Friday, March 9, 2012

The case of the thirteen parking lots

This is a post I wrote for

Thirteen parking lots

The amount of parking along the Central Corridor in Minneapolis and Saint Paul could be measured in square miles. It is huge. Business owners have expressed frustration over the loss of hundreds of parking spaces along University Avenue itself, but those spots are dwarfed by the total amount of parking in the corridor. The Metropolitan Council's FAQ on the Central Corridor states:
  • What will happen to on-street parking on University Avenue?
    University Avenue will retain 175 of its 1,150 on-street parking spaces after 675 spots are removed to make way for mandatory elements such as the LRT stations, 250 are eliminated to accommodate non-signalized pedestrian crossings, 40 are removed to provide secondary station access, 20 are lost to make room for three-car station platforms and 40 are eliminated to allow space for minimizing traffic lane transitions. Project studies show 560 on-street parking spaces are available on north-south cross streets within a block of the corridor and 15,300 off-street parking spaces are available within one block of University Avenue. A 2006 city of St. Paul study found 25,000 spaces in private lots within one-quarter mile of the LRT stations.
One of my projects this winter has been to add detail to OpenStreetMap along the Central Corridor, and I've had a bit of morbid fascination with the parking lots spread all along the route. Anyone who's visited University Avenue has seen the massive lots at the Midway Shopping Center and other retail districts adjacent to the street. But small-scale parking has managed to consume huge amounts of land as well (and a lot of it has been around for a very long time).

The image at the top of this article shows the most egregious example I've found of small-scale parking spinning out of control, located along University northwest of the intersection with Raymond Avenue. Depending on how detailed you want to be, there are 15 to 20 buildings on the block. I count 20 curb cuts for driveways and alleys. And thirteen parking lots, give or take.

This absurd little chunk of land in Saint Paul seems to document a transitional period in history. There's aerial photography for the block dating back to 1923—a time when railroad and streetcar ridership was peaking in the Twin Cities and across the country. Back then, the Raymond Avenue side was mostly filled in, but the block was otherwise fairly sparse.

Northwest block of University & Raymond northwest in 1923

By 1953, the block became as built-up as it was ever going to get, and already had about eight parking lots.

University Avenue near Raymond, 1953

Since then, it seems that two buildings have been demolished and two have been added. Parking expanded into most of the green space on the block and also into the spaces left by the demolished buildings.

This block seems like a poster child for parking reform and consolidation. I've ambled along its sidewalks many times over the years, and it can be a draining experience to wander past some of the more industrial buildings, and to deal with all of the curb cuts. One particularly dreary day about a decade ago, I looked at the piled-up sand and melting snow on the Cromwell side and said to myself, "Wow, this looks like a third-world country."

However, I'm a bit surprised by this block now that I've dug into its history a bit. Compared to the surrounding neighborhood, this actually seems to be an island of calm in an undulating sea of transition. Several nearby blocks have been completely destroyed by highway construction since 1953, and others have completely changed due to urban renewal efforts. I had expected to find that a bunch of buildings had been destroyed to make way for parking, but that only seems to be a minor culprit in this case.

With my knowledge of what happened to downtown Minneapolis as urban renewal took hold, I often look at fields of asphalt in the core of the Twin Cities and think that they were once buildings, but that's not always the way things happened. Parking has tended to consume open, undeveloped space just as much (if not more).

I've gained a little bit of nostalgia for this little piece of the city because it has actually remained relatively intact, though I think it's best to divorce myself from that sensation. Clearly, a lot more value could be extracted from this land if some of these individual enclaves of parking got merged together and were shared more readily among neighboring businesses. There's an economy of scale to be found by from combining parking lots together—the asphalt could be used much more efficiently. Consolidated parking would also reduce the number of driveways, leading to improved pedestrian experience, more on-street parking, and open land that could be developed.

Few other blocks along the Central Corridor are quite this crazy, but there are still countless opportunities along University Avenue and elsewhere in the Twin Cities to redevelop asphalt "grayfields" into new homes and businesses. Rather than holding tight to as many parking spaces as they can get, existing property owners should look at those empty lots and try to imagine what could be in that space instead.

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