Acme Comedy Co. owner is worried about the club’s last laugh in the North Loop.
When Acme Comedy Co. owner Louis Lee saw plans for a new apartment building down the block, he wasn’t laughing.
For him, the project, proposed for a nearby surface parking lot, is another dust up regarding the amount of parking in the high-demand North Loop neighborhood. Lee said with fewer available spots in the area, he faces losing business and is now considering relocating the landmark comedy club elsewhere.
Curt Gunsbury’s Solhem Companies is proposing to build an approximately six-story, 124-unit apartment building on the surface lot at 721 N. 1st St. across from the Star Tribune’s printing facility.
Lee said the project would shrink the amount of affordable, conveniently located parking that the 70,000 annually who attend the Acme, many of them from neighboring suburbs, have historically relied on for the past 25 years. For the past few years, however, increased demand as threatened the stepping-stone comedy venue, he said.
“Parking is always a problem here, but it’s not huge enough to turn people off. Throwing a curve like this can easily throw people off big time,” he told The Journal.
Lee said he was not aware of the project until recently when Matt Janzen, an Itasca II resident, informed him. Janzen created a Change.org petition opposing the project that was widely circulated thanks to the Acme’s social media accounts. Over the span of a few weeks it amassed more than 4,500 signatures with the help of several popular comedians and their followers who shared it on Twitter.
The project has been in the works for several months, and was considered by the City Planning Commission back in January. That month, board members of the North Loop Neighborhood Association also unanimously supported it.
The petition shocked Gunsbury. The 120-stall lot, which he has controlled since last fall, is dedicated for Gunsbury’s tenants in Itasca V, a 42,000-square-foot office building across the street.
“We were pretty taken aback,” Gunsbury said, “I believe this is not a problem we created.”
Acme’s landlord, Schafer Richardson, has a larger, 156-space surface lot closer to the comedy club. Maureen Michalski, Schafer Richardson’s director of development, said there aren’t plans to develop the lot. There’s also a smaller 73-car lot across from the Minnesota Opera.
How much the loss of Gunsbury’s parking lot will affect the Acme is unclear. Gunsbury said the lot is leased to office tenants and other monthly contract parkers, though spaces may be available in the evening during Acme show times when contract parkers aren’t using them. One of his tenants, a 24-hour overnight legal document business, may have up to 200 contract workers at any given time, so hourly spaces are rare, he added.
“Whatever is there that Acme has used it’s definitely not always available,” he said.
In addition to 150 spaces for residents of the 721 N. 1st St. development, Gunsbury is planning to have 70 dedicated spots for office tenants, which required a variance to allow for additional parking. Solhem, a prolific North Loop developer, has more than 300 units built or in construction within a few blocks of Acme, which Gunsbury described as a “neighborhood treasure.”
Lee said the area is due for more parking, especially on weekends when audiences like Minnesota Twins fans, theatergoers at The Lab Theater and those at the 275-capacity Acme compete for on-street parking and nearby lots. It’s especially an issue for Acme, Lee said, because its audience is nearly all from suburbs or the outskirts of the Twin Cities and needs conveniently located parking — otherwise there are other easier, more affordable choices.
“Convenience is most important to them, especially with six months or more where the weather itself is not nice for anybody who wants to walk. And those are the busiest times for me,” he said. “I’m in a business that when a customer thinks it’s not convenient or too expensive they’ll quit coming.”
The area is less than ideal for a comedy club, he said. Acme has relied on being a destination so it doesn’t require a high-traffic area in downtown Minneapolis to attract an audience. And back when it opened a quarter of a century ago, the North Loop didn’t draw in the same attention, he added.
Lee said relocating would cost at least half a million dollars. He’d also be leaving behind Acme’s original 15,000-square-foot home, which Lee said is the best laid out comedy club in the country.
Lee is currently discussing solutions with city planning staff, Gunsbury and others, including using valet services and contracting out parking in a 73-stall lot that Gunsbury owns about a block away, which Gunsbury said he’d be willing to have Acme use. More meters could also improve turnover of street parking. But for Lee, none of these are long-term solutions to Acme’s parking needs.
Janzen has been in discussion with Council Member Jacob Frey, whose ward includes the North Loop, to look into constructing a joint parking ramp and green space in the area to alleviate parking issues. Janzen appealed a Heritage Preservation Commission decision in May regarding the proposal, which the City Council’s Zoning & Planning Committee denied.
“Parking throughout the North Loop is starting to become a nightmare,” he said. “It’s becoming clear to me that the city’s mentality is ‘build, baby, build,’ and they don’t have the infrastructure in place to support it.”
Janzen said he and other Itasca residents, several of which spoke against the project during the June 9 committee meeting, plan to speak at a City Planning Commission meeting in late June.
To Gunsbury, local demand for parking is lessening each year.
“Over time as the North Loop becomes more walkable there’s actually more people that actually live and work there that aren’t driving,” Gunsbury said, “We’re building a building that’s going to last 100, 200 years. We’re not going to design parking that’s going to sit vacant based on long-term trends. We want to right-size it and not over-invest in parking.”
Lee said he sees the issue as whether Acme fits into a city that’s growing less dominated by cars.
“It’s all about planning,” he said. “I will try to survive as long as I can.”
If the project is approved, Gunsbury plans to break ground later this summer with about a year-long construction.
“Frankly, there should be a way for all of us to benefit from this rather than to feel oppressed by it or like business is being shut down. It should actually be a really great benefit,” he said.