After she set up a social media campaign on her own, she turned it into an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit known as Buildthesoft.org.
In Alexandria, there are signs of hunger for nearby residents for the first time in 15 years.
Cars sit on store parking lots with no buyers in sight. Blockades pepper the streets as people hunker down during a winter storm. Neighbors wake up each morning to lines and check their phone’s messages for updates. And normally quiet neighborhood streets fill with dozens of more bicyclists than usual, lured by a new “Green Light Eats Free” billboard on Hunter’s Lane.
Bicycles weren’t the only thing that changed in Annandale, Virginia, last month. Residents found themselves snapping pictures and leaving comments on Instagram, from parking shortage to vacant stores, when they parked their cars in front of the Friendly’s restaurant at 101 W. Elston Ave.
“I’ll be honest, this is not something we are used to seeing,” said Virginia Gelsomino, who first noticed the empty parking spot and posted the photo on her Instagram Story.
Customers sometimes leave large grocery carts by the Friendly’s to help empty out the space. Gelsomino wondered what’s happening at Friendly’s.
“I’ve been here 21 years, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard about a parking crisis,” she said.
She reached out to community board members, and they asked her to produce a visual for the board, to show them what’s happening in the neighborhood.
Recently, Gelsomino met with the owner of Friendly’s at a meeting with community board members. “We said, hey, you’re the leader of this community,” Gelsomino said. “Let’s find out what the issue is. If it’s like it was once when I was a kid, please, there’s enough parking here, no problem.”
Gelsomino thinks the disparity has to do with opening hours. Friendly’s is open until 1 a.m. on weekends and all day on Saturdays, which make it less likely that drivers who come in late on Friday or Saturday nights will see Friendly’s and jump out of their cars. The decision also keeps them from making deliveries or returning customers to Friendly’s, which people do all the time because they’re so grateful, Gelsomino said.
“Our data showed that there’s a lot of people who come in at midnight because they don’t have to pay for parking,” Gelsomino said. “They order pizza and drive by, and they order stuff to go and eat it in the parking lot. If they didn’t have to pay for parking, we would see even more foot traffic.”
After running an Instagram campaign on her own, Gelsomino turned it into an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit known as Buildthesoft.org. The group’s primary focus is to alleviate parking issues in Annandale through city-funded programs.
“Our ultimate goal is to get a new library built and have nicer parking for the people in our community,” Gelsomino said.
Anne Roag, the Annandale community board member who sits on Buildthesoft’s advisory committee, helped create the campaign. That idea was born after frustration she saw on social media about severe parking shortage in Annandale. In October, she applied for a grant with the city, which provided an initial $1,000.
With small donations coming in from across the nation, Roag and her committee recognized a need that she thought could be met through city programs. The committee, which includes Gelsomino and parents and residents who live in Annandale, recently met with city officials to make sure their program was adding the right support. The city has funded three different programs, including a program that provides $1,000 in credit toward a rental property, and loans, each of which lasts six months, Roag said. She expects that program to help about 30 to 50 people per year, or a maximum of 20 percent of the people with needs, she said.
Neighbors have started hanging out at a park across the street from Friendly’s where they can be told when someone visits. The children in the area can often be seen catching coffee and doing the usual before they go back to school. They also can’t buy a Slurpee from the walk-up machine because it’s “just not economically feasible,” Roag said.