Empty Lots

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

Empty Lots: Now Featuring Comments

This blog was always meant to be collaborative—part of a larger conversation about the present shape of our city and a vision for its future. Well, now, thanks to the installation of a comments function, that conversation can take place here rather than (or more likely, in addition to) other social media spaces. (A big thanks to Chrissy Friedlander and Wahida Omar for the technical assistance required to make this happen.)

So go on. Don’t be shy. Let us know how you feel and how we’re doing. Let us know when we’re right and—more importantly—when we’re wrong. No matter which, we know one thing is for certain: this blog and this conversation will be all the better for it.

All the best,



Reopening Nicollet Avenue: Baby Steps

We’ve written here before about the K-mart on Lake Street (and its accompanying 576-space parking lot) that has blocked through-traffic on Nicollet Avenue since the 1970s. Today, the city announced that it’s taking the first steps toward reopening the road. From the city’s website:

Nicollet Avenue was closed and vacated between 29th Street and Lake Street in the late 1970s to make way for a retail development. Reopening Nicollet Avenue would not only restore the street grid, but it would help revitalize nearby businesses along the corridor from south Minneapolis to Downtown. A new Nicollet Avenue would make for better neighborhoods and improved driving, biking, and pedestrian experiences. It would pave the way for redevelopment that grows the tax base, reweave a missing connection, and focus and leverage the transit investments being made in the immediate area, which is near several large employment centers, including downtown Minneapolis.

You can read the rest of the announcement here. This is only the first of many, many (did we already say many?) meetings to get this ball rolling, and there are still lots of obstacles (not least of which is the fact that a new developer has to acquire property rights from multiple landowners at the intersection), but rolling now it is.


Lake Street Super Stores Are Barriers to Transit-Oriented Development

Location: Target, Lake St. & Hiawatha Ave.

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

Ratio of cars to parking spots: 120 to 480

One of the hopes of the Hiawatha Light Rail project was that, eventually, transit-oriented development (TOD) would revitalize (or in the case of some of the stations in the more industrial areas of the corridor, simply vitalize) the areas surrounding its stations. To some degree, though it’s taken a while, this is now happening. Condo projects are popping up around both 38th St. Station and 46th St. as well.

Lake Street, however, is an interesting case, mostly because this is one of the few areas along the light rail corridor that was already substantially developed before the light rail project began. Within a few blocks of the station are Target, Cub Foods, Rainbow, Savers, a YWCA, and a host of cheap eateries. But take a look at the aerial view of the intersection where the station sits and you’ll see something striking: it’s surrounded by a fortress of parking lots.

This kind of development is an enormous barrier to TOD, which ideally would have a dense cluster of residential and commercial development surrounding the station that gradually becomes less dense the further you get from the station. This makes the light rail stop easily accessible by foot, which is important because there are no parking lots serving the station itself directly.

But because the station is surrounded by super stores, this is very difficult (if not impossible, under current conditions) to accomplish. As you can see from the first photo above, in which a mobility-impaired person in an electric wheelchair/scooter is braving the vast emptiness of the Target parking lot on her way to the store, simply getting from one end of the parking lot to the other is a fairly daunting task in itself, let alone getting from one’s place of residence, across a series of football-field-sized parking lots, and to the station.

What is perhaps strangest about this is that Lake Street itself (between Uptown and Hiawatha Ave. especially) is a great example of densely built commercial and residential space in which all parties benefit from proximity to one another. Along this stretch of Lake St., parking lots are few, and those that exist are generally well used. Lots of people travel by foot or by transit or by bike (the Greenway is only a block away). But at the light rail station, where the highest potential for meaningful development lies, we’re suddenly confronted with suburban big box purgatory.

We visited Target on a Monday afternoon and found that about one quarter of its parking spots were in use. Even if traffic were to double on a Saturday or Sunday, that would still leave half of the lot empty and unused. In an otherwise bustling and densely built corridor (with the potential to become even more bustling and dense), we’re sure that this space could be put to better use.

More on Lake Street Station to come. For now, the rest of the evidence.


Downtown Minneapolis and the Grocery Store Renaissance: Lunds Edition

Location: Lunds Downtown, 12th St. & Hennepin Ave.

Time/date: 10:25 a.m., Saturday, June 16

Ratio of cars to parking spots: 37 to 78

We’ve written here before about the livability issues that stand in the way of Minneapolis’ lofty goal of doubling its downtown population by 2025. Most important among them is the fact that because downtown lacks certain essential amenities, its residents still have to rely on their cars to accomplish simple tasks like getting groceries or going to the hardware store to pick up light bulbs, which undercuts what should be the appeal of living in the city’s densest (and most expensive) neighborhoods.

Well, this week downtown took a big step toward changing all of that. With the arrival of Lunds at 12th and Hennepin, downtown Minneapolis now has its first full-service grocery store. While it feels slightly strange to celebrate the expansion of a large grocery conglomerate in the land of grocery co-ops (the company was born here, at least), the opening is definitely reason for celebration. The store will become an anchor for residents of Loring Park, which has some of the highest density housing in the city. And once it proves itself successful, that success will only attract more residents (and thus businesses) to downtown’s southern border. With a Whole Foods set to open at the corner of Washington and Hennepin in 2013, the city is finally making an effort to catch  commercial development up to all of the residential development that’s been taking place along the riverfront.

Now for the dirty details. The parking lot at Lunds was well used. The lot serves both the grocery store and its accompanying beer/wine shop, and while there were a significant number of vacant spots when we visited (just over half of the 78 spaces were unused), most of those were around the wine shop, not the grocery store (it was just after 10 a.m., after all). There was a security guard patrolling the lot on foot to make sure people parking there weren’t trying to take advantage of the free parking. During our short visit, we saw him stop two groups trying to park and dash (one was an elderly couple; the other a baseball-capped family of four). Though he was suspicious of all of our photo-snapping at first (“Who do you work for?” he asked. Our attempts at explaining that this is a personal project and that we don’t work for anyone only seemed to arouse more suspicion), he eventually told us that non-Lunds shoppers trying to take advantage of the free lot have been a moderate-but-not-terribly-serious issue thus far.

Now, the evidence:

If you look hard enough, you can see the lot security guard in the distance.

And finally: This apartment building is right next door to the new store. We suspect the home values/rents in the building just went way, way up in the space of a few days.


The Empty Lots team is traveling this week, so expect lighter-than-usual posting for a few days. Our minds, however, are never far from Minneapolis, so in the meantime, here are some creative parking solutions that make the most out of limited spaces (and that cost significantly less than the parking garages we suggested last week might be a good way to consolidate parking in downtown).

There are some obvious disadvantages to this model, but some pretty clear space-saving advantages as well. Coming and going is slightly less convenient, and you might not be able to hop in your car on your lunch break (Who needs to anyway when we’ve got Nice Ride?). But most cars simply sit there for the requisite eight or nine or ten hours while we work, and having them tucked slightly out of reach isn’t really such an inconvenience. Still, though, the question remains: Would we ever accept solutions like this in Minneapolis?

We remain, as they say, cautiously optimistic.


How We Got Here: Parking Minimums Edition

About twelve days ago (back when the Empty Lots project was just a gleam in our eye), the city of St. Paul voted 5-1 to lower the minimum number of parking spots it would require bars and restaurants to provide to customers. Under the old rules, restaurants that served alcohol were required to provide one parking spot per 125 square feet of floor space (including kitchen space, storage, etc.). Under the new rules, that number is reduced to one spot per 400 square feet. In other words, a 4,000-square-foot restaurant that once would have been required to provide 32 parking spots to customers is now only obligated to provide 10. (Though we here at Empty Lots don’t think this goes quite far enough in easing minimums, we applaud this decision nonetheless.)

In the decision, the city makes a new distinction between “bars” and “restaurants.” Bars (which are defined as establishments that serve alcohol past midnight) are still required to provide one spot per 150 square feet of space (the old number was 125, so practically speaking this is essentially unchanged), while restaurants (which serve alcohol but close by midnight) are given a break. The city is sending a message here about what types of establishments it values most. Restaurants are generally less boisterous and less intrusive on neighborhoods, so they’re given fewer barriers to entry into the marketplace. The higher parking minimum for bars is meant to a) limit the number of bars in any given area, but also b) to keep merry-makers corralled into a designated area (the parking lot) rather than descending upon the neighborhood streets in search of their cars after closing time.

(Aside from the fact that this leaves available street parking underutilized, we will only briefly point out the other troubling side effect of making parking so plentiful for bar patrons: that those patrons will be that much more likely to drive to and (consequently) from the bar rather than find other forms of transportation, which means the city is indirectly requiring businesses to subsidize drunk driving.)

There was a single dissenting vote on the measure, which came from Council Member Dave Thune. “I have no desire for this to be Chicago…or even Minneapolis,” he said to the Star Tribune. “[I]n St. Paul, we like our streets quiet.”

This attitude—that mixed-use urban development is an intrusion upon otherwise quiet, residential neighborhoods—is useful to examine in trying to figure out just how the parking situation in the Twin Cities got to be the way that it is, and in looking at how these parking minimums came to exist in the first place. 

Take Minneapolis, for example.

Beginning around 1950, Minneapolis began losing residents to the surrounding suburbs at an alarming rate. The population went from about 522,000 in 1950 to 483,000 in the span of ten years. People were fleeing the city for more spacious, comfortable, car-friendly suburbs. In response, the city tried to make itself more appealing by making itself more suburban. Parking minimums were instituted in 1963 as a way to ensure that getting around the city was as easy and convenient as it was out in the suburbs.

But what happened instead was this: The city’s population continued to shrink, even as the city itself became more suburban. By 1980, the population had shrunk to 371,000—a 29% decrease from its peak. Parking minimums weren’t having any effect in terms of population retention, but they were significantly altering the aesthetic of the city and the way in which its residents lived and got around. 

To the city’s credit, it has since admitted its mistakes and is doing what it can to right its course. In 2009, parking minimums were reduced drastically from the 1963 requirements and were eliminated entirely for downtown Minneapolis. The city has instituted minimums for bike parking and is taking steps to encourage alternative modes of transportation.

But it’s an uphill battle, particularly because many residents have become accustomed to their suburbanized city and are resistant to the kinds of changes that would have enormous economic benefits to the city (for instance, rezoning for mixed use development in residential areas and easing height restrictions for buildings outside of downtown) that might also make driving and parking more unpleasant.

The kind of Not-In-My-Backyard attitude exemplified by Council Member Thune’s remarks is one of our biggest barriers to meaningful change in the Twin Cities. The flip side of expecting more out of our city (more numerous and more prosperous businesses in our own neighborhoods, a transit system that does more than shuttle people in and out of downtown or the U of M during peak commuting hours) is that the city will expect more out of us, too.


Location: Vacant lot, 36th St. and Nicollet Ave.

Time/date: 3:15 p.m., Friday, May 25

Ratio of cars to parking spots: 0 to 9

This now-vacant building and lot have gone through several iterations over the past few years. Once a barber shop and travel company, the space was most recently used as a child care center (part of the parking lot was converted into a fenced-in playground when this transition took place). But for some time now the building and its adjacent parking lot have sat empty. Even so, there’s ample signage warning potential parking bandits (or, say, those of us looking to sleep one off after an evening at nearby Pat’s Tap) not to get too comfortable, lest they should face the wrath of the towing fleet over at Wrecker Services.


This Is What Downtown Looks Like When You’re Not Around

Here we are, less than a week into this project, and we’re already breaking our first and only ground rule: that photos should be taken of lots during peak traffic times in order to give a true sense of how the space actually gets used. But we’re making an exception today for downtown Minneapolis. And here’s why. The parking lots in the photos below are well utilized Monday through Friday from about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. But after that—during the evenings, on weekends, and on holidays (these photos were taken from about 1:00 p.m. - 1:30 p.m. on Memorial Day)—they’re deserted. That’s well over 50 percent of the time, which arguably qualifies this as “how the space actually gets used.” The lots below cover a stretch of about three-quarters of a mile along 5th Ave. S that is (with a couple of exceptions) more or less dedicated entirely to surface parking.

The problem here isn’t that this parking exists—people who want to drive to work should be able to, so long as they are willing to pay the market value of the 75-162 square feet that their parking spot inhabits (a figure which doesn’t include the extra square footage for circulation areas, end of aisle areas, or landscaping). The problem is that we’re building out instead of up. These lots could easily inhabit one-seventh of the space they currently do if we simply stacked them on top of one another into a parking garage. Big garages are expensive to build, sure, but when you consider the trade off—blocks and blocks of land that could be generating tax revenue for the city through property taxes from condos/commercial real estate and sales taxes from businesses—a large investment in infrastructure would easily pay for itself over time (not to mention the fact that development would instantly increase the value of the land, thus also the potential tax revenue for the area). Because while these parking lots take up a certain amount of very valuable square footage in the heart of the city, what’s really being lost is many, many times more cubic feet of space—apartments and retail/office buildings that could build up as high as they pleased (or as high as the city would allow them to).

The trickle down benefits of this model would be many—as land becomes more valuable and parking becomes more expensive, many more people would be incentivized to take public transit (if there is one place that our transit system will reliably take you, it’s downtown), and thus the transit system would be in a position to increase frequency/quality of service. Or, given the new livability of certain areas of the city, some of those people might finally choose to live there, increasing the economic potential for those areas and keeping their money (property taxes and discretionary spending alike) in Minneapolis proper rather than the surrounding suburbs.

Much more on this to come in the weeks ahead. For now, the photos:

The parking lot at 3rd Ave. S. and 2nd St. stretches two city blocks to 5th Ave S.

The view from 5th Ave. S and Washington. The below photos are a block-by-block trip down 5th Ave. to 10th St., an eight block stretch in which seven entire square city blocks are devoted entirely or substantially to parking (the one exception being the block that is inhabited by the Minneapolis Armory).


A New Vision for Washington Avenue

Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis is set to receive a makeover in 2014, and the fine folks over at the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition have taken the opportunity to put forward their vision for what this now-seven-lane high-speed thoroughfare might one day look like. The proposal is aimed at making Washington Avenue more than just a way for cars to move through Minneapolis. It aims to make it a space that is attractive and useful for all types of people who might use it, including visitors, residents, and people who trek into the city each day for work.

Click the link above for the gory details, but here’s a brief summary in case you’re in a hurry:

  • Reducing the number of traffic lanes from seven to five
  • Curb-separated bicycle lanes (aka “cycletracks”) in each direction 
  • Increased sidewalk space
  • Additional greenery, including a tree-lined median

If you’re looking for a logical place to begin/continue the revitalization efforts downtown, then Washington Ave. makes a logical choice. The fact that there are already a healthy number of businesses and restaurants along the corridor (and that luxury condos along the riverfront are proliferating like zebra mussels) means that the really hard work of attracting developers and entrepreneurs to the area has already been done. The idea is that if Washington Ave. can become a place that people actually want to live, work, and entertain themselves (and if it can attract the kinds of mundane but essential businesses that potential residents would rely on—dry cleaners, grocers, hardware stores, gyms, pet stores, etc.) then it will be that much easier to attract this kind of development to the areas surrounding it.

The key excerpt from the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition proposal: “The Downtown 2025 Plan sets the goal of doubling Downtown’s population.  This will only be feasible if Downtown continues to transform itself into a place where people want to live.”

We couldn’t agree more.

The Bike Coalition will be holding a public meeting to talk about their plan this Saturday, June 2nd, at the Dunn Bros. downtown. More details here.


Location: 15th St., between Nicollet Ave. and 1st Ave. S

Time/date: 12:52 p.m., Monday, May 28

Ratio of cars to parking spots: 3 to 49

Another lonely parking lot spotted just south of downtown Minneapolis on our way into the city yesterday. For context, this lot is just across the street from a (verifiably delicious) Mexican restaurant called Salsa a la Salsa, and down the block from the Music Box Theatre. If we can keep from getting distracted by all the scenery, we’ll eventually get to the photos of downtown itself…Stay tuned.