By Jody Fellows and Matt Delaney
Parking in the City of Falls Church has become a frictional topic following the opening of Northside Social on the corner of Park and N. Maple Ave a little more than two months ago.
Confusion over where to park and encroachment on nearby lots has led to an unprecedented 13,000-percent surge in towing, plus safety concerns arising from new public street parking have dulled the shine on a popular new spot in the City.
Some in the community have called it the result of poor planning, while others think it’s just the natural disruption associated with the opening of a popular new business and it will all eventually work itself out.
When the wine and coffee bar from Arlington’s Liberty Tavern restaurant group debuted this past June, it did so with just one parking spot — an ADA-compliant space — rather than the 28 required by the City’s zoning code for a business of its size. This was possible due to a recommendation by the Historical Architecture Review Board and in turn signed off on by the Planning Commission, since the ownership group was renovating and restoring a historical property.
The multi-million dollar project more than tripled the size of the existing structure, transforming the squirrel-infested, abandoned and dilapidated Cloverdale House (built in 1797 and one of the oldest houses in the City) into a beautiful two-story cafe with a spacious front patio and two outdoor dining decks.
However, the near-instant popularity of the establishment combined with virtually no on-site parking has coincided with 131 vehicles being towed from the surrounding area since Northside Social opened on June 11, according to City of Falls Church towing records. In the first almost five-and-half months of 2018 prior to its opening, just 16 cars were towed from that same area.
Last year, just one vehicle was towed from the area during the same time span of June 11 until Aug. 17. In fact, since Northside Social opened, more vehicles have been towed in the surrounding neighborhoods than were towed in the previous 10 years combined during that same two month span.
Residents, patrons and business owners alike have expressed their confusion and frustration to the News-Press about the lack of onsite parking for the City’s trendy new restaurant, especially when there is a routinely empty, nine-space parking lot connected to the Northside property.
That parking lot actually belongs to 105 Maple Associates, housing both Kerns Group Architects and Moore Architects in the building at next-door 105 N. Maple Ave. During Northside’s construction, Brian Frickie, a principal at Kerns and the managing member for 105 Maple Associates, had an informal agreement with Northside contractors for them to use their parking lot. But upon its opening, the restaurant’s owners have been hot and cold on striking a formal agreement to use the spots.
Still, the fact that a long-awaited eatery from a popular Arlington restaurant group was permitted to open with almost no parking in place to accommodate the influx of vehicles has left many frustrated with the City and its apparent lack of a plan.
However, Falls Church Director of Community Planning and Economic Development Services James Snyder told the News-Press that Northside Social and its unique circumstances are, in fact, part of a larger plan for the Little City.
““[The Cloverdale House] had become a maintenance and property management problem,” Snyder told the News-Press. “There were squirrels living in it, it was vacant and we had concerns people were squatting in it.”
An empty property contributing next to nothing to the tax base combined with the structure’s rundown state meant the City was willing to make some concessions in order to transform the site.
And because of its designation as a historic property, the Planning Commission had the authority to determine parking requirements based on the recommendation of the City’s Historical Commission which suggested off-street parking requirements be modified or waived. The Northside site plan was also consistent with the City’s small area plan for downtown Falls Church, which additionally suggests the relaxation of parking requirements for dining establishments.
“Harris Teeter was one of the big projects, this was one of the smaller, infill pieces,” Snyder said referring to the downtown plan. “We’re trying to have complimentary large- and small-scale projects that create a very interesting downtown.”
Falls Church Planning Director Paul Stoddard agrees.
“The first problem of how do you turn an abandoned vacant building into a successful, vibrant restaurant — that problem has been solved,” Stoddard said. “Now it seems like the problem that needs to be solved is how can we help people get there while making sure that everybody in the area has sufficient access to the business, whether it be by bike or by bus or by car.”
As for the spike in towing, Stoddard said the possibility of a surge wasn’t discussed prior to the opening of Northside and Snyder said that while it’s being monitored, it’s not the City’s responsibility.
“Each business is responsible for the towing off of their lot,” Snyder said. He also thinks the rise could be because nearby property owners may have recently told towing companies to be on the lookout for violators.
“Some of this is everybody getting used to the activity,” he said. “Hopefully, it will calm down somewhat.”
And while he thinks the growing pains will eventually pass, Snyder said he also recognizes the need for additional parking downtown, as does Falls Church City Council member Letty Hardi, who worked with the planning department to create 25 new on-street space along Park Ave. and N. Maple, adjacent to Northside.
The announcement of the added parking came little more than a month after the eatery’s opening but City officials stress it wasn’t done for the new restaurant.
“[The new parking] is not a reaction to anything in general, we’ve discussed it for a long time,” said Hardi who is also in the process of creating a parking task force. “It’s a personal pet issue.”
“It’s not being done for Northside,” Snyder echoed about the new spaces. “It’s being done for the downtown, period.”
Some local property and business owners, however, are unhappy with the reactive nature of the process and think the City’s new restaurant is getting preferential treatment.
One property owner, who asked not to be named, feels taken advantage of when visitors use his private lot to frequent nearby businesses. He admitted he didn’t have a problem with the City’s plan for parking at Northside until he saw it in action.
He believes Northside’s opening doesn’t contribute to “an epidemic in towing, [but] an epidemic in people parking where they aren’t supposed to.”
Sally Cole, executive director of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, also thinks the City should have taken more steps to address the parking issue prior to Northside opening.
“It’s the City’s responsibility. The City did that. You can’t blame Northside for doing that,” Cole told the News-Press. “The City did it without a plan in place.”
Even so, Cole says while everyone wants more parking, she thinks there is currently plenty of it in the City.
Local developer Bob Young agrees and told the News-Press the City tasks developers to supply more than ample parking which raises the overall costs on projects.
But this particular development and its next-to-no parking requirement had plenty of warning signs says David Oliver.
Oliver, part of the ownership group of 207 Park Ave. and an immediate neighbor of Northside Social, wrote a letter to the Planning Commission with concerns about the proposed development in May of 2015.
“I noted the issue of parking was raised as a concern, however, there was not even the beginning of a serious conversation regarding how the applicant is going to resolve it,” Oliver wrote to the commission after his attendance at a work session that month.
“It would appear that the amount of necessary parking has not been determined despite the fact that a site plan was said to have been submitted,” he continued. “This is a rather large hole in a development application.”
He warned of possible encroachment by Northside patrons in surrounding lots and in a remarkably prescient line said “I would hate to see parking in this area result in towing and become a mini Broaddale which would be upsetting to all parties including the greater public and, potentially, impacting the future success of the Cloverdale venture.”
Oliver’s Broaddale reference refers to the W. Broad St. shopping center which has become notorious for the towing of vehicles from its lot. Coincidentally, the center is home to another Liberty Tavern group restaurant, Liberty Barbecue, which opened late last year.
In a recent interview, Oliver told the News-Press he believes the City’s approach to Northside mirrors how Arlington has treated its own commercial entities. Citing his 20 years of experience with the Walter L. Phillips civil engineering firm working on projects in Arlington, Oliver pointed out differences in residential density, metro access and sidewalk size that make the Little City’s neighbor a “whole different animal.”
But Stoddard, the City’s principal planner in 2015, clarifies that while Falls Church is borrowing practices from a regional neighbor — and one he states is recognized as a leader in revitalization, economic development and community planning — it’s also applying those same standards in a Falls Church context. So, the City uses Arlington as a template for visibility and parking distance from the curb, for example, but City staff also makes sure to widen its spaces to be more appropriate for Falls Church.
At the site plan vote in July 2015, there was discussion of the parking situation but Planning Commission chair Rob Meeks said he was “supremely confident on parking.” Despite the concerns in Oliver’s letter, the Planning Commission voted to unanimously pass the Northside site plan with its parking waiver.
Brian Normile, one of Northside’s owners, expressed openness to the idea of finding alternatives to the current parking plan at the July 2015 meeting.
“If we find that we’ll need to find more dedicated parking, I’m sure there are other owners that don’t utilize their parking in the evening that would be interested in a discussion about potentially renting some spaces if we find that that’s something that we really need,” Normile said at the meeting. “But…if you want to come to an establishment, it’s your responsibility to find a parking spot. And the reality is, as an individual property owner, you’ve got to manage your own lot.”
He added, “Our business operates morning, noon and night, it’s not intensive to one time of the day, and our guests are just going to have to find a space.”
Oliver approached Normile about arranging a shared parking agreement soon after Northside won approval, but during their interaction Oliver says the Northside owner didn’t express any interest in coming to an arrangement. Normile’s sentiment was echoed in an informal meeting with local landowners prior to the site’s approval in the summer of 2015. At the meeting, one neighboring property owner, who asked not to be named, asked Normile what the restaurant planned to do about parking. He said Normile responded bluntly, “I don’t need to worry about parking.”
The ownership group behind Northside, however, did start a dialogue with their neighbors located at 105 N. Maple. Ave, owners of the parking lot adjacent to the restaurant. According to Frickie, Northside’s owners expressed interest in a parking lease agreement in concept during the fall of 2015, a few months after the site plan was approved. However, by spring 2016 the owners backed out of the agreement. In early April of this year, Frickie was again approached about parking by Northside, but by the end of that same month interest had dissolved. Since its June opening, signs have been posted on the doors at Northside warning customers of the parking situation and the potential for towing. The note also says the restaurant is “working to reserve spaces specifically for Northside guests.”
When contacted by the News-Press about the parking situation at Northside Social, Mark Fedorchak, one of the restaurant group’s owners, responded in an email “We’d rather not comment on this particular topic at this time.”
At least one potential Northside customer told the News-Press the restaurant’s confusing parking lot and lack of parking means she won’t be eating there.
“I’m not going to Northside,” longtime Falls Church resident Linda Hart wrote in a letter to the News-Press. “It put a bad taste in my mouth.”
Her poor experience stems from an incident soon after the restaurant opened when her boyfriend was nearly towed from a Kerns parking space while he ran in to Northside to grab a menu. “He was in there 30 seconds and when he was getting back in his car, a tow truck showed up,” she said.
Despite not hooking up his vehicle, Hart says the driver from Pete’s Towing and Storage still charged her boyfriend a $25 “near-tow” fee.
Hart said that while an owner from Northside came out to apologize, there was no cone blocking the space and the spot’s markings — the address for Kerns — were unclear.
“We would have obeyed the rules if we had known them,” she told the News-Press. “Who’s going to stop and look at what the address is?”
“We threw the menu in the garbage can,” Hart continued. “We just won’t eat there.”
And while towing has most likely hit Northside customers the hardest, the rapid — and what some have called predatory — response from Pete’s Towing is also affecting patrons from nearby businesses as well as other business owners.
Arlington’s Susan Carr, who drives into the City for regular sessions at Curves, was towed when she inadvertently parked in a space she says was not clearly marked.
“I didn’t realize I was trespassing on some other property. I thought I was just being kind,” she told the News-Press about pulling through a space to allow someone else to park behind her on a busy Saturday in Falls Church.
Her reward for a good deed? A $150 towing charge from Pete’s.
Unbeknownst to her, when she pulled forward into the connected space, she went from a Curves-designated space to one belonging to the adjacent property at 207 Park Ave.
“I would love for there to be clear delineation between the two parking areas,” she said.
The combination of a bustling new business, confusing parking signs and an aggressive tow truck company has also resulted in one Park Ave. business owner getting towed from in front of that person’s store.
“I’ve never been in an environment when I’ve had to be concerned that I might be towed when I’m at work or when I’m at lunch,” the owner, who asked to remain anonymous, told the News-Press.
The prolific towing numbers from Pete’s is due in part to the company’s use of “spotters.” The News-Press has received multiple reports that Pete’s Towing uses people to monitor lots and then alert tow truck drivers to parking violators. Ironically, these same spotters have been seen observing the lots while occupying the City’s public parking spaces, taking up valuable parking real estate during peak parking times.
Since lawmakers in Richmond did away with the “second signature” requiring property owners to sign off on each towed vehicle last year, all towing companies need is an initial agreement from a property owner or business and then the OK to tow anyone it deems is in violation of the parking regulations. The City’s current towing fee is $135 with an additional $25 charge if the tow is at night or on weekends.
The News-Press made multiple attempts to contact Pete’s Towing for comment but did not receive a response.
A majority of Falls Church’s towing regulations, in addition to its towing fees, are set by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and thus there is little the City can do to rein in the predatory, but still lawful, towing practices. But City officials told the News-Press they are doing whatever they can to improve the downtown parking situation.
In addition to the new parking along Park Ave. and N. Maple, Council member Hardi said she would like to see parking go all the way down Little Falls St. “as long as there’s enough room.”
Though, while the additional on-street parking has helped alleviate the demand around Northside Social, several people have expressed safety concerns arising from the resulting narrower roadways.
In a letter to the editor, Peter Markham told the News-Press he almost struck a woman getting out of her car in one of the new Park Ave. spaces. In another letter, Dick Doyle called the situation “a pending disaster” concluding that it is “inevitable someone will be injured from the absurd crowding caused by a parking lane on an already narrow and busy road.”
Hart, whose boyfriend was almost towed from Northside, lives on N. Maple and said she had to swerve to other side of the street while she was driving down the street when someone opened a car door.
“Mark my words,” she told the News-Press, “there’s going to be an accident there.”
But both Hardi and Snyder say the additional parking should help with traffic calming.
“I think a lot of people use Park as a cut through and there were some people going pretty fast,” Snyder said. “Slowing down in an urban place like Falls Church is important. You have to be more vigilant and more careful.”
Snyder said that lane striping and the delineation of the parking lanes (both delayed because of the recent wet weather) will help improve the situation. He also told the News-Press there has been talk of expanding the curb out at Park and N. Maple to add pedestrian visibility and protection for the new spaces on the southside of the intersection.
In addition to creating new street parking, City officials agree more needs to be done to address the situation.
Shared parking is seen by the City as the ideal solution to accommodate Falls Church’s downtown parking demand as well their vision about what Falls Church will look like in the future. That vision includes transforming the downtown area into a walkable, bikeable — and yes, drivable — locale for residents and visitors.
Per Stoddard, the City is trending away from motor-dominant modes of transportation. Citing Falls Church census data, Stoddard notes that 70 percent of owner-occupied single family homes own two or more cars. On the flip side, 70 percent of renter-occupied households have one or fewer cars, with 14 percent of those households owning no car at all.
“That’s where the City’s transportation policy has been going,” Stoddard added, mentioning how the City began this policy shift in 2014. “That’s what the City has been investing in — multiple modes of transportation. You’re starting to see that come about through the different kinds of infrastructure, grants and projects that are being implemented in the City.”
Falls Church has sought to make it easier for property owners to enter into shared parking agreements. After a 2016 shared parking analysis by the City recommended changes, it amended its zoning code governing shared parking agreements, allowing for looser restrictions on the amount of off-street between two different structures.
Convincing landlords to agree to share parking, on the other hand, is more difficult than it appears. For one, getting a written contract that accounts for everything from maintenance to security to liability coverage is a challenge in of itself. Adding in the potential for towing companies to tow according to site maps instead of private agreements, according to Bob Young, provides an extra layer of burden when making the arrangements.
Stoddard also brought up that City staff is looking into ways to extend its liability coverage for businesses who enter shared parking agreements. That way, they’re more likely to enter the agreements for the public good.
One example of a positive shared parking agreement is between Jeff Jeffrey, owner of Cue Recording on Park Ave, and Sam Miglani, owner of Apna Bazaar Jewelry. The two owners’ agreement is in principle only though, but it works for Jeffrey.
“His building is attached to my building,” Jeffrey said. “We know, respect and trust each other to handle repairs and maintenance appropriately and have aligned goals. I’m happy to work out a parking arrangement with Sam.”
Snyder and Hardi told the News-Press the City is actively exploring ways of better letting people know where existing parking is located. For instance, most people know of the City’s agreement with Kaiser Permanente for Friday night and weekend parking in its garage but few are aware of the 130 available spaces on evenings and weekends at the George Mason Square garage.
Hardi said she’d like to see light-up signage on both garages alerting drivers, especially those who live outside the City, to the available parking there.
Both she and Snyder, along with the Economic Development Authority, have also discussed painting the City’s public spots a different color so people know they’re public spaces. Hardi thinks bright green, similar to the bike racks, might work.
And while some property owners, like Young and Jeffrey, support the idea of building a garage to help with parking, City officials aren’t fond of that idea.
In 2015, the City was considering building a $3.4 million 109-space public parking deck near the library but the conclusion of its 2016 shared parking analysis instead recommended shared parking agreements with surrounding businesses as a much cheaper alternative.
“Parking garages are great but they’re very expensive,” Snyder said. “We’re trying to rebuild City Hall, the library, the schools. Building a public parking garage would be a big undertaking and we think we could do better managing parking and better using the parking which is available.”
Despite the towing and the ongoing confusion about parking arising after the addition of Northside Social, Snyder thinks all the added activity downtown is, overall, a positive development for the Little City.
“The good news is we have an active, vital business area with restaurants who are doing good business,” Snyder said. “And we have a lot of people coming here and that helps with the tax base.”
“There are these growing pains you have,” he said, “but I’m excited about the things being done in the City.”