Parking Minimums Need To Go

Managing a city is a very difficult thing to do. It is a task fraught with chicken-and-egg problems. Vibrancy won’t increase without density, density won’t increase without vibrancy – things like that. To add to the difficulty, cities are created and shaped by many different people with many different interests. The most perilous part of this is that after they’re done, many of these influencers go to a home far away from the city that they exert so much influence on during the day. Even an unabashedly liberal city like Minneapolis is unable to create a cohesive and effective growth and transportation policy for itself. This is in no small part due to the many onerous layers of outside interests that Minneapolis must placate and win over in order to shape its own future.

A hollowed out downtown Minneapolis. The Downtown East plan may provide a second chance for these city blocks.


There is, however, one thing that Minneapolis can do to jump start its own prosperity and vibrancy with no strings attached. Minneapolis can repeal the minimum parking requirement throughout the city. This move was made for the downtown zoning districts in 2009, and is arguably already making a difference as a factor in the downtown building boom – especially in the former surface-lot haven of the Warehouse District. It is still to be seen how successful Downtown East’s second chance redemption will fare with a new stadium, but without parking minimums I am hopeful. This policy can and should be expanded to the rest of the city.

Minneapolis is a considerably less dense city outside of the downtown area, and even Downtown is small compared to a lot of its peers that we like to compare it to. There are enumerable opportunities to increase density without building vertically, especially in our neighborhoods. The ultimate goal is increased walkability, which leads to a much better quality of life. Changing occupancy laws can help, but allowing land owners to determine their parking needs for themselves is the most effective move that the city can make. There are holes throughout Minneapolis that can and should be filled in before the existing built environment is replaced.


Minimum parking requirements were manifested in the suburban expansion of the 20th century and, in trying to share in their new found prosperity, cities soon found themselves yoked with these same destructive policies. Parking requirements played a crucial role in hollowing out the core of cities, but it could be argued that the carnage wreaked in the suburbs and exurbs will soon be even worse. Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns asserts that the American suburban expansion of the twentieth century was structured equivalently to a Ponzi scheme. The low-density sprawl of suburbs and exurbs could only afford to finance its own infrastructure (sewers, electrical, emergency crews, etc.) by selling and developing more land to pay for the existing development. One way to do this was to demand that businesses buy and pay taxes on enough cheap land to fulfill exorbitant parking requirements (usually offered at a steep discount).

The massive size of these parking lots can not be brushed aside merely as the result of abundant and cheap land. The Wal-Marts of the world drive a notoriously hard bargain, so I doubt that they just happen to be generous when it comes to buying up land to pave over. No, this result was due to deliberate policy decisions made to force the sale of cheap land. Like any Ponzi scheme, what was easy to roll out will eventually crumble under its own weight.

It is not to be understated how instrumental this policy was in the stratospheric expansion of American settlement in to our former farmland and pristine wilderness. If each and every big box store had been allowed to purchase and pave only the land that it needed to accommodate its customers, sprawl would have been much slower and less expansive. It might have even expanded at such a pace that more sensible traditional development patterns would have naturally occurred through the process of unencumbered economic common sense.

Strong Towns conducted an ingenious crowd-sourcing event over this last Thanksgiving weekend to drive home this exact point. Using the hashtag #BlackFridayParking, Strong Towns was able to aggregate pictures of underutilized parking lots from all over the country. The kicker is that parking minimums are established to meet the demands of peak usage, a.k.a. Black Friday. The results were underwhelming and astonishing. Absolutely enormous parking lots were practically empty. My own contribution is below:

Target, St. Louis Park MN. Overbuilt on the busiest parking day of the year.
Target, St. Louis Park MN. Overbuilt on the busiest parking day of the year.


Cities, by definition, have ingrained traits that will help them to weather the storm of myopic land-use policies. Modern suburbs and exurbs do not. Post-war suburbs and exurbs have never made economic sense and exist solely due to government support and encouragement since their inception. For this reason, it is all the more urgent to these outer settlements that they remove their minimum parking standards so that useful, revenue-generating development can begin to fill in the massively overbuilt parking lots. Without infill development, small towns throughout the country face the prospect of a fiscal collapse with no viable options for generating adequate revenue.

This fate can still be avoided, and I believe that Minneapolis can lead the region while embracing a 21st century land-use policy. By implementing a city-wide policy that recognizes cars for what they are – privately owned machines that aid in personal travel – Minneapolis can unbridle itself from a destructive relic of the past. With a certain amount of last-minute foresight, Minnesotan suburbs and exurbs can then look to Minneapolis as an example of what steps can be taken to solve an imminent financial crisis.

Michael Roden

About Michael Roden

Michael Roden is an Architect with a passion for urban place-making. He lives in the Lyn-Lake neighborhood of Minneapolis with his fiance and dog. Michael blogs at You can follow him on twitter @walkbikebusblog.

14 thoughts on “Parking Minimums Need To Go

  1. helsinki

    The ironic thing about the first picture featured in this article is that many of the visible structures are themselves parking ramps.

  2. Jeremy MendelsonJeremy Mendelson

    This is in many ways the ultimate problem for cities. Nobody will build anything except luxury condos because the cost of the required parking is just too much. The policy means that If you’re a developer you have to start by figuring out how much parking you can fit/afford and then that dictates the number of units you can build. Totally backwards and unhelpful, especially when more and more people are not owning cars anyway.

    The big problem is that as you say, the people responsibility for politics in cities are almost always “drive everywhere, all the time” types. They have the typical belief that if you take away a single car parking space the whole city will fall apart. How we deal with that is a difficult challenge.

    1. hokan

      Jeremy, the policy makers get their cue from residents. People who live near developments demand that those developments provide parking because those residents fear that otherwise they won’t be able to park in front of their houses — the development occupants will be parking there.

      1. Adam MillerAdam

        Yes, but the question is why, “make sure I can keep using public railways to park for free” continues to be persuasive.

  3. ML

    It’s worth noting that the new development proposed for Washington and Hennepin will have 2 spots per unit, despite being in the downtown zone that lacks parking minimums. ( I totally agree that we should abolish parking minimums, but unfortunately that won’t be enough on its own, especially in a car-centric city like Minneapolis. I also don’t like the idea of parking maxes. I think what will really have to happen is a slow shifting of norms and maybe some developers getting screwed when they build parking that isn’t utilized.

    1. hokan

      In fact the city does have parking maximums downtown: 1.5 or 1.6 spaces per unit, depending on the downtown zone. (I don’t know which zone this building will be in.)

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        I’m actually not concerned about parking maximums. Instead, we should have strict performance standards for car storage facility design, impact, and access/egress. I also think we need to start planning for a post-car storage downtown, and that means awareness of how we can retrofit car storage structures for reuse. Flat parking decks are amenable to this use… tilted ones are not, even though they are the most space-efficient parking structure design.

        If there’s 10 spaces per unit but you can’t notice, what’s the big deal? It’s the developer making that (crazy) choice and taking the risk. As long as we properly mitigate the impacts to the public realm, we shouldn’t be concerned with the use on the inside – even if it’s parking.

  4. Michael RodenMichael Roden Post author

    ML – I can’t find it now, but someone I follow on twitter in Chicago (he tweets way too much which is why I can’t find this link) tweeted out an article quoting a developer saying that over 60% of his mandated parking structure is vacant and unleased. That has to be a huge hit to the bottom line.

  5. Pierce

    It’s often quite difficult for developers to secure financing on projects with less than 1 to 1 ratio of parking space per unit.

  6. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

    This can be the eventual goal, but simply relaxing regulation in neighborhoods (and building narrower streets when reconstruction becomes a viable option… in 2150 or so, one side parking only?) we can allow a development to have less than a 1:1 ratio without having that one developer who abuses the system and builds no parking every few blocks and fills all the on street parking that exists… by slowly allowing density to fill the spaces you avoid attracting these… less savory developers.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      How is it “abusing the system” if a developer decides not to build parking and their tenants end up parking on the street?

      That sounds like the type of developer we should want: One who would rather invest in the quality of their product and the interaction it has with the public realm than spend money on car storage they might not want.

      The real abuse of the system is abusing the taxpayer who pays for that real estate and asphalt whereby the city just allows people to store cars for free. The solution here is to properly price parking, whether on the street or in a structure, so people can make efficient choices about their mobility habits.

  7. Ryan

    I am a big fan the parking minimum, at least for residential properties. I would never purchase or even lease a residential property in a dense area without having guaranteed off street parking. In an area like the Twin Cities, or pretty much any area outside of Manhattan, I find that I need a car. My friends and family who do not live in downtown, andthe places I go to that are outside of downtown require that I have reliable and convenient transportation outside my immediate neighborhood. I do not believe that the Twin Cities area will ever have the public transportation infrastructure leading deep into the suburbs or even deep into the first ring suburbs, that would be necessary to support living without a car.

    if we didn’t have the winter that we do, I could survive easily with a bicycle or motorcycle.

    Please forgive me if I am misunderstanding the situation! a few years ago I was led to believe that residential properties in the downtown area are required to have at least one off street parking space. Clearly the rules are more complicated than this.

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