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.