The Day the Laughter Died: Acme Comedy’s Parking Crisis

acme comedy

The Acme entrance. Photo via SW Journal.

As someone who follows local development politics pretty closely, I’ve been watching a strange new debate unfold at City Hall. We’re used to hearing concerns about parking and neighborhood “character” from longtime homeowners. Now, that same argument is coming from a cast of comedians in support of Acme Comedy Co’s quest to stop the development of a neighboring parking lot into an apartment building.

You’d think that cranky comedians riffing about parking would be entertaining, but this debate is forcing me into an uncomfortable place, confronting familiar arguments from a fresh perspective. I don’t want to be the comedy-hating jerk lecturing about property rights and commanding people to move to the suburbs if they don’t like it here. (I like jokes, I hate libertarians, I’m a cool guy.)

But I can’t shake the notion that a parking lot on the edge of downtown would be better used as housing for people than occasional storage for cars. It’s good for the city, it’s good for the neighborhood, and it’s good for business (even the comedy business, I think).

Not funny: using Prince’s name in vain.

We’re told, by the owner and others, that Acme Comedy Co is an asset to the city, a world-class venue that draws fans and performers from around the state and across the country. We’re also told by Acme’s owner that nobody in their right mind would visit his nationally-heralded comedy institution if they couldn’t park right out front. With the talent and creativity it took to build that kind of success, I’m pretty sure the owner could come up with a way to secure the car parking he says is essential to the survival of his business. Here’s a few ideas:

These are just a few solutions which don’t require forcing the owner of the disputed parking lot to keep it as a parking lot for as long as Acme finds it necessary and convenient. Most of these solutions also allow people to keep driving their cars. I didn’t even think very long or hard to come up with these ideas, so imagine what a guy could come up with if his thriving business was in danger.

While we’re talking about possible solutions, it’s probably necessary to clear up the widespread misconception that the city can force a parking arrangement on the owner of the lot. As a legal matter, the city can’t do that; they would get sued. As a policy matter, the city is rightly eager for people to build on surface parking lots.

Here’s another set of arguments I’ve found to be misguided: the idea that replacing a single parking lot with housing is about forcing people out of their cars and onto public transit; the idea of winter biking as a laugh line; and the idea of walking any distance in cold weather as a practical impossibility. I can’t relate to these arguments, because I’m the weirdo who takes the bus downtown, who bikes for groceries, who walks just about everywhere. I know some people prefer not to live this way, sometimes by circumstances beyond their control. Truly, I don’t begrudge your way of life. But yours is not the only way.

I’m not attempting a “War on Cars” here. But I do think we should want to become a city where more people are able to live and work and go to comedy clubs, without being made to feel as if a private car is the only sane way to get there. I won’t deny this is a long road to travel, made more difficult by decades of auto-centric government policy (favoring cheap and easy parking, among other things). I’m not asking anyone to give up their car, but we should slowly let go of our past mistakes, one parking lot at a time.

No matter what happens with this particular lot, I’m certain that your car trip to this urban comedy club will still be relatively fast, easy, and cheap. It’s just that, maybe paying a little more to park, or walking an extra block, or finding an alternate mode is the price we pay for an incrementally more humane urban landscape: another building, another neighbor, another customer, another opportunity.


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27 Responses to The Day the Laughter Died: Acme Comedy’s Parking Crisis

  1. Lindsey Wallace
    Lindsey Wallace June 29, 2016 at 11:17 am #

    That YouTube clip of Peter’s testimony is the best and I will be watching it on the regular.

  2. Hot Karl June 29, 2016 at 3:50 pm #

    I love live comedy and I love the Acme and enjoy being on their Insiders email list. I’ve been following this debate since the first email the owner sent out about it and I must admit that in the 15+ shows I’ve attended since 2012 I have never driven there. Apparently I’m in the overwhelming minority of customers that fit this mold but I think the parking issue is being used as a scapegoat for broader business challenges.

    The big names that used to pack clubs and have multiple specials via HBO/Netflix/etc. or tv shows can play larger venues (Target Center, First Ave, State Theater, Varsity have all had big names recently)- it’s tougher than ever to be one of the small independents and I wouldn’t mind seeing First Ave becoming a bigger player in the local comedy scene.

    • Rosa June 30, 2016 at 11:06 pm #

      You should write to them and tell them you are a customer who doesn’t drive. I think a lot of business owners just don’t see us even when we’re there.

  3. Mikey June 29, 2016 at 6:22 pm #

    Funny, having to park in a ramp didn’t keep us from going to the Pantages to see Chris Hardwick last year…

  4. James Moore July 1, 2016 at 1:42 am #

    I have a few grammatical errors going on, but the only one worth clarifying is that Gunsbury – not Acme – shot down parking negotiations.

  5. Tim Harmston July 1, 2016 at 8:32 am #

    I think what gets lost is that comedy clubs only work if you can seat 300 people for the 8pm show and then quickly turn them around with another couple of hundred people for the late show. It’s vital to not have people coming in late, it disrupts the show and makes for an overall bad comedy experience. Acme undoubtedly has unique parking needs. It’s a shame that they can’t work out a plan to build more parking ramps in that area because it’s going to drive out the other entertainment and dining venues. I think the anger is that Acme has been an anchor, the old man, the landmark for 25 years and to see people shrug their shoulders at its potential demise is frustrating because its largely responsible for making the North Loop at cool spot. And from what I have learned through this is that there is a war on parking lots, and a pro-condo, pro-development movement that is going to swallow up the few remaining unique businesses like Acme. It happens in every city and its happening in Minneapolis. I can sleep at night knowing I tried to fight for
    a great small business. Enjoy the Jamba Juices and Caribous.

    • Peter Bajurny July 1, 2016 at 9:32 am #

      What would you like the city to do in this situation, and on what legal basis can they do it?

    • Matt Brillhart July 1, 2016 at 5:01 pm #

      I can completely accept Tim’s parking thesis as fact: Acme needs access to ample parking in order to facilitate the crowd turnaround between shows. There’s no need to get into discussions about mode share, etc. It is what it is.

      I think what a lot of us are saying is that maybe this is just a bad location for a comedy club. Acme should seriously think about moving closer to the core of downtown, where they’d likely be no more than a block or two away from several large parking ramps, light rail, bus routes, etc. The entire problem here is that Acme is located in an awkward faraway corner of downtown that is *never* going to accommodate large amounts of visitors’ vehicles. Parking in this distant corner of the North Loop will only continue to get more difficult and more expensive, because the supply will not increase. If people think the only solution to Acme’s parking woes/fears is to stop other private property owners from developing their property as they please, well…good luck with that. I know it may be hard to accept, but I honestly believe that Acme should move. If they need to crowdfund, do a Kickstarter, rally their fans, etc. in order to make the move work out financially, then that’s what they should do. I’ll happily make a contribution if Acme said they were gonna move to City Center or Block E or some cool old warehouse on 1st Avenue somewhere closer to the heart of downtown’s entertainment district.

      • Rosa July 1, 2016 at 11:30 pm #

        there’s a LOT of empty space in St Anthony Main and it has its own underground parking (not sure how many spots, but a ramp of its own.)

      • Bill Dooley July 4, 2016 at 10:42 am #

        Acme should have the zip codes of their customer base and if they are, as I suspect, from the suburbs, Acme will move to the suburbs to a place with ample free parking out front such as a strip mall begging for tenants. I question if suburban customers would even feel safe walking a few blocks at night from free ramp parking in the Warehouse District and this personal safety “feeling” seems to be fueling the political bitterness these days. If Acme moves to the suburbs, I would like to see First Avenue do more live comedy and Huge in the Lyndale/ Lake walkable, bikeable, 2 transit line area has potential as well.

  6. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman July 1, 2016 at 9:13 am #

    I think a common theme is that people that have never run a business think they know more than a successful business owner what it takes to run a successful business; that the business owners must be wrong because it doesn’t fit into the non-business owners perception of what the city should look like. I don’t disagree that building bicycle lanes on Cleveland or an apartment building in the North Loop might be better for the city as a whole, but to flatly deny that there will be an collateral damage to the businesses doesn’t come across to favorably.

    • Joseph Totten
      Joseph Totten July 1, 2016 at 9:24 am #

      I would second this notion, while also pushing slightly counter.

      I don’t think people realize how much the city is actually trying to do for ACME here. The fact is they would have had no legal standing to deny the variance; if they DID deny the variance, the project may have moved forward with less parking available (which is and of itself, has no bearing as it doesn’t sound like ACME could use the excess anyway); the city is trying to find alternative methods of parking for this business, including using city councilmembers’ time to try and convince another business owner to keep their business open later (the ramp discussed here).

      The only thing they can legally do to increase parking that it doesn’t seem like they are, would be to look at the meters and see if they were to use the roadspace differently (50′ paved, take 24′ for travel lanes, 8′ for parallel parking on one side, leaves 18′ for nose in parking, maybe do two 45-degree diagonal rows, one on each side).

    • Peter Bajurny July 1, 2016 at 9:46 am #

      I kinda wonder how much we the business skills of small business owners. I don’t think every business is successful because of the skill of its owner, I don’t even think the majority of businesses are successful because of the skill of the owner.

      If Acme is a business worth going to, a business that provides something unique, then a good business owner should be able to figure out a way to get his customers to keep coming.

      If the business model of a comedy club is a large group of people coming at once for a show, and then leaving all at once, then I’d imagine a large crowd of people walking to the parking ramp all at once. Does Acme have bouncers? Can they walk female comedians to their car (I assume they would leave after the crowds)?

      If the only draw to Acme is convenient parking right outside the door, if nobody is there because of the talent Acme draws or the unique atmosphere there, then I don’t know why everybody is so bent out of shape, there are a million places all around this metro that offer easy convenient parking, Acme customers can just go there and apparently lose nothing. I think the comedians are really selling themselves short, if their shows are worth going to, people will go. The comedy scene in NY isn’t dead because of parking, is it?

      • Rosa July 1, 2016 at 11:34 am #

        well, you don’t have to be a business owner to be a customer of the business who thinks it’s bad business for the business owner to claim you don’t exist. We’ve got several people here who are nondriving customers of Acme. And this is a pretty small forum. This is a common problem with the “lack of parking will kill us!” business owners – they’re trash talking and alienating some of us because they refuse to ask their customers how they’re actually getting to the venue.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller July 1, 2016 at 9:49 am #

      Actually, on this one, you don’t have to think Acme is wrong. If the cost of keeping that business is less housing and keeping surface parking, it might not be worth paying. Maybe the city isn’t the right place for it.

      That said, I do think there’s quite a bit of unaddressed tension in arguing that people will drive from Chaska and Maple Grove for comedy, but not if a portion of them them can’t pay to park immediately across the street. For one thing, that lot isn’t big enough for everyone, so those people already face that scary possibility and brave it out nonetheless.

      Anyway, assuming the Mr. Lee wasn’t planning to leave regardless, my prediction is that the Solheim project gets built and Acme figures out how to make it work. And the parking wars move on to the next project.

  7. Peter Bajurny July 1, 2016 at 9:33 am #

    What would you like the city to do in this situation, and on what legal basis can they do it?

  8. Alex Cecchini
    Alex Cecchini July 1, 2016 at 9:40 am #

    It’s pretty unimaginative to completely shoot down any suggestion for mitigation of the loss of *some* of the parking spaces for this club.

    Not every patron is from 20+ miles away. Not every patron is a female arriving and departing alone. Not every patron is unwilling to pay for a valet. Not every patron is unwilling to walk a bit farther, or carpool with the friends they’re meeting up with. In the 7-8 months a year where the weather requires nothing more than a sweatshirt (so clever on the unitard on a bike bit! lol!), not every patron is unwilling to schlep it on a bike. When you add up all these people who are probably more amenable to shifting their arrival method than Acme, or its comedians, think, you get a very manageable situation on the whole.

    The author made it abundantly clear that these options aren’t hard to think up, nor are they the only ones on the table. There are longer, harder roads to making this particular area of the North Loop easier to get around by bike, or safer by foot. Particularly, perception of safety on foot along poorly-lit streets fronted by blank brick walls with few options to get between 2nd and Washington. I dunno, maybe more housing with more people out going to restaurants or bars or comedy clubs or walking dogs around 10 PM or even just looking out their windows at the sidewalk would help with that. Maybe pushing the city and/or private re-developers to create a few more pedestrian connections between Washington (where the buses run) and Acme. To say nothing of improving the ability of folks to get in/out of downtown without a car are things people on this site advocate for, the type of things the owner of a club, or its traveling comedians, don’t really think much of in their daily lives.

    I guess, this post offered a non-exhaustive list of constructive options for Acme advocates to pursue that aren’t the binary choices of “fight it where they can, or they’re going to look for greener pastures.” I’m sure we could all pick apart any individual suggestion because it doesn’t solve every potential patron’s wants, doesn’t solve climate change or inequality etc etc. But there are actually options out there that would more than likely allow Acme to remain their great spot, and continue to thrive, all while a bunch of new people can live in a neighborhood where they don’t have to drive or Uber 20 miles from maple Grove to see a show at Acme once in a while.

  9. Peter Bajurny July 1, 2016 at 9:49 am #

    I don’t know much about the owner of Acme, but I do know that he didn’t speak at the Planning Commission, after getting everyone whipped up into a fury. I sure hope he’s not using you all as patsies for plans he had anyway to move, or worse, close the club.

  10. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke July 1, 2016 at 12:21 pm #

    Yeah parking lot tourism is taking a nose dive, too. Not sure how to fill that void.

    (You think I’m kidding, and I am, but I do lead parking lot tours in my spare time.)

  11. Lindsey Wallace
    Lindsey Wallace July 1, 2016 at 4:10 pm #

    Today’s luxury housing is 2040’s middle-class housing. Because of the high building costs, developers are much more likely to build high-end housing than affordable housing. They need to counteract the high costs of development. As Jane Jacobs writes, “Time makes the high building costs of one generation the bargains of a following generation.”

    Apartment buildings become less luxurious as they age and therefore, more affordable. Building enough high-end housing stock also prevents rich folks from buying, renting, and renovating affordable housing leaving that open for the people who need it. One of the reasons we have a housing shortage right now is because we haven’t built enough new housing in the last several decades, which is the kind of housing that would be getting more affordable as new luxury apartments are built.

    More here: http://gizmodo.com/how-building-expensive-new-housing-actually-helps-creat-1763423240

  12. Tim Harmston July 1, 2016 at 4:43 pm #

    Peter, it’s pretty insulting to insinuate that the owner of Acme was using us as patsies. The fury you saw in front of city council and the planning commission is due the very real threat that a business that has meant so much to so many is on life support due to a hurricane swell of development in Minneapolis that is not including any new parking infrastructure. It is safe to say that Acme is equally important as First Ave in terms of entertainment landmarks in this city. There’s a reason Louis CK talked about Acme on Fallon, a reason that Robin Williams chose to rehearse his special there, a reason that Maria Bamford and Nick Swardson, and Bill Burr, and Ron White, and Jim Gaffigan and Tig Notaro, and Kyle Kinane, and Kevin Smith, and Hannibal Burress, and TJ Miller, and numerous other comics travel here frequently to work their art. Acme has anchored the North loop when the North Loop was a dangerous place, it stayed, it grew and hundreds of thousands of people valued the business they provided. Now, largely due to the city’s war on parking and war on surface lots, the great small business of Acme Comedy Co. might move elsewhere. And yes, the idea that the city’s hands are tied is pretty accurate, they can’t interfere. But why can’t they help facilitate a solution to this? They are involved in facilitating all kinds of private / public ventures. Acme is not the only victim of the white hot pace of development in the North Loop.There will be others from what I am hearing. It’s not like any of the Acme supporters are anti-bicycle, because most comics are pretty in favor of it. But the city can eliminate surface lots and other parking options at their own peril because the minute you say “screw those suburbanites” and “let the suburbanites keep their groupons in the suburbs” then you are shutting out the substantial influx of cold cash that those people bring with them to spend in MPLS on small business. And the idea that a valet service would be the solution is completely insane. Imagine a line of cars down 1st street while trying to arrive for an 8pm show and then retrieving those cars while trying to seat another 300 people for the late show. The parking needs to be close, and convenient. If it doesn’t work out for Acme, so be it. Development is happening and killing all kinds of cool stuff, and it’s inevitable. But don’t patronize the comics and comedy fans and Acme for standing up and fighting for a business that has done nothing but employ hundreds of people, bring revenue into the North Loop and neighboring area, bring joy night after night to peoples lives and help launch and encourage the careers of people like Nick Swardson, Mitch Hedberg, Maria Bamford, and about a billion other working artists of all stripes.

    • Eric Anondson
      Eric Anondson July 1, 2016 at 5:07 pm #

      What do you want, that is legally possible, for the city to do?

      It seems that stopping the development of the lot has zero legal options. Aiding the venue in getting parking arrangements with the private ramp 2-3 blocks away is one thing. Aiding (in whatever legal way) a move to another site within the city is another?

    • Peter Bajurny July 1, 2016 at 5:16 pm #

      I hope I’m wrong, but I’m curious as to why the owner decided not to come and defend his business, but still chose to whip up a fury of opposition.

      And I’ll pose my original question again, what would you have liked the Planning Commission to do, and on what legal basis would they do it. City policy is to redevelop surface parking lots, and limit the construction of purpose built parking structures. These have been city goals for a very long time.

      And you wrote an awful lot of words about what a gem Acme is, and I think you’re all selling yourselves short if you think the place will die without easy parking across the street. I think you’re pretty insulting to yourselves, and all your fellow comics, to think that you’re not worth walking a little farther from a parking spot or taking a cab or getting to Acme in some other way. If Acme is a gem, if the comedians are good, the people will come. Don’t sell yourselves short.

      Successful business owners don’t complaint incessantly, they adapt. I have to wonder if Acme is successful in spite of its ownership, not because of it.

      • Eric Anondson
        Eric Anondson July 1, 2016 at 5:24 pm #

        I think it was far more counterproductive to wind up sentiment that it will soon be too difficult park. With that seed planted many fans might just avoid. Becoming a self fulfilling prophecy.

        • Peter Bajurny July 1, 2016 at 5:31 pm #

          Sounds like the kind of thing you’d do if you wanted to close your business but somehow keep your cred in the industry in case you need it later.