The high (parking) price of development

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May 21, 2002 // UPDATED 1:20 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Thousands of workers park for less than $5 a day, but they -- and their employers -- worry about being priced out as construction cannibalizes cheap surface lots

In an aerial view of Downtown East, two things stand out -- the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome and, toward the river, a sea of surface parking lots. And while the Dome's baseball tenant could be going away, the parking lots almost certainly will be.

The north side of Washington Avenue South between 5th and 9th Avenues is currently vast parking lot after vast parking lot. Weekday commuters see signs advertising inexpensive parking -- $2 to $5 per day -- that's peanuts compared to the many $10-plus-per-day ramps in the Downtown core.

"I park here because it's cheap," said Tom Donovan, who chooses a long walk to his office on Marquette Avenue and 2nd Street rather than pay higher ramp costs.

But what commuters see as cheap parking, the city sees as ugly parking -- something they'd like to get rid of.

"The previous council -- and I see no signs of the current council changing -- has said that if we're going to have parking lots in the city they are going to be as attractive as possible. That means we don't do surface parking lots," said Allan Bernard, assistant to Councilmember Paul Zerby (2nd Ward), who represents the area.

And with the renaissance of the Historic Mill District, developers see these parking lots as prime real estate.

The Guthrie Theater is scheduled to take away a parking lot on 2nd Street (see sidebar) and the Minneapolis Community Development Agency has development proposals for housing, office, retail and cultural space on every block on the north side of Washington Avenue between 5th and Chicago Avenues.

The proposals include parking, but a City Council ban on surface lots stipulates that all new parking in Downtown must be structured or underground. And structured or underground parking costs much more to build -- thus parkers pay much more to park.

According to Tom Daniel, an MCDA project coordinator, each space in an above-ground parking ramp costs about $15,000 to build. A below-grade ramp is about $25,000 per space. A surface parking lot costs about $2,000 per space to build, he added.

"If everything gets developed, they're not going to have the choice of paying less. They won't have the cheap, cheap option anymore," Daniel said.

Nonprofits worried For Pat Scheiber, an increase in parking prices could hurt her business. Scheiber is the chief operating officer of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society of Minnesota, 200 12th Ave. S. As a nonprofit, Multiple Sclerosis Society employees don't earn a fortune. Scheiber is worried that if her employees must pay more to park, she may lose them.

"Our people pay right now $25 a month, and they can't pay $120 a month," Scheiber said. "We're a nonprofit, so our people are not making the kind of salaries that people might make in some other businesses Downtown."

At People Serving People, 251 Portland Ave., many of their volunteers and interns now pay to work at the homeless shelter, because they must pay to park.

"The cheap parking now is a concern. It's going to be very hard to recruit more and more interns the more they have to pay for parking in Downtown Minneapolis," said Annette Rodriguez, PSP's organizational resources manager. "It's a concern of ours -- definitely a major concern."

Volunteers and interns make up a major portion of the PSP workforce and according to Rodriguez they clock 20,000 hours of volunteer service every year.

"A lot of people here are doing community service for their school work and usually students don't have that extra few bucks for parking," Rodriguez said.

PSP moved into their newly rehabbed Downtown East building just last month, so moving because of higher parking costs isn't likely. However, Rodriguez said that parking problems could bring about creative solutions.

"We could request that everyone come in groups and has buses drop them off," she said. "We have actually thought about a few things. If we could get free parking a mile away we could shuttle."

Councilmember Paul Zerby (2nd Ward), while supportive of development on Washington, is sympathetic to nonprofits' concerns.

"[Nonprofits] are trying to accomplish something that's within the civic good for all of us and maybe there's a way we could accommodate that," Zerby said. "I would be certainly willing to look at something where we try to carve out some spaces to accommodate people in that situation or some kind of parking validation."

Transit benefits The MCDA's Tom Daniel said one benefit of rising prices is spurring more people to use mass transit or alternative forms of transportation.

"It could be that factor that shifts some folks to taking the bus or LRT," Daniel said. "If today they can park for $30 a month, but tomorrow it's going to cost them $120, they might say, 'why spend $90 more when I can take the bus?' That's a goal from planning, to get people out of single-occupancy vehicles and into mass transit or car-pooling. Those are potentially greater public benefits that could come about from this."

However, some of the people parking in these inexpensive lots say that taking the bus from home is simply not a viable option.

Michael Squires, a Downtown commuter, said that if his $2-per-day parking space gets more expensive, he would try to park across the river and take a bus to Downtown.

Pam Scott said that busing is not compatible with her life. "I can't take the bus because I have to pick up my son from school after work. By the time I took the bus home and picked up my car, I'd be an hour late picking him up," Scott said.

Even if higher parking prices don't get everyone out of their cars and onto buses, many believe that mixed-use developments are better than an asphalt jungle.

"It's a lot better to have people living and working on this land rather than just parking on it," Daniel said.

Zerby also believes development that includes housing is a much better use of the land. Said Zerby, "There's got to be a better way to use our land down here other than parking lots."