businesses who oppose them for the potential to squeeze local parking even further might now see them as a source of much-needed parking capacity.  And the additional metered parking provides a cushion for the handful of “crunch” holidays that assisted living facilities face.  Finally, if worst comes to worst and the Sunrise parking is in fact inadequate, Sunrise could offer to validate the parking  for their visitors (or even employees), and, in effect, pay the Town on a space-by-space basis for their miscalculation of their parking needs.

The economics

Let me pull a number out of thin air and say that the Town would pay Sunrise $15,000 per parking place.  That’s ballpark with other parking proposals that the Town has considered.  How much revenue do those meters have to pull in to justify that $15,000 outlay?

First, they need to cover the interest on the money the Town would borrow to buy those spaces.  Currently, the Town pays a little over 2% annual interest.  So, roughly speaking, to cover the interest on the loan, the meters would have to pull in (2% x $15,000 = ) $300 annually.  Less than a dollar a day in order to cover the interest on the loan used to buy the spaces.

If the meters pulled in an average of $5/day, that would cover the interest and just shy of $1500 per year for paying off the principal.  At that rate, the metered spaces would fully pay for themselves in a decade or less.

That timing is important, because the Town is planning to put a municipal parking garage across the street at the Patrick Henry Library.  I would guess that if that happens, that might be built within 10 years.  So at that point, if the Town makes the parking in that garage free, there would be limited demand for the Sunrise metered spaces.

If that all comes to pass, then my proposed solution harks back to the Commonwealth of my youth.  As I recall it, back in the day, when Virginia built toll roads, bridges, or tunnels, they would typically (but not always) match the tolls to the value of the bonds that were issued to fund the construction.  And when the total collected tolls had paid off the bonds — the Commonwealth would rip out the toll booths.  This differentiated Virginia from most other states, because they offered a truly square deal on toll-based infrastructure.  Once the (road, bridge, tunnel) was paid for, it was no longer subject to tolls.

Maybe that’s the right solution here.  If the Town is going to make parking “free” (really, prepaid with your taxes) in the mid-20’s, then at that point, if the Sunrise metered spaces have paid for themselves — rip out the meter.  If you ever reach the point where there is ample “free” parking in that part of Vienna, there will no longer be a strong rationale for paying for those spaces.

At that point, will Sunrise visitors use the more convenient surface parking?  Sure, that’s a pretty good bet.  But at that point, if parking is ample, there’s little harm in that.

The upshot is that Sunrise helps the Town get through a decade of tight parking in that area.  And if all works out well, in a decade or so, Sunrise patrons are as welcome to use those now-free municipal spaces as anyone visiting any other commercial establishment in the area.