Empty Lots

(A documentary photo project in minneapolis.) ...............Because the world is your parking lot...............

The Virtues of Two-Rate Taxation

This blog has been quiet as of late, but I’ve got a new piece up over at Streets.MN about why taxing land and buildings at different rates would encourage more productive/efficient land uses in the city’s urban core while discouraging the kind of over-speculation that creates real estate bubbles. The piece looks at one intersection downtown where one commercial landowner (owners of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange building) pays 42 times more property tax per square foot of land than his neighbor (a surface parking lot). You can get the full story here.


Real Talk: How Much Power Does the City Really Have to Do Away With the Downtown Parking Glut?

There’s been a lot of griping from this and other sites about how the overabundance of surface parking lots in downtown Minneapolis is destroying the character and potential of what should be our city’s densest neighborhoods. This blog has paid a lot of attention to the Downtown East corridor in particular (between the Metrodome and the business corridor—see here and here and here if you’re new around these parts).

There have been indignant calls for someone to do something about all of these parking lots, because, well, just look at them! They’ve been called blemishes, scars, deserts, seas. Writers have scoured their thesauruses and dug deep into their collective Bag of Metaphors trying to figure out different ways of saying the same thing: Something Is Wrong Here. And usually, in our desperation, we appeal to the only “someone” we believe has the resources and the power to do something about the problem: “the City,” with a capital C.

When all of these lots are privately owned by people who can, by law, do with the land what they please, what tools does the city actually have at its disposal to alter the way the land is used?

But here’s the complicating factor at work that usually ends up going unacknowledged in these pleas: When all of these parking lots are privately owned by people who can, by law, do with the land what they please (with a few restrictions of course), what tools does the city actually have at its disposal to alter the way this land is used?

I posed this question a couple of weeks ago to Beth Elliott, Principal City Planner in charge of downtown development, and, as it turns out, the city is trying to figure this out, too. (At the time we spoke, Elliot was in talks with various consultants who might be hired to develop a comprehensive plan for downtown reform.)

While Elliott made it clear that the city hasn’t settled on any of these tactics and that others may exist that they’re currently unaware of (hence the consultants), she agreed to give me an overview of what tools the city has in its tool belt. A summary:

1. Change the zoning code. The city has already done what it can here. In 1999, the city voted to ban construction of any new commercial surface parking lots downtown. The only caveat: because of non-conforming use protections, all existing lots would be grandfathered in and allowed to remain in place.

2. Create tax structures that encourage development. One reason parking lot owners don’t choose to put their land to more productive use is that—in lieu of a buyer who is willing to pay the (by many accounts) unrealistically inflated asking prices many owners are seeking for their land—property taxes on unimproved lots are so low that it doesn’t take a whole lot of revenue to offset the expense of just sitting on them. One way to disincentivize this is to institute a split-rate tax structure that taxes the value of the land itself (its development potential) at a higher rate than it taxes improvements on that land (i.e., buildings and infrastructure). Essentially, this means that if land is being used at less than its maximum productivity, its owners are paying a disproportionate amount in taxes in order to keep it that way. Conversely, improvements to properties (i.e., the buildings themselves) are taxed at a lower rate, and so owners of developed land have a more balanced tax bill.

3. Borrowing against future tax revenues. A fancy name for this is Tax Increment Financing (or TIF). Basically, this is a method by which the city would subsidize development in certain areas that it sees as particularly promising or strategically important by borrowing from the future tax revenues that would be created by said development. 

4. Subsidize development directly. Sometimes cities, states, or the federal government provide subsidies for development projects that have been identified as serving the greater public interest. This represents a way to get developers over a financial hump, or to encourage, for instance, a ten-story building where the developer might only have financing for six. Often, grants of this type come with mandates that developers provide a certain amount of affordable housing for low-income residents.

5. Exercise eminent domain. The city can exercise eminent domain for public use projects but not for economic development purposes. This means that while a park or transit infrastructure might fall under that heading, a mixed-use development project would not. (Not to mention, Elliott pointed out, downtown land is expensive these days, and the city would have to pay fair market value for it.)

6. Enforce existing zoning codes. In lieu of any of the above strategies, the city could require parking lot owners to meet existing zoning laws that require a certain amount of landscaping and screening of their lots. Most are not up to code, but the argument against this, Elliott said, is that property owners are even less likely to sell after they’ve been required to dump a bunch of money into improving that property. 

Certainly there are other ways of bringing about change in this area, and the city is hiring consultants to explore just what those other avenues might be. But until then, it’s important to remember that, though we may choose to use it every now and again as a whipping post for our own frustration, the city isn’t all-powerful when it comes to dictating land use downtown. 


Why the New Stadium Won’t Save Downtown East, and Why That’s a Good Thing

I’ve got a new post up over at Streets.mn about why the first step to successfully incorporating the new Vikings stadium into downtown Minneapolis is to admit that the stadium itself won’t inspire the kind of development that characterizes a thriving downtown (for proof of this, take a walk through the sea of parking lots surrounding the Metrodome). I’ll have more up here a bit later that gets into more detail about the tailgating issue (you can only squeeze so much into 600 words) that’s caused a lot of concern among Vikes fans and urbanists alike. For now check out the above link—and many thanks to the folks over at Streets.mn for sharing.  


Empty Lots: Now Officially Part of the Streetsblog Network

We’re traveling this week, so expect lighter than usual posting. One piece of news we’re happy to announce (you know, in lieu of actual content) is that Empty Lots is now officially part of the Streetsblog Network, which means that some of the content you see here will also appear on the Streetsblog Network site, and you might also notice a fancy new badge in the corner of our home page, just in case you needed some hard proof. 


Until next time,



Friday Roundup: Minneapolis Hoping Security Cameras Make Better Police Substitute Than Classical Music

After sedating riders with classical music proved less than effective, Minneapolis hopes to make Lake Street Station safer by installing security cameras, keeping the station clean.

Researchers at the University of Connecticut take a look at what we can learn from Zurich’s “parking revolution.” After establishing parking maximums in the ’90s (in comparison, we usually talk about parking minimums on this side of the pond), the city went a step further and finally established “a default parking level for the whole city, which is then reduced depending on whether or not a particular location is well served by transit.”

Talks are under way in Minneapolis about how to make Franklin Avenue safer and more appealing for bikers and pedestrians.

And Houston gets $188 million federal dollars for a 5.3-mile extension of its light rail system.


MPLS Bike Coalition Ups Its Push For Washington Ave. Bike Lanes

The Minneapolis Bike Coalition continues doing the kind of work the rest of us sit around thinking we should be doing right before we break out the chips and salsa and hunker down for a Netflix marathon of Breaking Bad. Last week, they delivered over 500 hand-written letters asking for protected bike lanes on Washington Avenue to Councilmember Lisa Goodman, Mayor Rybak, and County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. All of the letters were penned by downtown residents—exactly the kind of people the city is trying to attract more of into downtown. (The city hopes to double the area’s population by 2025.)

You can find an outline of the Bike Coalition’s plan (as well as a stellar argument in favor of it) here. One important component of any makeover the corridor receives is mentioned briefly in the post, but probably bears more emphasis/consideration. From the piece: 

[From Hennepin Ave. to 5th Ave. South], pedestrians have to walk along a relatively narrow sidewalk with no buffer, close to seven lanes of fast-moving traffic. Large office buildings with blank walls lend a feeling of isolation to the few pedestrians who walk along this stretch today.

A protected bike lane, especially if built with a raised curb, would create an active buffer for people walking along the street, not only separating people from moving cars, but bringing life to the corridor.  A wider sidewalk would have many benefits, but with no activity-generating uses, there is the danger of creating totally unused dead space in the heart of downtown.

Any successful plan for bringing life to Washington Avenue will have to involve the city reaching into its tool belt in an active effort to attract pedestrian-friendly businesses to the corridor, or else it risks remaining one of the aforementioned “dead spaces” with which this blog is so concerned. 


Why Transit Is a Tough Sell For Downtown Commuters

The magic number here today is 6. As in 6 dollars. As in the daily price of a round-trip express bus fare in and out of downtown Minneapolis. As far as transit fares in this country go, this isn’t outrageous. New Yorkers pay $2.25 each way on the subway to get anywhere they want in their city. In D.C., a long-distance Metro trip comparable to many of our express routes will run you as much as $5.75 each way (though most trips are cheaper).

In those cities, however, because parking is mostly consolidated into above- or below-ground garages and priced accordingly, there’s an economic motivation for commuters to opt for transit. (The average price of daily parking in D.C. is $18, while the average price in New York ranges from $30 (downtown) to $41 (midtown).) Here in Minneapolis, though, because much of our downtown land is dedicated to surface parking (which costs about one-third the price of garage parking on a per-spot basis), we’ve managed to keep the price of parking very low. Self-defeatingly low if you’re Metro Transit, because people are rational beings, and as long as parking is as cheap or cheaper than taking transit, most people will have little reason (other than their desire to lower their carbon footprint, which generally loses out to our desire to save money and time) to opt for the bus or the light rail.

Below is a look at the pricing schemes for many of the surface lots (and even a couple of garages) that line the 5th Avenue corridor of Downtown East, the area currently being studied by the city to figure out how this space can be used for something other than car storage. As you can see, the price of parking is consistently equal to or lower than the price of taking transit.

There’s a chain reaction that is set off by this kind of pricing: cheap parking leads to less transit use, which leads to less revenue for transit operators, which leads to decreases in the quality/frequency of service, which leads to even steeper drop off in transit ridership, which leads to even more traffic and congestion and car-centric policies downtown, which leads ultimately to the situation we’re faced with now: a downtown that is struggling to make itself appealing to potential residents because it’s clearly been built for cars, not for people.


Spent the day downtown counting (and counting, and counting) parked cars along the 5th Avenue corridor for some yet-to-be-released peak-time parking statistics. Feeling a bit like this guy.

Check back tomorrow for new photos/stats from today’s downtown excursion. 


Friday Roundup: Vegas-Style High Speed Rail

A group of private investors in Nevada (led by a casino developer) looks to extend California’s high-speed rail line to Las Vegas. The rail line would go by the name XpressWest and would offer 90-minute trips from L.A. to Las Vegas for as low as $45.

Atlanta’s proposed 1% sales tax increase to fund new transit projects dies a predictable (and decisive, at 63%) death.

Residential segregation in the U.S. is on the rise, meaning Americans are more and more likely to live near people whose economic situations looks pretty similar to their own.

Last year, the tax benefit for commuters who used public transit was slashed while the benefit for those who paid for parking after driving to work increased. Now, a Senate committee paves the way for a reinstatement of the tax benefit for transit commuters.


"A Good Place to Walk": Walkability vs. Walk Appeal

In last week’s Star Tribune article on downtown parking, this blog was quoted vaguely referring to the “very subtle things” that architects and city planners can do that “communicate to you [whether or not a given route is a] good place to walk.” A smart critic of this statement might ask themselves: What exactly are these mysterious, subtle tactics by which designers of our urban spaces can trick/lure/entice us into walking? And furthermore, what exactly do we mean by a “good” place to walk anyway? (Another question, to be addressed in a later post, might be why it’s so important that our downtown prioritizes pedestrians in the first place.)

Lucky for us, architect/designer Steve Mouzon has been writing about just these questions, asking if we can actually quantify and measure what makes a “good” place to walk, and under what conditions people will decide to walk a given distance instead of drive.

The argument he’s making is essentially that the distances people will walk to get from one place to another vary widely depending on the surrounding environment. While travelers might be willing to walk up to two miles to get from one place to another in a densely built, high walk-appeal city like London or Paris, that distance shrinks to as low as 100 feet when a shopper is confronted with the prospect of walking across the vast stretches of pavement that often connect big box retail chains.

Mouzon’s walk appeal “measurables” include, among other things: 1) frequent view changes; 2) street enclosure (buildings on both sides of the street that make the space feel as comfortable as “an outdoor room”); 3) shelter from the elements (awnings, porch roofs, galleries, etc.); 4) frequent landmarks/goals along the way (similarly, you’re more likely to continue reading this post if it’s broken up into short, punchy paragraphs); and 5) side streets that are nearly as enticing as main streets.

(For a smart analysis of Mouzon’s walk appeal theory, check out Kaid Benfield’s take over at Atlantic Cities.)

Minneapolis has had great success in drawing pedestrians to Nicollet Mall by essentially using all of the above tactics. But as soon as you venture away from this stretch, you’re hard pressed to find streets flush with pedestrians (though Hennepin Ave. occasionally comes close). One reason for this is that many of our shops and storefronts are clustered in indoor malls (i.e., Gaviidae Common) connected by the Skyway, rather than lining the streets where they would be part of the “frequent view changes” Mouzon refers to. Another reason is that we’ve designated only a few areas of downtown (Nicollet/Hennepin/Washington Aves.) as places where these kinds of considerations should be enacted, corralling pedestrians onto only a few streets while leaving the spaces between them devoid of much that would lure pedestrians.

Lastly, of course, is the matter of all of this surface parking (140 parking lots account for about one-third of total downtown land). Surface parking lots fail nearly every one of Mouzon’s measurables. The views are bleak and monotonous, street-scapes are flat, gray, and unenclosed, and there’s no shelter from sun or rain. If the city wants to make the kinds of changes Mouzon describes that will draw people out of their cars, out of the skyways, and onto the streets, then condensing all that surface parking is job number one.