I love the Saint Paul Farmer’s Market. It’s the best one in the Twin Cities. Many weekends, I’ll ride my bike down the bluff from my West Side apartment to hang out in Lowertown. I usually wander around and spend a few dollars before going up West 7th street to do some errands.
That’s why I read the fascinating article in yesterday’s Pioneer Press about the market with some interest. And as so often happens, I wound beating my head against my desk. The recent discussion illustrates how easily “the parking problem” can be misunderstood.
The False Premise of Market Failure
No offense to Pioneer Press reporter Fred Melo (who does a difficult job well), but whoever is running the Saint Paul Farmer’s Market seems to be doing everything wrong. The article begins with the premise that the Farmer’s Market is in decline.
Here’s the quote :
As many as 12,000 customers would shop at the Farmers’ Market on a Saturday or Sunday morning as recently as five or six years ago, Gerten said.
A headcount this past May shows “7,600-8,000, is where we are now,” Gerten said. Most of the drop “has come since they began construction on the (light) rail.”
If anyone remembers what happened this Spring, the winter lasted a long long time. Back in May when this count was taken, it was still really cold and the Farmer’s Market didn’t have any produce! The fact that thousands of people were there anyway is actually impressive.
The other obvious reason for a potential decline of the big downtown farmer’s markets (in both cities) is the exponential growth of farmer’s markets in the metro area. Last year, a farmer’s market opened up a few blocks from my house on the West Side. (I pass it on my way to the market in Lowertown.) Two years ago, my mom’s church in Cathedral Hill started a twice-weekly farmer’s market in a parking lot on Summit Avenue. The Unidale farmer’s market in the horrible Unidale strip mall parking lot is madly popular.
Meanwhile, through the week there are markets on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, Church Street on the U of MN campus, and 7th Place in downtown Saint Paul. These days, you can throw a fresh tomato in a random direction and the chances are you’ll hit someone selling kale.
Both the Saint Paul and Minneapolis Farmer’s Markets are competing with all these other farmer’s markets. Ironically, this article and the market director’s incessant “parking barking” (a term I coined, where people just say “parking parking parking” repeatedly like annoying dada dogs) will probably decrease the amount of people willing to go down to the market.
“Parking is Really Really Hard”
Parking is the thorn in the side of every urban planner and idealistic politician, and has been so since the dawn of cars.
For many people, the problem is straightforward. Here’s a quote from one of the vendors:
Standing over two tables of spring rolls, egg rolls and fresh vegetables on a recent weekend, longtime vendor Lillian Hang called the month-old light rail a step up for the city, but not a cure for parking concerns.
“People like it. I really like it,” she said. “(But) parking is a pain. Parking is really, really hard.”
Not to minimize people’s opinions, but parking is not “really really hard.” Rocket science is really really hard. Diamonds are really really hard. Being a good parent is really really hard. Parking? Basically, all you have to do is turn your wrist a little bit and move your ankle back and forth while craning your neck slightly. Parking is relatively easy.
The problem is that parking is often frustrating. A while back on this site, I described the “Costanza mentality”
The issue in Lowertown, Saint Paul is that lots of people want to park on a very few places of land. The problem that comes from that is that many people spend a lot of highly frustrating time “cruising,” struggling in vain, attempting to find one of these precious patches of asphalt nirvana. That’s the key problem! We need to find a way a way liberate people this teeth-grinding white-knuckled automobile parking hell.
Free Parking is Not the Answer
Solving the “parking problem” depends completely on the environment. The solution for many big box-style suburban parking centers is to create huge parking lots. If people are complaining about parking, you build a giant parking lot in front of your entrance. It’s straightforward supply and demand, and this kind of “supply side” approach to parking is why every suburban strip mall, office park, and big box store is surrounded by giant surface parking lots that stretch out like moon craters.
It’s counterintuitive, but that solution does not work at all for downtowns. As anyone who’s ever wandered around a stadium can attest, giant parking lots are incompatible with pleasant walking. As downtowns become popular places to live again, surface parking lots will fill transform into buildings. This is a great thing for cities! Replacing a downtown surface parking lot with a new building (stadium, apartment, office, or whatever) is like replacing a pre-packaged slice of American cheese with hand-crafted cave-aged blue cheese from Faribault.
Another reason that the obvious suburban “free parking” solution is problematic is due to cruising. Price is a great way to sort out differences in demand. Some people really value being close to their destination, while others are far more willing to walk a few blocks through the city. The way to solve this problem is to provide a range of pricing options, ideally ones that taper off along with distance.
Right now, Downtown Saint Paul is setting parking pricing exactly backwards. Currently on-street meters are free, and the off-street parking lots get more expensive as they get farther away.
(Granted, I would say that charging $1 is effectively the same as “free,”, but whatever…)
If highly sought after on-street meters are free, then all kinds of people will park at them for as long as possible. No wonder we end up with a frustrating situation of people cruising like Costanzas, getting extremely mad at each other, and complaining about parking every chance they get…
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Solving the Lowertown “parking problem” means embracing the urban changes occurring in Lowertown. Successful downtowns attract a diversity of people, coming from a diversity of places, for a diversity of reasons, and on a diversity of modes.
And this matters for markets. Studies show that shopping habits depend on how you travel through the city. For example, while car drivers usually make a trip to the grocery store once every week or two, filling their trunks with carts worth of groceries, bicyclists shop in a completely different way. They stop at stores multiple times each week, only buying a handful of things they can carry with them in a bag or pannier. So at first glance, it might seem that bicyclists buy a lot fewer groceries than car drivers. But if you add it all up, the opposite is true!
So it’s disappointing to see a quote like this one…
Gerten said that over the years he’s experimented with trolley-style buses and shuttle buses. Last year, bicycle taxis operated on donations from passengers and a subsidy from the growers association. None of those efforts seemed to pay off.
“They didn’t move enough volume of people,” Gerten said. “You can’t get the numbers high enough to make it worth it.”
or this one…
For now, officials are urging residents to give up the car once or twice a month and use the rail, Gerten said. But he worries that many customers may hesitate carrying multiple bags of produce on the trains at once.
“You’re not going to be able to take it carrying a bushel of tomatoes or a couple big hanging baskets,” Gerten said. “The rail’s not really practical for that.”
Taking the train to the Farmer’s Market is going to be amazingly popular, and while the director is right that people aren’t going to carry “a couple of big hanging baskets,” those reusable cloth shopping bags are going to be ubiquitous. Similarly, the market should have bike racks everywhere. (Protip: Currently there are almost ZERO bike racks near the farmer’s market.)
Meanwhile, Councilmember Thune’s suggestion of using pedicabs seems like a great way to offer a variety of options to a variety of people. (Protip: Pedicabs are particularly appealing to tired older folks and young children).
If the Farmer’s Market had sensible parking pricing that offered a variety of price points (more expensive with high turnover on-street, less expensive in the farther away lots) and a variety of mode choices (bikes, pedicabs, and the train), the market would attract a “volume of people” that might approach state fair levels. That’s how bustling downtowns work!
The key to Downtown markets lies in the experience on foot, not in the parking lot. People don’t go to the downtown farmer’s market simply to buy an onion or get a cup of coffee. They go because downtown is a unique special, beautiful place filled with excitement and activity: balloon animal people, old brick buildings, cafés, street musicians, sunshine, a wide variety of shops, art and hot dog vendors on the sidewalk… All these things are anathema to giant parking lots.
I’ve been to downtown markets in cities across the country, and the best ones offer a unique experience. Seattle’s Pike’s Place Market and DC’s Eastern Market are both legendary tourist attractions. Milwaukee’s new Public Market attracts people to into a historic warehouse district. The Findlay Market in Cincinnati (probably the closest parallel to Saint Paul’s in terms of design and location) is one of the key things revitalizing the historic Over-the-Rhine district. Saint Paul’s Farmer’s Market can be just as good as any of those, and developing the vast surface parking lots that surround downtown Saint Paul will only make the market better, not worse.
If the experience is rich and exciting, people will gladly pay for parking and/or enjoy walking a few blocks. Trust me, I’ve seen it.
PS: For more on parking economics and policy, see: