Parking limit reconsidered

City abruptly set time cap on spaces near Penn Station

July 07, 2008|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Reporter

Danielle Davis used to be able to find a free-all-day parking space on Calvert Street early each weekday morning before catching her MARC train for her commute to Washington.

But since last month, when the city Parking Authority abruptly restricted parking to two hours at a time, the 25-year-old worker for a federal government contractor has had to shell out $7 to $12 for a parking space or settle for a space farther away, where she doesn't feel safe walking at night.

The city made the change about June 23 at the behest of the developers of the National Railway Express Building. Peter E. Little, executive director of the Parking Authority, said last week that the decision was made because the development plans call for street-level retail shops.

However, he said the decision to convert what he estimated as 45-50 on-street spaces between Mount Royal Avenue and Federal Street to restricted parking is being re-evaluated. Jawauna Greene, spokeswoman for the Maryland Transit Administration, which operates MARC, said her agency had not been consulted by the city on the parking changes roughly two blocks from Penn Station.

"This just wasn't on our radar screen at all," she said.

Greene said the move would have "a big impact" on MARC train riders. She said the MTA would have alerted its Penn Line customers who use Penn Station had it known of the move.

The newly restricted stretch of Calvert Street, largely consisting of a bridge over the Jones Falls Expressway and Amtrak tracks, is not currently in heavy use by local residents or retail customers. A visitor to the site at midday this week spotted only three cars parked on the two blocks where the new 2-hour permit parking signs have been erected.

At the Railway Express Building itself, there is little sign of current retail activity except a sign proclaiming: "Coming Soon: Cafe Mocha" on the north side of the building facing a private parking lot with two dozen to 30 spaces. Another 20 potential spaces for future retail customers lie within one block on two-hour meters on St. Paul Street. There are no retail spaces fronting Calvert Street.

Hugh Lenzer, a Northeast Baltimore video consultant who periodically uses MARC when he has jobs in Washington, said the change came as a surprise to him when he recently tried to park on a block where he previously was always able to find a space before 6 a.m.

"It's a terrible idea. If you're going to put signs up like that, you've got to give some notice to people," he said.

Lenzer, 44, said he tried to call the Parking Authority but couldn't get his calls returned. He expressed concern that MARC riders would be forced to seek parking spots that aren't as well-lit at night as the now-restricted blocks.

"That neighborhood isn't the best neighborhood in the world," he said.

It's a concern shared by Davis, who said that on some mornings she has ended up parking farther up Calvert Street, near North Avenue.

"Being a female and walking that far, it's definitely not safe," she said. "Up Calvert Street it's not well-lit and it just seems a little shady," she said.

The alternative, she said, is to leave her car in one of the garages or lots surrounding Penn Station, where she said parking costs $7-$12 a day. She said that adds up to a weekly cost that will discourage ridership on MARC, which provides free parking at most of its suburban stations.

"People are going to [be] car-pooling to D.C. and forget mass transit," she said.

The development for which the parking restrictions were sought is the restoration of the 1929 Railway Express Building between St. Paul and Calvert streets. The development, whose recent dedication was attended by Mayor Sheila Dixon, includes lofts, offices and off-street parking as well a space for retail shops.

The development team for the project includes several members with extensive political connections, including Ronald H. Lipscomb, whose ties to Dixon are the subject of an investigation by the state prosecutor's office.

Dixon has said she had a personal relationship with Lipscomb in 2003 and early 2004, when she was City Council president. She acknowledged that she and Lipscomb had exchanged gifts during that period.

As council president, Dixon had a vote on the city's Board of Estimates, which approved deals benefiting Lipscomb's company during that relationship. In August 2004 that board approved a deal under which Railway Express LLC - including Lipscomb, Martin P. Azola of Azola & Associates, Kenneth Banks of Banks Contracting Co. and former City Councilman Anthony Ambridge - bought the station-area building for $1.2 million.

Messages left for Banks, Azola and Ambridge were not returned. An assistant to Lipscomb said he had left town and would not be reachable.

Little, the city parking chief, said the decision was made by "street staff" at the agency without political interference. "There were no calls from City Hall regarding this matter at all," he said.

His agency sent officials to the site Thursday to assess the parking situation and talk with the developers about how much parking they actually need for retail operations.

"We are actively working on this and re-evaluating the decision to limit the durations on the parking there," he said.

But Little also admitted his agency had not given sought the opinion of the MTA or notified MARC commuters before making the move.

"It doesn't look as if all of our i's were dotted and all of our t's were crossed in this case," he said. "It looks like now that it probably will be changed."

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