“Parking is a really personal and passionate issue.”
That was Gil Gustafson’s admonition to the West Saint Paul City Council last week as he and a neighbor made their case for an arguably very personal residents-only permit parking zone on his block of Livingston Avenue, a block away from an apartment complex on Robert Street.
The council approved the permit zone — consisting of exactly two properties, or about 105 feet of street frontage — over the objections of the city’s police chief, who worries a piecemeal approach to permit parking will be impossible to enforce.
As a compromise, the council agreed to the plan as an eight-month “pilot program.” It will be the city’s first permit parking zone under a new ordinance passed in June.
Michelle Pivec, the other homeowner seeking the permit zone, has been a regular attendee of city council meetings, “expressing her concerns and frustrations” about residents and guests of the nearby Emerson Hill apartments on Robert Street.
The problem, as Gustafson explained to the council, is that the widening of nearby Robert Street from two lanes to four displaced street parking previously used by the residents. Now, they park in the next most convenient place – his block of Livingston Avenue.
“I’ve lived in my house for 13 years,” he said at an October 24 hearing on the proposal. “Until the Robert Street project I never had a parking issue.”
“It also seemed to reveal that the Emerson [Hill] apartments themselves did not provide sufficient off-street parking … that was affordable or free.”
Gustafson said he’s seen “people working on their cars in front of my house.” Pivec blames vandalism, theft and a recent garage break-in on apartment dwellers passing by her home.
It wasn’t entirely clear how far from home the petitioners were having to park; but Gustafson mentioned having to park halfway down the block, which he said “gets a little irritating.”
While the city has been working with the managers of the apartment building on the issue, including allowing overflow parking on a neighboring commercial lot, Gustafson and Pivec wanted a more enforceable solution.
Why only two houses?
“What troubles me is the particularity of this,” said council member John Bellows. Others on the council expressed a similar concern.
Police Chief Bud Shaver, in a report to the council, was unambiguously opposed to the plan, warning that a “proliferation of such requests may occur.”
“I fully acknowledge the concerns of the applicants and know it can be frustrating having other vehicles continuously park in front of one’s home, but our streets are for public parking. Moreover, the original intent of a permit parking zone was for a much larger area, one impacting a neighborhood rather than a select few residents,” he wrote in the report.
“I really don’t want individualized parking throughout the city – it would be impossible for the police department to enforce that,” he added at the council meeting.
Moreover, based on two formal surveys conducted by the police department in the area, Shaver said, “I don’t believe there’s a parking issue up there.”
“The only car that I’ve seen parked in front of [Pivec’s] house for the past two months has been [hers].”
Gustafson defended the small size of the zone, explaining that other neighbors park in their garages or driveways: “Frankly, we are the two households most affected by this …because our choice is to park in front of our houses.”
While a search of Google Maps shows both of the impacted homes have alley-access garages, Gustafson did not explain why they weren’t using them, and was not questioned by the council on it, despite numerous concerns that the apartment managers weren’t providing adequate off-street parking for tenants.
Mayor David Meisinger dismissed Shaver’s concerns about enforcement, noting that the city already has fire lanes and other types of parking restrictions that are currently being managed.
Council member Jenny Halverson captured the nuance that many of her colleagues were grappling with.
“We need to be careful about creating one-person no parking zones,” she said, while later in the meeting noting that “it’s not just that you’re asking us to come out and secure your spot for you in front of your home,” but address other nuisance issues alleged by Gustafson and Pivec.
The city ordinance doesn’t identify specific conditions that would warrant establishing a permit zone, only noting that “the council may approve, modify or deny the permit parking zone in order to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the city.”
Nor does the ordinance spell out size parameters for permit zones – it only requires 70 percent of property owners or occupants within the proposed zone to sign a petition. In theory, a single homeowner could bring forward a petition, triggering a public notification process and city council hearing.
Because of those concerns, the council agreed to approve the permit zone on an eight-month basis. Shaver said the cost of a ticket for violating the ordinance would be $15.
Gustafson and Pivec will be required to pay $400 for the signs marking the permit zone, as well as the permits themselves. The costs for conducting the parking survey and ongoing enforcement would presumably still be picked up by the city.
Council member Dave Napier, who remained concerned about a proliferation of permit requests, agreed to “try it and see how it plays out down the road.”
“Congratulations,” said Mayor Meisinger after the vote. “You’re going to be our test study, and hopefully everything goes well.”