Pray Area: Politics, race cloud church-parking issue.
Pray Area: Politics, race cloud church-parking issue. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

On Feb. 1, the office of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty sent an e-mail to the District’s advisory neighborhood commissioners on what seemed like a ho-hum piece of business. Henceforth, said the memo, the police department’s Third District would be enforcing all parking regulations seven days a week. “We ask for your help in ensuring that residents are informed of this increased attention to parking compliance and safety issues, which will begin immediately,” it read.

The memo looked like real bad news for a particular local demographic—car-bound Christians, that is—especially those who end up parking around Logan Circle. Every Sunday morning, thousands of parishioners flood five churches north of the circle—Vermont Avenue Baptist, Metropolitan Baptist, Eleventh Street Baptist, Way Back to Pentecost Church, and the Church of Christ. They emerge not from the nearby Metro stations but from their automobiles, creating a scramble for parking in an area where spaces are already scarce.

On a Sunday in early February, two D.C. police officers were working the church zone with pens and pads. As an officer put a ticket on the windshield of an Escalade with Maryland tags jutting out from Vermont Avenue onto R Street NW, the owner of the vehicle ran down the street, hollering.

The officer shrugged when asked if he’d be ticketing on Sundays now. “A little bit,” he said.

The officer’s quip, however, sort of sums up the city government’s long-standing approach to Sunday parking enforcement. Not even the Feb. 1 memo, it turns out, portends a break with the past. When asked about the “increased attention,” mayoral Communications Director Carrie Brooks responds that the memo was sent in error. The e-mail, says Brooks, was the work of “an overzealous neighborhood coordinator.” The police department “will continue to enforce parking regulations,” notes Brooks. That means no increase in enforcement, no decrease in enforcement.

For some Logan Circle residents, the status quo isn’t a particularly good quo. Todd Lovinger, head of Logan Residents for Equitable Enforcement of Parking Regulations, has lobbied the city government for years to do something about the church parking crunch, which afflicts locals not only on Sundays but other days as well.

The worst of it came when churchgoers simply double-parked on the streets adjacent to their house of worship. Lovinger blames that practice for keeping parked-in residents from LSATs, flights, and kids’ soccer games. He also says that fire trucks and other emergency vehicles often had to take wide detours around the area.

“Those days were horrible,” recalls Lovinger. “Every Sunday—and some weeknights—you just knew there was at least a 50-50 chance you’d be blocked in.”

Lovinger’s group worked with the District’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) and the police department to maximize the area’s parking real estate. The city changed Vermont Avenue from a standard parallel-parking street to a diagonal, nose-out scheme. The reconfiguration added 153 spaces and largely ended the practice of hemming in residents.

Yet other problems persist. Though they tend not to box in as many residents, churchgoers block sightlines on intersections and block driveways and fire hydrants. Don’t blame the churches for that. “We support full parking enforcement,” says Richard Taylor, chairman of the board of deacons of Vermont Avenue Baptist Church.

Tensions between ticket-pushing Logan Circle residents and the largely suburban congregations of area churches reached a full boil in 2006. In March of that year, DDOT announced a plan to gradually begin enforcing parking regulations on Sundays, while working with churches and community members to come up with alternative parking and transportation arrangements.

Churches in the area roundly denounced the plan and held an anti-enforcement rally in Logan Circle. The rally was attended by a who’s who of local politicians, as well as Lorraine C. Miller, president of the D.C. chapter of the NAACP. Pastors claimed that enforcing double-parking regulations would “turn the city into a one-class, one-race gated community” and “kill…our congregations.”

Though the churches’ playing of the race card provoked much eye-rolling among the opposition, it proved to be politically expedient. Mayor Anthony A. Williams backed off the enforcement plans even before the rally and appointed a Citywide Congregational Task Force to offer solutions.

At the same time, Williams announced a moratorium on Sunday parking enforcement until his task force turned in a final report. It was a novel, if disingenuous, approach to the problem: Remediate illegal parking by legalizing it.

The Williams task force report, issued in September 2006, used a lot of words to say very little. While it included a strange nod to the churches’ interests—“the Task Force does not reject double parking…”—it called for universal enforcement of parking regulations.

Yet as any activist will tell you, supporting parking enforcement and actually doing it are different matters. After surveying the neighborhood on Sunday, March 2, Lovinger said, “I saw a ton of egregious violations today—people parked in front of hydrants, in front of traffic lights. They were parked in crosswalks. If a handicapped person had come by, they wouldn’t have been able to cross the street.”

Perhaps there’d be less blocking if the faithful would use additional spaces set aside by the city just east of Logan Circle along the Rhode Island Avenue median. But on two recent Sundays, those spaces were mostly empty. “[Residents] thought three blocks was a reasonable distance for churchgoers to walk,” says Lovinger. “But apparently they disagreed.”

Though Fenty himself is not big on church, it remains to be seen how hard his administration will push on the ticketing, especially as Easter approaches. When pressed on this subject, Brooks declined to elaborate on the extent of enforcement efforts, preferring to repeat the mantra that the “[police department] will continue to enforce parking regulations.”

Lovinger, for his part, will continue in his role as skeptic: “This issue has been a constant tug of war from the beginning. When this whole thing started, back in October 2006, they started ticketing a little, but then stopped. Then they said they’d ticket again, but only for safety hazards, but that didn’t really happen. Then they were definitely going to start ticketing after Easter in 2007, but that didn’t happen either.”