(Updated at 12:40 p.m. to correct title of Kathy Walsh. She is marketing director of the Fallston Group, not of Boston Properties.)
Following Monday’s meeting of Reston Town Center merchants discussing their concerns with Town Center owner Boston Properties’ handling of paid parking, Reston Now reached out to Boston Properties with some questions.
Printed below is the full text of the responses received from Kathy Walsh, marketing director of the Fallston Group and a spokesperson for Boston Properties.
Q: Has Boston Properties met/spoken with any of the merchants since paid parking began? Are there any plans in the near future to do so?
A: Yes. Boston Properties team members remain in routine, personal contact with merchants, particularly around the paid parking model and its roll-out. The ongoing communication occurs at differing levels within each organization, from business owners to management.
Q: Does BP have any response to the claims sales went down 10-50 percent in January?
A: Although Boston Properties generally doesn’t receive January revenue data until February or March of the same year, they have specifically reached out to retailers to more quickly analyze January 2016 to January 2017 revenue data. Upon close analysis, it is clear that some of the most vocal retailers who have publicly claimed year-over-year sales are down due to paid parking are actually experiencing sales increases for that time period. It is important to emphasize this is a 30-day snapshot and not a longer-term trend, and this reflects a small sampling of retailers. Boston Properties will continue to closely analyze all revenue activity.
Q: Has there been any discussion internally at BP about what this change has done to the business climate at RTC?
A: While Boston Properties fully expects to see some change upon the onset of paid parking, our data reflects far less impact than what is being reported publicly by certain merchants. For instance, when analyzing parking occupancy in garages Monday through Friday from 4:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m., there were 68,000 visits in January, compared to 72,000 in November, which is naturally higher as the holiday shopping season kicks off. We believe this is a normal seasonal decrease. Interestingly, data shows that, on average, those visitors stayed longer in January – 4.59 hours – as compared to November (4.5) and December (4.25).
Q: A business owner at [Monday]’s meeting claimed she signed a new lease last year and BP’s plan to switch to paid parking was not disclosed. Was the intention to implement paid parking disclosed to all incoming/renewing businesses?
A: Without exception, there is language about paid parking built into every lease, so any renewing or new tenants should have been fully aware of the possibility.
Q: Is BP confident about maintaining paid parking as is?
A: While Boston Properties is confident paid parking is here to stay, the paid parking model has only been activated for five weeks. As Boston Properties continues to monitor impact and feedback, Boston Properties will assess if modifications to the system and process are necessary.
Walsh also said paid parking has not been the explicit reason for any retailers leaving Reston Town Center since its implementation.
“Every tenant who has left either already planned to leave Reston Town Center and was in the process of negotiating their departure or closed their doors for other business reasons.”
Walsh said 13 retailers renewed leases in the Town Center in 2016. Already in 2017, she said, two have renewed and four new retail leases are in progress.
The spokesperson also stressed that Boston Properties has determined that many owners of Reston Town Center establishments have “a very high degree of concern” about what people representing their businesses are saying publicly:
“Through Boston Properties’ efforts to engage retailers, they have determined that many of the most vocal people allegedly representing Reston Town Center retailers are employees rather than owners of those establishments. Boston Properties has had numerous discussions with owners and senior managers who have indicated they do not share their employees’ views or approve of their behavior in response to paid parking. In fact, Boston Properties has received numerous calls from retailers who expressed a very high degree of concern about the public posture of a few. Candidly, they want no part of those who are attempting to dissuade customers from coming to Reston Town Center.”
In regard to the ParkRTC app, Walsh said the number of phone calls and emails regarding questions about the app have “dropped significantly,” though she says Boston Properties understands some people continue to experience frustration.
“Boston Properties is continuing to work to implement changes to make it even more user-friendly. Many people are successfully using the app, with 78% of daily parkers paying via the app. There have also been 75,000 downloads of the app to date, with an average of 1,000 new downloads per day.”
While a number of people have expressed fears about the security of the app, Walsh said those worries are unfounded:
“The ParkRTC app is supported by Passport, the largest provider of mobile payment software for parking in North America. Both Passport Inc. and Reston Town Center take the important responsibility to protect credit card information very seriously. Passport conducts regular audits of its information security systems to ensure there are no vulnerabilities — data security is core to their business. In fact, Passport employs a two factor authentication (2FA) process that requires first-time users to verify their identity by entering a text authorization sent to verify device ownership in addition to a pin number. Passport also holds compliance with PCI DSS Level 1 certification, the most stringent data security framework administered by the PCI Security Standards Council. Passport will never sell or distribute ParkRTC user information to third parties.”
Walsh said Boston Properties has implemented, or plans to implement, a number of system improvements in response to customer feedback, including:
- Doubled the number of parking ambassadors, primarily at night for retail shoppers
- Added educational signage
- Added a list of validating retailers to the app
- Updated the FAQs on the website
- Coming in March, look for an upgraded credit card pay station with a screen three times the size of the current screen and that provides better functionality in extreme weather
Walsh said a task force is working to ensure the future of Reston Town Center is bright.
“Boston Properties has assembled a task force consisting of development, leasing, marketing and property management personnel representing residential, commercial and office properties who are meeting with national consultants to develop and implement a strategy designed to ensure Reston Town Center remains an upscale destination and draw for those looking to live, work, shop and play.”
Aaron Mervis, who manages Big Bowl restaurant and is one of the organizers of the merchants’ group opposing the current paid parking system, issued this statement to Reston Now in response:
“It is important that Boston Properties understands that the Tenants’ goal is to improve the situation in the Reston Town Center and protect their businesses, which will also benefit Boston Properties. Tenants have expressed a large list of concerns directly related to the paid parking, including decreased sales and a significant rise in customer complaints about both the complexity of the system and the cost.”
“Boston Properties’ desire to wait while continuing to analyze the effects on business in the hope the uproar will recede will only make it more difficult to convince disenchanted customers who have changed their eating and buying habits to return. They have many options.”
“While owners and managers of establishments are upset, we also encourage management from Boston Properties to speak directly with the employees of the various stores in the town center for their thoughts on the impact of paid parking. Many of these employees receive tips or commission. As business has slumped, hours have been reduced and they are earning less in commissions and tips.”
The battle between Reston Town Center businesses and RTC owner Boston Properties over paid parking appears to be just beginning.
About 50 people, including dozens of representatives from Town Center restaurants and shops, met Monday at Vapiano restaurant to share information, voice their frustrations and continue to work out how they should proceed. They did so as sales at their shops and restaurants continue to dip, as customers have been staying away from the Town Center since paid parking began Jan. 3.
Monday afternoon’s meeting came on a day when Fairfax County Public Schools had not been in session. Yasser Meshki, general manager of Vapiano, said you wouldn’t know that from the lack of customers in his restaurant.
“Every time, when school is off, we’re packed for lunch,” he said. “We make easily, let’s say $3,000. We didn’t make half of that today.”
Meshki’s comments were among numerous that were shared during the hourlong meeting. Aaron Gordon and Aaron Mervis, of Red Velvet Cupcakery and Big Bowl respectively, are organizing the group. One of the goals of Monday’s meeting was to begin the process of assimilating all the upset businesses under one association that can legally stand together against Reston Town Center.
“We’re not necessarily threatening lawsuit, but we are saying that we can explore a few different avenues,” Gordon said. “The first one is going to be to all get under one umbrella, pitch in a little money and then see where it takes us.”
Representatives of law firm Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman PC, who have not been retained by the group at this time, addressed the crowd and offered some preliminary advice regarding organizing. Gordon and Mervis had company representatives who attended the meeting sign up and show their willingness to join.
Some merchants who spoke during the meeting shared information about how much their sales have dropped from this time last year, with most falling between 10 and 50 percent. Even businesses that appear on the surface to be doing relatively well, such as Potomac River Running, are actually not.
“This weather is fantastic for us, so we’re having much higher sales than we normally would among our eight stores,” said owner Ray Pugsley. “My other seven stores are up between 10 and 50 percent in the last 30 days. This store here is down 4 percent.”
Evan Matz, CEO of World of Beer, said even the customers who are stopping into his restaurant show the effects of paid parking.
“We used to see customers come in with bags after shopping, and they would sit down and have a meal or lunch or a beer or something, but we don’t see those customers come in anymore,” he said. “They’re coming in, doing what they need to do, getting back in their car and leaving right away.”
Concerns about the paid parking are more than just about the cost, the merchants said. They also expressed opinions about the ParkRTC app they say is driving customers away, and about how designated employee parking spots blocks away from stores are causing hardships on their workers, among other issues.
Cliff Hallock, owner of the Ben & Jerry’s on Market Street, said he is extremely concerned about the coming months.
“I’m terrified of what’s going to happen in the future, in terms of lower foot traffic, when things should get busy in [the] March, April, May time frame,” he said. “Close friends of mine are telling me, ‘I’m sorry Cliff, I just don’t go there anymore. I love ya, but we’re not going to go there.'”
Anne Mader, co-owner of The Bike Lane, said she and her husband opened up shop in Reston because of the sense of community. She says that sense is now gone at Reston Town Center.
“Now it’s just disheartening, because it feels so unwelcome. It’s not the Reston community that I grew up in,” said Mader, whose shop is publicly seeking a new home. “It hurts my heart, it makes me sad. I really want to do business here.”
More than 150 people say they will attend a protest of Reston Town Center’s paid parking, and that number is growing.
The scores of potential demonstrators have signaled their intention on a Facebook page titled Park Free RTC (Protest). The group’s organizers are planning the event for Saturday, March 4.
As of noon Monday, 155 people had indicated they would be attending. That number has nearly doubled since Friday. Nearly 400 more had marked that they are “interested” in the event.
Guarang Shah, a Town Center resident, is one of the organizers. He said he expects about 300 people to participate in the “peaceful protest.”
According to the event details listed on the page, which went live last week:
“It’s been almost a month since RTC and Boston Properties has started Paid Parking and nobody is happy about that. Also it is most expensive parking in Northern Virginia compare to any other malls and shopping centers. Now, Reston Town Center looks empty all restaurants, bars and local businesses are down. Reston town center parking been free for years and it should be forever.” [sic]
Reston Town Center merchants have announced they are considering a lawsuit against property owner Boston Properties because of the paid parking, which they say has caused them a large chunk of their sales. Shah said merchants he’s spoken with have shared those concerns.
Shah said he organizes regular social meetups in the Town Center. He said turnout for an annual January charity event he hosts at Vapiano was down by half from last year — and many who came left early.
“Every weekend we have something, and we [would] bring a lot of crowds around the Town Center,” he said. “Right now, nobody wants to go to Town Center. I have events in Herndon and Tysons and Ashburn — we try to stay away from the Town Center.”
Shah said his group of concerned citizens has been holding meetings and plans to fight until paid parking is rescinded.
“We just want to get rid of this [paid] parking,” he said. “It’s been free for 25 years, and this is causing a lot of trouble.”
Reston Town Center merchants report a significant drop in sales from this time last year.
Now, an estimated 60 of those merchants are considering a lawsuit against Boston Properties over what they see as the cause of that decline — the installation of paid parking.
“I’ve never seen the amount of customers that are upset and are just flat-out boycotting the Town Center as a whole,” Mervis said. “As for retailers, I’ve never seen the amount of different retailers grouping together. Usually, when I’m talking to other retailers, it’s seeing what we can do to help cross-market each other’s brands. Talking about protesting and lawsuits, that’s unprecedented.”
Boston Properties initiated paid parking at Reston Town Center on Jan. 3. Backlash from the community, particularly on social media, began quickly thereafter. Mervis said RTC restaurants have been gathering to fight since the paid-parking plan was first proposed by Boston Properties last year, and retailers have since joined the groundswell as well.
Mervis also runs Wildfire restaurant at Tysons Galleria, and he said the trickle-down effect of the parking controversy reaches there as well.
“People are openly talking about it at the bar, saying they are only there because their friends won’t meet them anymore in Reston, or they themselves refuse to park in Reston,” he said.
Mervis said estimates provided by Town Center merchants show a 10-50 percent decline in sales from January 2016. He said Big Bowl validates two hours’ parking for its customers, but the system doesn’t make sense from neither the business’s nor the customers’ standpoint.
“A $4 beer and $4 for parking, that doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “Our customers are appreciative that we’re doing it… but they still say they’re not coming back. They say it’s too much of a hassle.”
The merchants are planning a meeting Monday at Vapiano restaurant (1875 Explorer Street) to continue to discuss their future plans, including potential litigation. In a press release, reasons for their unrest are spelled out:
Besides being onerous, the system itself is driving people away. It includes:
— Having to download an app, which customers say is confusing, does not work well
— Pay stations are often not working and confusing
— Little or no assistance from Boston Properties and no way to explain the system to non-English speakers
— Confusion: Some retailers have provisions allowing free guest parking in one lot but not another
— Filled parking spots forcing guests to park in a different lot where a retailer may not validate (not all retailers can afford to purchase validation codes for all lots)
— Overnight charges for restaurant guests who have been drinking and want to leave their cars overnight while they walk/taxi/Uber home
— Forcing guests to park in nearby development and angering tenants
— There is no quick parking accommodation for guests to do pickups, dropoffs, etc.
— Unclear rules about weekend parking (holidays? Fridays nights?)
— Validation codes have major limitations (guests must change garages to have their ticket validated for both a movie and dinner at certain restaurants)
— Guests with disabilities without smartphones must find a pay station (not conveniently located)
There are also issues which affect the retailers:
— Negative publicity has spilled over to the retailers
— Employees are affected and are looking for other work
— All retailers are charged the same fee to validate parking (bad for small retailers)
— Employee parking is inconsistent and difficult to manage
— Parking security is not trained to help or answer questions
— Retailers are struggling to hold weekday events because people who would attend do not want to deal with paid parking
— Boston Properties has made changes without notification
“This is unbelievable, what’s happening, what they’re doing,” Mervis said. “Guests don’t want to deal with this. They just want to come in and eat.”
Rob Weinhold, spokesperson for Boston Properties, said it would be “inappropriate” for the real estate trust to speculate on or respond to the merchants’ legal threats. However, when contacted by Reston Now, he did wish to clear up “misinformation” about parking validation “that requires immediate clarification:”
“Each retailer and restaurateur, at their sole discretion, decide[s] which garages they choose to validate. As previously communicated, each retailer and restaurateur makes their own business decision about (1) participating in the validation program and (2) what validation terms they choose to incorporate within their unique business model, to include validating for all or select garages.”
Mervis said his restaurant is trying to do the right thing for customers by validating parking, but the end result is hurting their bottom line.
“We’re paying the same price as the guest pays,” he said. “We spent $1,600 in January to validate parking, and at our price point, that has drastic effects for us.”
Reston Now Reader Survey — Please help us make Reston Now even better by taking our 2017 reader survey! This year, we’re partnering with the University of Kansas journalism school, which is studying sites like ours. The results of the survey will help us improve the site and will help researchers better understand our role in informing the Reston community. [Reston Now/KU]
Design-Build Firm Marks Grand Opening — Home remodeling company Synergy Design & Construction officially opened its new showroom (11501 Sunset Hills Road, Suite 250) last week. The business began in 2008 and has about a dozen employees. [Press Release]
Police Show Solidarity with Muslim Community — Reston patrol officers of the Fairfax County Police Department visited the All Dulles Area Muslim Society and the Al Fatih Academy to show their support following this weekend’s mass shooting at a mosque in Quebec. [Fairfax County Police Department/Facebook]
RTC Parking ‘Uninviting and Confusing’ — Reston resident Peter Carlivati has visited Bowtie Cinemas at Reston Town Center twice in the last month, and has left with a bad taste in his mouth after trying to pay for parking with cash. [Fairfax Times]
Rob Weinhold, a spokesperson for Town Center owner Boston Properties, reports that more than 42,000 downloads of the app have been made as of Wednesday morning. That number is up significantly from 28,000 on Jan. 3, the day paid parking went into effect.
Parking in the Town Center had been free since it opened in 1990. Since the paid-parking initiative began last week, it now costs $2 per hour in parking garages and $3 per hour on the street. Parking in garages is free on weekends; street parking is free on Sunday only.
Visitors who do not wish to use the app can use pay stations at the entrances to each garage.
In the week since paid parking began, at least one business — The Bike Lane — has publicly announced its intention to leave the Town Center.
In addition to concerns over the cost of parking itself, dissenters have brought up questions about privacy and app security. Town Center officials have responded to those queries, saying the app is perfectly safe to use.
The Bike Lane has been serving its customers in Reston Town Center for going on nine years.
Now, the owners of the store say they are actively seeking to leave because of the Town Center’s new paid-parking initiative.
“We believe in providing our customers with an amazing shopping experience and we do not agree with charging for parking. We are actively looking to relocate The Bike Lane in or around Reston and we will keep you updated about our future plans as they progress.”
Todd Mader owns the shop along with his wife, Anne. He tells Reston Now they only have a little over a year left on a 10-year lease and they have every intention of leaving early.
“This is not the experience we want our customers to have, to come in here during the week and battle with a parking app,” Mader said. “They come in here to buy a $10 inner tube and now they’re paying $12.”
The store is offering customers in-store credits and gift cards to compensate them for weekday parking. But Mader said in the long run, the hassle isn’t worth it when the store can just relocate.
“We were hoping parking wouldn’t be a big deal,” he said. “But if given the opportunity to move sooner rather than later, we’d do that.”
Mader said the parking situation has never been ideal for many of his customers, who may have bicycles attached to the roof or the back of their vehicle and may therefore find parking garages difficult to navigate. Now that it costs by the hour as well, he’s had enough.
“Having a space that’s more traditional, open-air shopping… that’s more what we’re looking for,” Mader said.
Social media backlash has been heavy on Reston Town Center and its owner, Boston Properties, because of the new parking fees, with many people threatening a “boycott.” However, Mader said the result of that hurts businesses such as his more than anyone.
“That’s not hurting [the Town Center and Boston Properties], not directly anyway. That’s hurting the merchant — big and small,” he said. “There is a noticeable drop in the plaza during the week. Friday night was dead, in the restaurants and in foot traffic.”
Mader said his hope is to relocate the store within a mile of its current location, so it can continue to serve its loyal patrons.
“We’re overwhelmed by the support of our customers,” he said. “We want to make it very convenient for people to find us and continue to shop with us.”
If you pay attention to Reston on social media, you’ve seen a firestorm in the past couple days.
Tweeters and Facebookers alike have responded en masse after paid parking went into effect Tuesday at Reston Town Center. The new paid-parking initiative has many customers of Town Center businesses saying they are staging a boycott.
— Brian McMahon (@GoIrishBrian) January 4, 2017
@RestonTwnCenter ridiculous parking situation. Driving on to Tysons Corner from now on. Your retailers be very upset!
— Bazbol Fan (@Bazbol) January 4, 2017
— Matt Small (@newsmatt) January 3, 2017
Nearly 20 restaurants and retailers in the Town Center are validating parking for customers. Rob Weinhold, a spokesperson for Town Center owner Boston Properties, said Wednesday that those businesses are seeing the benefits of helping consumers pay the cost.
“It’s been an ongoing issue, and one of the concerns that retailers in any paid parking environment across the world have is what will it do to profits,” he said. “There are many retailers who have chosen to work within their business model and provide validation to consumers, which has worked out well for them.”
One of those businesses is Potomac River Running Store, which posted to social media Tuesday that it is validating one hour of parking for customers who make a purchase of $20 or more.
— PRRunning (@PRRunning) January 4, 2017
“As a locally-owned, independent store selling national brands, we cannot and will not raise our prices to cover the cost of parking for our customers,” the post reads. “But, at our expense, we will validate your parking when you shop at ==PR== Reston, because it’s the right thing to do for you.”
Other businesses, such as Starbucks, have chosen to not validate parking. Melina Palomino, a shift manager at the coffee shop, said as most of their customers are coming in on their way to or from work or shopping, they don’t see validation as necessary to their business. Palomino and others said business was slow Tuesday, but they attributed that to an expected post-holiday lull rather than to the parking situation.
Weinhold said many businesses in the Town Center continue to evaluate the situation to see how they can best work within the new parking rules.
“Reston Town Center is a fantastic environment with a wonderful retail and dining experience,” he said. “I would think that certainly there’s a level of quality which no one wants compromised.”
Judging from response online, however, many people feel it already has been.
A Tuesday post on Reston Town Center’s Facebook page reminding people about the policy change had more than 275 comments as of 2:30 p.m. Wednesday. RTC staff has been diligently responding to many of the comments on that post and others on the page. Questions about parking validation and app security were among the many that were answered, though a number of commenters simply said they were done with RTC because of the decision.
RTC ambassadors were present at pay stations inside parking garages Tuesday and Wednesday to help users with any questions. Weinhold said he was at Reston Town Center throughout the day Tuesday and witnessed no major concerns.
“While there are people that don’t necessarily agree with the policy, which is understandable, from an operating perspective the day was a success,” he said.
The date has arrived. As of today, visitors to Reston Town Center are paying for the right to park there.
The ParkRTC paid parking initiative has officially begun, a Boston Properties official told Reston Now. Mobile pay parking is available through the ParkRTC smartphone app, while visitors without the app will be required to use garage pay stations or pay by phone.
Parking in the Town Center’s five garages will now cost $2 an hour (up to a maximum charge of $24 a day). Street parking is $3 an hour. A number of retailers have previously announced they plan to offer parking validation.
This marks the first time since the retail and residential complex opened in 1990 that parking fees will be collected.
The ParkRTC app, which can be downloaded via iTunes and Google Play, enables visitors to see available spaces, pay for a parking session, extend a parking session and receive discounts from retailers. According to Robert Weinhold, a Boston Properties spokesperson, more than 28,000 people had downloaded the app as of Tuesday morning.
Boston Properties, the owner of Reston Town Center, had originally announced it planned to commence paid parking at Reston Town Center last year. However, the start date was pushed back to Jan. 3 to allow “additional time to educate consumers” who were not embracing the technology, an RTC spokesman told Reston Now in September.
Nearly 9,000 people signed a change.org petition, organized by Reston’s Suzanne Zurn, asking to stop the new parking fees from being enacted at the Town Center. However, Boston Properties and the Reston Town Center Association did not bend on the plan.
Last month, Reston Now conducted an unscientific poll in which nearly 94 percent of readers said they do not support paid parking at the Town Center.
The app, available in Apple and Google Play options, will enable patrons to punch in a zone number and pay the $2-an-hour parking fee without a ticket or stopping at a gate. The app also gives users access to LiveSafe, a safety feature that allows one to report suspicious behavior to RTC security or Fairfax County Police, as well as ask for help in a potentially dangerous situation.
The app has not been well received by Reston Now readers, who have made hundreds of comments on our site saying they are concerned by privacy issues or simply won’t download the app as they plan on never visiting Reston Town Center if they have to pay to park.
It’s a different story, though, if one reads customer reviews on the Apple or Google play sites. Since paid parking is not yet in effect, the app is not really functional. That leads to the thought that the reviews are, well, fabricated. Take these examples:
Quick setup. Appreciated the reminder when time was almost up. Receipt function useful when visiting RTC for business. Much easier than the frustrating MoCo parking app that was not easy to use and required a minimum $20 upfront to park.
Fast and easy to download; One of my fave places, so ready to park RTC.
Great app Easy to use. Love it
This app is fast and simple to navigate. Will make the paid parking process at RTC an easy transition!
Camera and No Phone Sleep? Why do you need access to my camera? Why do you need to prevent my phone from sleeping? Do I have to pay you in battery life too?
Nope. Never paying to park in RTC. Will park elsewhere or take my business elsewhere.
I get it. Transitioning from free to pay parking is a big step, and obviously a shock for those patrons that have been parking free at this location for over a decade. But this app just throws gas on the fire.
To whomever was responsible for this abomination: if you’re going to upend people’s routines and expectations with paid parking, at least put in the time and investment in creating a user experience that isn’t laughably amateurish, if not downright hostile.
Seriously. Someone should get fired for thinking this onboarding experience (from the blurred-out location services permissions sheet to the 7 pt TOS link) is remotely acceptable for any viable app, let alone an app requiring such dramatic changes to user behavior.
Have you checked out the app yet? What are your thoughts?