A place to park it

Posted: May 20, 2013

The Winchester Star

Curbside parking was available for a few cars along Loudoun Street in the 1960s. Knowing that these spaces would be eliminated with the creation of a pedestrian mall, the city formed a Parking Authority that built the city’s first parking garage and created more off-street parking.
Winchester Parking Authority Chairman Richard Helm and Winchester Parking Authority Director Samantha Anderson pose on the seventh floor of the George Washington Autopark in the city’s downtown. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)


In the 1960s, city leaders readily agreed that changes should be made along Loudoun Street to enhance the shopping experience by making it more pedestrian-friendly.


But there was one issue that had to be resolved before anything could be done to Loudoun Street — parking. There just wasn’t enough. And the problem would only be exacerbated by making any changes that eliminated parking spaces.


“The one thing we didn’t have at the time was really adequate parking,” recalled James R. Wilkins Jr., whose family ran Wilkins Shoe Center on Loudoun Street and whose father was an early member of the Winchester Parking Authority. “We had gravel lots.”


That began to change in 1964 when the Parking Authority was created by the Virginia General Assembly at the behest of City Council. Its charge was to acquire and manage downtown parking assets, and because it was an authority it could take on debt that didn’t have to be carried on the city’s books.


By the time the Loudoun Street Mall opened in November 1974, the authority controlled 715 off-street spaces, including 303 in the 2-year-old Braddock Street Autopark.


The authority now manages about 500 on-street and surface-lot parking spaces and more than 1,700 garage spots. Its garages are the Braddock Street Autopark at 30 N. Braddock St., the Loudoun Street Autopark at 50 E. Fairfax Lane, the Court Square Autopark at 2 S. Cameron St. and the George Washington Autopark at 131 N. Kent St.


Parking is everything


Adequate, safe, easy-to-find parking is vital for a business district, according to economic development professionals.


“Somebody can come to a business district, drive around for three blocks, find nothing, and drive off and never come back again,” said Terry Holzheimer, director of economic development for Arlington County and a professor in practice in the urban affairs and planning department at Virginia Tech.


“You need good signage to parking garages and information about where other parking is. People want to be able to find parking quickly, they want to be able to feel safe, and they want it as cheap as humanly possible.”


Jim Deskins, Winchester’s economic redevelopment director, agrees. He said downtown parking resources support the city’s financial district, government district, and legal and accounting firms as well as the restaurants and retailers along Loudoun Street Mall.


“Parking’s everything for commercial space,” Deskins said. “People are not going to come downtown for our nightclubs and restaurants if they don’t have a place to park.”


City Manager Dale Iman has seen a lack of adequate parking inhibit the redevelopment of downtown districts, especially in Fayetteville, N.C., where he worked before coming to Winchester. During his tenure there, steps were taken to rectify a decades-old parking problem.


“They’re undergoing a renaissance period,” Iman said, “and the parking has helped.”


Wilkins, who has served on both the Parking Authority and City Council, said many people don’t understand how parking spaces are supposed to be used. Garages are the best place for long-term parkers because on-street spaces should be left open for quick stops.


“Your spaces are supposed to turn over,” he said. “I don’t like paying for parking any more than the next guy, but the space in front of your store should turn over 20 or 30 times in a day.”


Changing patterns


The city subsidized parking for years, according to Richard Helm, the Parking Authority’s chairman. But in recent years the philosophy has shifted more toward having parkers carry the financial load to pay for parking service instead of the greater taxpaying public.


Deskins said the construction of parking garages was necessitated because of the presence of Winchester’s National Historic District.


Old buildings can’t be torn down to create surface lots, he said, so garages have both met the parking demand and preserved the architecture and character that draws people downtown.


Though the city’s four autoparks get heavy use each weekday, the garages only fill to capacity on the Friday and Saturday of the annual Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, according to Samantha Anderson, the Parking Authority’s executive director,


But usage patterns are changing. Anderson said more people are using the garages while dining or enjoying entertainment downtown, and the increased number of downtown apartments is boosting use by residents.


Iman sums it up like this: People are not going to come and enjoy what we have on the Loudoun Street Mall if parking isn’t convenient or if they don’t feel safe getting from parking to the restaurants and shops.


“I see the parking structures as a real asset for Old Town Winchester. They’re strategically located in that they provide access from a variety of adjacent locations.”


Helm, a commercial real estate agent with the Virginia Property Group, said parking seldom is an issue for clients seeking commercial space downtown.


Some “old-school business people” want to see spaces that they control in front of their business, he said, but parking rarely is an issue for most potential tenants from outside the area.


“Most of the folks who come in are used to going to the big malls, the big urban centers,” Helm said. “They look around and say parking around here is not a problem.”


— Contact Vic Bradshaw at vbradshaw@winchesterstar.com