Is There a Fix for Cathedral Hill’s Parking Woes?

In a 7-0 vote, the St Paul City Council recently approved a somewhat controversial liquor license for The Salt Cellar restaurant on the NW corner of Selby & Dale in Cathedral Hill.

The Salt Cellar St Paul MN

While they get kudos for their bike parking and kitchen window, I might deny Salt Cellar a license for base offensiveness. The lack of light, windows, architectural character, and connection to the street won’t reflect the glory of old Cathedral Hill as they’d hoped but the depressiveness of The Lexington.
Smart eateries are decreasing their isolation and increasing their connectedness to the streets around them. Beyond sidewalk tables, places like Brasa, Wild Onion, Axel’s, and gobs of others are not only putting in large windows and other architectural elements that improve both the indoor experience and outdoor streetscape but are installing openable windows and walls that do everything possible to blur the line between out and in.
We’ve never chosen not to eat or drink somewhere because of too many windows, we’ve often chosen not to eat somewhere because of a lack of windows and connectedness to the outside streets.

The controversy and lots of gnashing of teeth was over Bill Lindeke’s favorite sport—parking. The Salt Cellar has 13 spaces while city code requires about 30 for an establishment of this size that seats 180 fine St Paul folk.

The Salt Cellar owners contended that the lower number was grandfathered with the building.

Ted Glasrud and Assoc, who has the Blair Arcade across the street, along with local eateries Moscow On The Hill and WA Frost had fought the license and wanted the owners to add additional parking spaces. They said that parking is already tight in the area and this will only make things worse.  (It should be noted that I believe Moscow On The Hill provides about zero spaces so perhaps people in spaceless establishments shouldn’t throw stones and all.)

For what it’s worth, I sympathize with both sides. We eat in this area often and have occasionally had problems finding parking. Yes there is a parking problem. I’m not sure more parking is the answer though.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Most conversations before and since the vote have centered around how to get more parking spaces in this neighborhood. That’s certainly one option. However, what if we looked instead at reducing the need for so much parking.

Parking is expensive to provide and maintain. People that utilize it should perhaps pay for what they use, especially if it’s as valuable a commodity as it becomes in this area sometimes.

While I wouldn’t oppose charging, I’m not a big fan. So consider:

La Grolla, St Paul, MN

A Salt Cellar neighbor with a much better and more inviting streetscape and better windows and light inside and that truly does reflect the glory of old Cathedral Hill while feeling open and contemporary.

Someone who walks to any of these eateries requires zero parking spaces (and if sober causes no congestion nor adds air, noise, or dirty snow pollution to the neighborhood).

People who ride bicycles take up about 1/20th as much space as a car and likewise don’t add to neighborhood congestion or pollution.

What if all of these eateries, who I believe are the primary cause of parking congestion, provided a discount to people who walk, ride a bicycle or mobility scooter, or take transit to get there? In other words, a discount if they don’t take up a parking space or add to neighborhood pollution.

Perhaps a 10% discount for walking or bicycling and 5% for transit.

Why would they do this? What’s in it for them? Topping the list is pure altruism (yes, it does still exist) to improve their customers health and make the neighborhood better. They may also benefit more directly from the better neighborhood if people choose to eat here more often because it’s a more enjoyable neighborhood with more people on the streets and fewer cars. People who’ve ridden might also feel better about themselves and be more willing to spend money on food and … dessert.  People who are active and not driving may also spend more on the number one profit item for eateries—alcohol.

Another neighbor that better reflects the glory of old Cathedral Hill while feeling open and contemporary.

Another neighbor that better reflects the glory of old Cathedral Hill while feeling open and contemporary.

This wouldn’t be a bad PR move for these eateries either.


Parking Requirement Buyouts

Or maybe the city offers businesses a buyout option on parking spaces. In place of providing some number of spaces they agree to provide a discount to folks who walk, bicycle, or bus. After all, fewer cars benefits everyone including the city who can save on street maintenance and replacement costs.

What if residential landlords offered a discount to folks who agree to not keep a car or if homeowners received a similar discount on their property taxes? Why should someone pay for something that they don’t use, whether public on-street or private lot? This is a fairly walkable/bikeable neighborhood with decent (by Twin Cities standards) transit connections so foregoing a car is not at all unrealistic.

Another neighbor that reflects the glory of old Cathedral Hill while feeling open and contemporary.

Another neighbor that reflects the glory of old Cathedral Hill while feeling open and contemporary.

All of these options would not only help with the parking concerns but make the neighborhood even more appealing than it already is. And that’s a win for everyone.

As well, people walking or riding bicycles are much more likely to make purchases in local stores than someone driving by in a car. Someone who drives 3 miles each way to an eatery spends about $5 just in transportation costs (not including parking). If they save this by riding a bicycle will they be more likely to spend that $5 (or more?) on purchases at local stores or eateries?

Who knows, maybe a crazy idea like this would work. I’d love to see the day when some of the parking lots scattered along Selby (and elsewhere) are no longer needed and can once again become something useful. Like a building with a store or eatery on the first floor and people living or working on the floors above.

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN

24 thoughts on “Is There a Fix for Cathedral Hill’s Parking Woes?

  1. Monte Castleman

    The restaurant business being what it is, I’m not sure they could give a 10% discount to an entire class of people (aside from seniors that tend to not eat a lot, order simple entrees, and come at non-busy times). So they’d have to raise the base prices in order to offer a discount. While that doesn’t negate your proposal, I think what’s going to happen is people will start parking on neighborhood streets so they can “arrive on foot”.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Agree. I think it might be a combination of raise prices by 1% or 2% to cover the costs of offering the discount to the few who’d use it. On the other hand, Salt Cellar and Moscow on the Hill are theoretically saving a bunch of money by not offering parking for all of their customers.

      There would have to be some level of honesty and integrity built in and the qualification for the discount might be along the lines of: did you walk or ride your bicycle from your home or office? Or maybe: have you been in a car in the past 90 minutes? Or maybe a much simpler: Do you deserve this discount? 🙂

  2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    Wouldn’t it just be easier to charge for on-street spaces and increase the share of property taxes tied to land-value? I’m somewhat confused why you’d shy away from charging directly for parking but would encourage restaurants/landlords to give discounts to those who walk/bike/bus. The price differential would still be there, so why not take th administratively easier route? Seems like it’s much more challenging for the entity to do (how do they get patrons to prove they walked or biked, etc), more challenging to roll out and manage (as compared to metered parking), and more difficult to meet the market’s demands (ex. some people may be willing to pay $0.25/hr and walk 4 blocks while others would be willing to spend $1/hr to be right in front of the store).

    Additionally, this revenue could be used as a mix of lowering area property tax rates (encouraging development, particularly on under-utilized surface lots) and streetscape improvements (start charging for parking now, use the revenues for protected cycle tracks, bus shelters, etc in 1-2 years) – both of which more directly improve the area than an indirect discount. Just some thoughts 🙂

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Great points. If our only goal was ‘people should pay for what they use’ or to raise revenue then I’d agree with charging for parking spaces. My goal (our goal?) though is to reduce the motor traffic and increase walking and bicycling (and make disabled more appealing and less dangerous) in the neighborhood.

      I have several concerns with metered parking. First is that I’m not sure that it would do much to discourage driving nor encourage bicycling and walking. I think the infrastructure is less than aesthetically appealing (especially in an area like Cathedral Hill), there are higher up-front costs, much of current parking is in residential neighborhoods (do we want metered parking there?), and it could drive more people to park in residential neighborhoods instead of pay for parking.

      Even if the price differential is the same, how it’s perceived can be quite different. People like to ‘save’ money. Getting a discount is more valuable than avoiding a cost. People will spend $6 to save $5. Honey works better than vinegar. I think many people are more likely to choose to ride their bicycles 3 miles to get a $6 discount than they would be to avoid a $6 parking cost.

      This is also more directly focused on and communicated as the goal. It’s quite up front that its purpose is to get people to choose active transportation over motor vehicles. Charging for parking doesn’t say this.

  3. Mike SonnMike Sonn

    Also, there really isn’t a parking problem (much like what Alex said above). But really, there is a TON of parking around that area. Especially if Saint Paul College parking can be leveraged. It would just require people to walk three blocks.

    But really, start charging for on-street parking, even if it is a quarter/hr, and run the meters until 10pm. Also, add residential parking permits (which may already exist around the campus). Alex has a great point, put that money back into the immediate community – street cleaning, amenities, better bus stops, bike lanes, bike corrals, etc.

    Free parking isn’t free, so all customers are already paying +$ on each purchase to subsidize the parking lots. As a pedestrian and cyclist, I’m tired of subsidizing poor land use.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Problem may be in the eyes of the beholder. Someone who owns a restaurant or store and hears customers complain about difficulty finding parking will think, or know, that there is a problem. City council folk who field complaints from residents that they have difficulty finding a place to park when they get home from work on Friday nights will think that there is a problem.

      Sadly, I don’t think the average patron driving to these restaurants would want to park at the college and walk up the hill. Some, but likely not many. Partially because it’s not a very appealing walk. This same distance along Grand or Selby would have some interest and enjoyment along the way that would make it much more palatable.

      Interestingly, Salt Cellar have a deal with the Boy Scouts to use their lot on Fri & Sat nights. They’re not planning to make their customers aware of it though so that they can park and walk (half the distance as from the college) but are planning to use it for valet parking which will significantly increase motor traffic along those two blocks.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        So, I read the article and I still don’t understand what the problem is, other than “we’re not charging for parking.” Eliminate parking minimums, prohibit teardowns for new surface lots, implement a Shoupian on-street parking regime, encourage existing lots to be converted into district parking for longer-term use. Or encourage them to be developed, and people who will be there for longer can park further away where the Shoupian cost approaches zero. Done.

  4. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    Why must the pedestrian be sober in order not to impose noise, congestion and pollution, and yet the biker inherently does not no matter how inebriated, Walker? Why?

    The parking “problem” here snacks of, “that place is too busy, no one goes there anymore.” A stroll down Selby in the area definitely does not say, “there’s no where to park around here” in a stretch of blocks that includes multiple surface parking lots.

    I’ve had to look a block or two away from my destination for parking in the area. Oh well.

  5. Joe

    I’ll add to the chorus of “There is no parking problem.” I’ve driven many a time, and never had to park more than 2 blocks away. It’s an easy bus ride, and an easy bike. I’ve never lived close enough to walk, but in strolling around it seems like that would be easy too. So there are four easy ways to access this node, I don’t know that we need to put too much effort in to changing much.

    But if we are going to change anything, a good change would just be to make people pay for parking on the street.

  6. Holly Weik

    Actually, putting a decent bike rack in front of the restaurant has the same effect for me of offering a discount. Rockstar parking for my bike is always a plus, and makes me want to come back.

  7. Nathan Roisennate

    Seems like the headline should more accurately be “Local Restaurant Owner Prefers Less Competition”, as it seems to be only the Frost/Blair Arcade/Moscow On the Hill tycoon making much of a stink about parking.

    I lived in that neighborhood for three years, and although parking was more challenging than average for St Paul, (I’d occasionally be forced to park my car a block or two away from my apartment, the horror) describing the parking situation as woeful is a huge exaggeration. To me, this smacks of established businesses worrying about newer/fresher competition for their customer base using parking as a smokescreen to keep the competitor from opening. Unfortunately, they were partially successful.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      That’s a tough one. Many eatery folk believe that, to a point, more eateries in a neighborhood make the overall neighborhood more desirable and increase customers for all. This section of Selby has become a restaurant destination and that’s been good for everyone’s business. That said, I have no idea to what extent any of the folks fighting the license over parking (and there were apparently more than the three I named) thought that vs thinking this was harmful competition.

      As to their partial success, I don’t know. Salt Cellar are opening this week and though a few weeks behind schedule have garnered very considerable PR. If I were the owners of Salt Cellar I’d be sending some very nice bottles of wine as thanks to the folks who complained.

  8. Keith Morris

    Bike parking is lacking around there: had to use a tree on Grand and a bus stop sign on Selby. Lack of bikeways with bike parking is a lot like a parking lot with no road that leads to it: few will use it as a result. Biking on Selby or Grand ain’t great either.

    I don’t get why Salt Cellar is being singled out for the architectural abomination that St Paul allowed to be built on the site of what was surely a building as stately as those across the street.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      I wholly agree with you on the need for better bicycle parking and facilities.

      I singled them out because they had an opportunity to vastly improve the streetscape (and the interior atmosphere for their customers). And somewhat because they stated on their website “Lots of light and glass will reflect the glory of old Cathedral Hill while feeling open and contemporary.”

      The addition of some larger windows (perhaps with paneled bases similar to La Grolla or Frost) along both street fronts would have vastly improved the exterior and interior appeal, would likely have been no more than a rounding error on their buildout costs, and would have, in my opinion, much better aligned with their statement of reflecting the glory of old Cathedral Hill and feeling open. Getting rid of the pediment and adding a more appropriate frieze wouldn’t hurt IMO.

      Maybe they will at least add some benches or other elements along the outside to soften the harshness of the current building.

  9. Michael

    First of all, if a neighborhood has a shortage of parking (which by all accounts here, Cathedral Hill does not) then you should charge for parking. I don’t think you need to make it overly complicated. As for giving people incentives to walk/bike/transit, a discount isn’t a terrible idea but it shouldn’t be done as an alternative to metered parking.

  10. Ai

    “Censorship is saying: ‘I’m the one who says the last sentence. Whatever you say, the conclusion is mine.’ But the internet is like a tree that is growing. The people will always have the last word – even if someone has a very weak, quiet voice. Such power will collapse because of a whisper.”

    -Ai Weiwei

  11. Mike SonnMike Sonn

    I rode thru the Western/Selby intersection from the north on Saturday morning. The parking lot at the college, while 3 blocks away, isn’t “down a hill” (or force you to walk “up a hill”). Also, I thought Salt Cellar did an amazing job with the craptastic building in which they started. I thought the huge windows looking into the kitchen was a great touch.

    Overall, much ado about nothing, IMHO.

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