Empty Lots

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

Friday Roundup: The Parking Conversation Heats Up

On Wednesday, Maya Rao over at the Star Tribune published a look at the sea of parking lots plaguing downtown and the steps being taken by city officials to figure out how the spaces could be transformed. (This blog was also featured in the piece.) The piece was the day’s most read article over at the Strib website, and inspired more than a few passionate comments. Check out our response here.

Yet another reason that a thriving downtown is important: attracting top talent (and the businesses that want to hire them).

Big box retailers shrink and contort in order to squeeze themselves into unpredictable and unconventional urban spaces.

Baltimore sees immigrant-friendly policies as the key to staving off decades of population decline. From the piece:

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) has told Latinos, in particular, that she is counting on them to help Baltimore gain 10,000 families within a decade. As a first step, she signed an order in March prohibiting police and social agencies from asking anyone about immigration status — and in the order, she explicitly asked federal immigration authorities to tell anyone they arrest that they are not agents of the city.


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Some Brief Notes on the Star Trib Article on Downtown Parking

The Star Tribune has a great article up today about the sea of parking lots downtown and the steps being taken by city officials to better use this very valuable, very underutilized space. (Full disclosure: this blog is featured in the piece.) I’ll have a more thorough response to the article up in the next day or so, but for now, a couple of brief notes about the conversation that is currently taking place in the comments section of the Star Trib piece and elsewhere.

It’s an indisputable fact that cars are a big part of how people get around in the Twin Cities. It’s also an indisputable fact that they will continue to be into the foreseeable future. This is unlikely to change, and for many people, relying on cars to get to and from downtown is entirely necessary for a whole host of valid reasons. It has always been the position of this blog that if people want to drive to and from downtown, they should very well be able to. The real issue that is being addressed in the article and by this blog (perhaps a bit too subtly at times, given the number of people who assume that city planners want to do away with cars downtown entirely) has to do with how much space we as a city want to dedicate to temporarily housing those cars while their drivers sit at their desks during the workday, and how dedicating so much actual, physical land to parking (as opposed to, say, neatly stacking those dozens of parking lots on top of one another in vertical parking garages or beneath our office buildings in underground garages) shapes the way that we interact with (or choose not to interact with) the downtown corridor.

Downtown should be a place for everyone, whether you choose to bike, walk, take the train, or drive to get there. But more than anything (and I think this point is less obvious than it may at first seem), it must first be a place that any of us would want to visit in the first place. Part of making that happen is to make better use of the limited space we’ve carved out for ourselves. (Even the parking lot owners quoted in the article admit that the lots are a blight to our city’s urban core.) Another part of making that happen is to ensure that the cost of parking reflects the true cost of providing it (including the lost revenue the city could earn by using the space for housing or commercial uses). The fact that you can park for an entire day for as little as $5—or, in other words, 17% less than the cost of getting to and from the city via an express bus—is part of the reason that there is so much complacency with the status quo.

More to come this week. For now, thanks for reading.

-EL

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Friday Roundup: The End of Suburban Flight?

Growth in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul is finally outpacing that of the surrounding suburbs, a reversal of a decades-long trend that seems to be part of a nationwide shift toward urbanization.

Bikers are using helmet-mounted cameras the way airplanes use black boxes to record crashes, according to the New York Times.

Berlin turns its parking lots into people parks as part of PARK(ing) Day.

June was the third driest month in the last 118 years. Over at Atlantic Cities, Kaid Benfield tells us how sprawl exacerbates the effects of drought.

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Downtown Parking: The Numbers Are In, And They Are Worse Than You Thought

One of this blog’s earliest posts had to do with the ghost town effect of all of the surface parking in downtown Minneapolis. So much surface area downtown (as much as one-third, by some estimates) is dedicated to parking—most of which is for commuters—that on evenings and weekends when those commuters aren’t around, there remain vast swaths of pavement surrounding the core of downtown that sit empty, creating a kind of asphalt fortress around the city center that sends a clear message to visitors and residents about how one is meant to interact with this space.

The post focused mostly on a stretch of road along 5th Avenue South between 10th Street and 2nd Street, and at the time, we didn’t provide our usual statistics regarding the ratio of cars to parking spots because, well, we had all of these great photos that we thought needed to be out in the world right then, and counting all of those parking spots would have taken so…much…time. Hours, at least. Maybe an entire day. So we went ahead with the post sans figures, because the photos themselves were compelling enough.

Well, over the weekend, we finally took the time to crunch the numbers, and—to say the least—they are pretty staggering. Along a single stretch of 5th Ave. South (a stretch that occupies ten entire city blocks and spans three-quarters of a mile), drivers have their choice of no fewer than 7,401 parking spots. This number includes all parking lots and parking garages that can be accessed along this stretch of 5th Avenue and includes 2,666 surface parking spaces as well as 4,735 garage parking spaces spread between 5 above-ground garages. Most of these lots can be accessed for an entire day for five or six dollars (or less than it takes to get to and from downtown via an express bus), and most of them also don’t reach capacity even during the busiest times of the day. 

The numbers say plenty, but nevertheless, we’ll go ahead and include some of the old photos as well in order to give you a sense of just how many of those spots get used during evenings and weekends.

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Friday Roundup: High Speed Rail at Any Cost

The “Interchange,” a transit hub that will unite the city’s light rail lines, Northstar rail, and bus system, breaks ground downtown. Metro Transit says it’s investing in the city’s economic future, and the Star-Trib agrees. 

Thirty-seven minutes from New York to Philly. Ninety-four from New York to DC. Come on, 2040!

In hopes of speeding commuters along, San Francisco becomes the first city in the U.S. to allow people to board from the front or the back of the bus. The revolution is upon us?

High-speed rail comes to California. Almost immediately, the state begins doing its best to ensure the project will be insolvent. Stephen Smith (no, not the ESPN reporter) has the dish on some of the backdoor dealings that led to the state rejecting (or barely considering) a cheaper proposal by a French company.

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Location: E. Lake St. & 14th Ave. S.

Time/date: 3:30 p.m., Monday, June 18

Ratio of cars to parking spots: 1 to 63

These empty lots straddle 14th Avenue South along Lake Street, just across the street from the Wonder Bread/Hostess outlet (unsurprisingly, the lot outside the discounted Devil Dog shop was much busier). One of the lots serves Kaplan Bros., a discount clothing and supply store. This lot was completely empty, and was guarded by a sign warning potential parking bandits that this was dedicated space. The lot across the street (which was home to a small business the nature of which was not immediately clear) was in use by just one car.

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Hiawatha Light Rail and the Tax Reform Paradox

(Above: The Franklin Avenue Light Rail Station, as seen from the west side of Franklin Ave.)

There’s an interesting contradiction that arises when people start talking about tax reform in this country: In the abstract, we are overwhelmingly in favor of simplifying the tax code and lowering overall rates, especially when we’re told that doing so would actually raise revenues and chip away at the deficit. Sounds great, right? But when you get into the specifics of eliminating particular deductions, we are solidly against the necessary steps to reform.

This contradiction is also apparent when it comes to transit, and it’s the reason that the Hiawatha Light Rail runs along an elevated highway through an industrial no-man’s land rather than through high-demand transit zones. In the abstract, most of us would say that we would like our city to be better connected by transit, that we’re in favor of anti-congestion measures, that we wish we relied less on personal vehicles to get around town. But when that abstract desire is confronted with the very real steps necessary to make it a reality (i.e., constructing light rail stations close to where people live), it turns out we’re not so enamored with all of those lovely-sounding ideas.

For example: Franklin Avenue Station is 2 minutes from Cedar Riverside (a short walk to the U of M’s West Bank) and 4 minutes from downtown. By all measures, it should be one of the most desirable and easily accessible places to live for the many, many thousands of people who travel to both of those places each day. And yet, if you check out the aerial view of the station, you see that there’s no housing within nearly a quarter mile of the station.

Basically, building along the path of least resistance more or less guarantees that ridership will be lower than desired (or at least lower than in higher density, higher traffic areas), which is a way of handicapping transit modes that—even at their best—struggle to cover operating costs.

One argument for building along the path of least resistance (aside from the fact that it’s cheaper and easier than trying to buy up right-of-way in busy areas) is that it will promote future development in these areas. That’s a valid argument. So far that’s been slow to happen (it’s been eight years since the light rail opened for business), though there are finally housing projects underway near 38th and 46th Street stations and one in the works a stone’s throw from the Franklin Avenue Station. But it’s important to keep this essential contradiction of desires in mind when talking about transit and planning issues in the Twin Cities. It’s easy enough to point out what’s wrong with the status quo. The bigger challenge is packaging solutions in a way that can be swallowed by the very people they’re designed to serve. 

The view (facing west) from the platform of Franklin Avenue Station.

The view (facing east) from Franklin Ave Station.

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Could Pop-Up Hoods Break the Development Stalemate in Downtown Minneapolis?

As we’ve mentioned before on this blog, the city of Minneapolis has set a goal of doubling the population of downtown Minneapolis by 2025. One of the big challenges facing the city when it comes to attracting this kind of growth and development is that there’s a kind of chicken-and-egg dilemma at work here: in order to attract residents to the proliferation of condos we’ve seen popping up along the waterfront (and to a lesser extent, elsewhere in downtown), you need to be able to offer them the kinds of amenities and retail opportunities that make paying a premium to live downtown worthwhile. But in order for these businesses to move in, there has to first be a customer base. Ace Hardware isn’t going to open up a store downtown if the only people who pass by their storefront are office workers on their lunch breaks.

Essentially, you need businesses and amenities to attract residents, but you need residents in order to attract those same businesses and/or amenities. (See also: Catch 22, chicken-and-egg, etc.)

It’s no wonder then that development is a slow, arduous, and expensive process. And it’s no wonder either that it often takes a fair amount of government investment to motivate and incentivize businesses to invest in the areas they’d like them to.

One way to address the problem is a strategy that’s just been enacted in downtown Oakland known as a “pop-up hood.” A pop-up hood is like a pop-up store (i.e., those weird costume shops that invade empty strip malls each Halloween) except it involves a group of businesses popping up at the same time on the same block, and that they’re meant to become permanent.

In Oakland, a group of investors was given $30,000 from the city to launch a project in which five businesses were given retail space on the same block in downtown Oakland rent-free for a period of six months. The space was occupied by an art gallery, a bike shop, a boutique clothing/gift shop, a jewelry store, and a home accessories shop. Thus far, the project appears to be a success. Four of the five original businesses are still around (their 6-months rent free expired in May) and three more are launching at the site this summer. And existing businesses in the area have also benefited from the project—according to Marketplace, coffee shops and restaurants around the retailers have seen their sales improve since the shops opened up, too.

Which is a great reminder that businesses benefit from proximity to one another and often couldn’t exist without this kind of clustering. A lone retailer on a block is much more likely to fail than one who is insulated by the presence of other businesses, which together as a whole attract lots more foot traffic by turning the block or neighborhood into a retail destination. By launching as a group, you decrease the likelihood of failure, which means you increase the number of businesses/entrepreneurs that suddenly want to move to your neighborhood, which also increases the desirability of the neighborhood for existing and potential residents.

Seems simple enough, right? Well, this week we’ll look at some areas in Minneapolis that we think might be good candidates for this type of project. But we’d like some suggestions from you, too. Are there blocks in our fair city that are primed for this kind of thing?

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Location: Rainbow Foods, 26th Ave. (between 29th St. and Lake St., across from Target)

Time/date: 3:15 p.m., Monday, June 18

Ratio of cars to parking spots: 86 to 287

This is the last of this week’s posts about the fortress of parking lots that restrict pedestrian access to the Lake Street light rail station (click here and here for the first and second posts, respectively). This Rainbow grocery store sits directly across the street from Target, and just downwind from Cub Foods. When we visited the lot on Monday, the parking lot was less than 30 percent full, meaning that even if traffic doubled on the weekends, more than 40 percent of the lot would still be empty.

Taken all together, the lots of Target, Cub, and Rainbow make up a sea of 1,128 parking spots interrupted only by a small strip of 26th Avenue. That number jumps to 1,390 spots when you include those designated for the small business that share strip mall space with Target. And at the time of our visit, less than 28 percent of all of these spots were in use.

Two grocery stores and a super store (which doubles as a grocery store), and over 800 empty parking spots—clearly there is a lot of redundancy in the amount of surface parking here. But how does something like this happen? One theory might have to do with parking minimums—the city-mandated minimum number of parking spots that retail businesses must provide to their customers—but this excess goes way beyond the number of spots mandated by the city.

Another theory, though, might go something like this: because the burden of providing parking lies entirely on the individual businesses themselves, and because it’s in the businesses interests to make transportation as painless as possible for its customers (i.e., make it possible for everyone to drive to the store if they are so inclined), and because it is in the nature of businesses to aspire toward growth (i.e., to provide more parking than is necessary because hopefully one day it will be necessary), we get the kind of massive surface parking lots we see here. And once one of these lots is constructed, the sheer fact that they take up so much space practically requires the businesses around it to build the same kinds of lots if they actually want to attract customers because getting there by foot is now burdensome.

Though we sometimes joke about Americans driving from one side of a massive parking lot to the other in order to go to two neighboring stores, trekking across these lots is actually a major chore—they can be ferociously hot (an abundance of pavement is the reason that cities are generally warmer than their surrounding suburbs by several degrees), there are rarely adequate sidewalks to shield pedestrians from traffic, and the built environment itself—empty parking spots directly in front of every store you might want to visit—practically orders people to drive from one store to the next.

And if we can’t even reasonably expect people to walk across the lot from Target to Cub, how can we expect a significant number of people to walk across both of these lots in addition to however many city blocks it takes them to reach these parking deserts in the first place? 

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Location: Cub Foods, 26th Ave. between 28th St. and 29th St. (across from the Lake St. Target)

Time/date: 2:45 p.m., Monday, June 18

Ratio of cars to parking spots: 107 to 360

A continuation of yesterday’s post about the fortress of parking lots that restrict pedestrian access to the Lake Street light rail station. The parking lot at Cub Foods is adjacent to that of the Target on Lake Street. Combined, the two lots account for 841 uninterrupted parking spaces, a number which doesn’t even include the spaces that serve the strip of smaller businesses that stretches northward from Target toward Minnehaha Ave.

When we visited the Cub lot late Monday afternoon, less than one third of its parking spots were in use. That means that even if traffic were to double on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, the lot still wouldn’t be 60 percent full.

In only tangentially related news, we did discover that a 35 oz. container of Fage Greek yogurt goes for only $6.99 at Cub. We suspect that if word got out, this lot might see a lot more traffic.

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