The RiverCenter Parking Garage

Road salt eats away at concrete in multi-story parking garages in a process known as “Spalling”. Salt accelerates the rate at which water gets into cracks, causing the concrete to pull away from its Rebar reinforcement. This is what happened to the River Center parking garage in downtown Saint Paul. A section of the garage ceiling recently fell onto a parked car, resulting in closure of the garage.

In response, Saint Paul’s new mayor, Melvin Carter, and various state DFL representatives, including Dave Pinto and Erin Murphy are lobbying the legislature to get $58 million in state bonding money to demolish the old 1600-space garage and build an even larger 2200-space garage.

This is disturbing. The city is proposing to spend a total of $117.9 million, $60 million of it local money, on a parking garage with 2200 spaces. This comes to $54,000 per parking space. It’s a huge waste of public money at a time when Saint Paul has major budget shortfalls and many other human and infrastructure needs. What’s more, the city has more than adequate downtown parking capacity and excellent public transit.

In 2016, Saint Paul’s “Special Assessment” scheme was shot down by the Minnesota Supreme Court. The assessments were a way to get some money out of the nearly one third of Saint Paul property that is tax-exempt, including government offices, churches, universities, private schools and non-profits. With the court decision, Saint Paul lost over $32 million in annual revenue. Even before this, police and other departments were understaffed and the city had fallen way behind on street maintenance.

There’s a long list of human and infrastructure needs that are much greater than the RiverCenter parking garage. These include a rebuild of the 3rd/Kellogg bridge, the primary connection to the East Side. Currently, it is nearly inaccessible to bicycles and pedestrians in the winter, due to closure of the cracked, cantilevered pedestrian walkway. Filling potholes and repaving or rebuilding many streets, including parts of St Paul Avenue, George Street, Lexington and Hamline would also be a better use of the money, as would completing a Rondo Land Bridge and land bridges around downtown that could tie neighborhoods together and open up new land for real-estate development. Putting a “Left-turn-only-on-signal” phase at the Snelling/Summit intersection where multiple people have been badly hurt or killed would cost less than three parking places in the proposed RiverCenter garage. Fixing the washout on the Fish Hatchery Trail (a key part of the Mississippi River Trail), or completing the badly needed Capitol City Bikeway in downtown, complete with its spur connections would cost less than half of this parking ramp project. Heck, for $118 million, you could easily feed, house, and clothe 2200 homeless families for a year or more.

Some folks say that parking is important to draw outsiders to the convention center, the Science Museum and Minnesota Wild games. But downtown has plenty of parking within a few blocks of these sites, much of it underutilized. The city of Saint Paul did a Downtown Parking Management Strategy Study back in 2015 that identified 28,638 parking spaces in downtown that peak out at just 75% utilization. Across the street from the Xcel center are surface lots, and two major multi-story parking garages. For a tiny fraction of the cost of a new RiverCenter parking garage, the city could add a free circulator bus in downtown to get from parking garages or transit to other downtown destinations. This would benefit both locals and visitors. More importantly, at a cost of $54,000 per parking space to entice drivers into downtown entertainment, we’re losing more money on our entertainment venues that we gain. Given that there are tons of major bus lines and light rail trains within blocks of RiverCenter, Xcel and the Science Museum, the city should be forcing more folks to reach these destinations via transit.

Most of all, it looks bad when supposedly young, smart, “new urbanist” politicians are making a parking garage their number one budgetary and state legislative priority. We are repeatedly told there is no money for recreation centers, for additional police officers, for the Capitol City Bikeway, to keep emergency homeless shelters open past March 31st, or for improving the Snelling/Summit intersection where at least four people have been badly injured or killed in the last 4 years. Yet suddenly, we can spend $118 million, half of it local money on an under-utilized parking garage? And this is happening in the face of impending climate change in a city that claims to care about the environment.

The current, 48-year-old, 1600-space parking ramp makes just $4 million per year in fees, half of which go to annual maintenance and the rest of which subsidizes the River Center. None of the money goes to depreciation. The city has been lobbying for bonding money to rebuild this ramp for at least 3 years. So the latest request is nothing new and any idea that this parking lot “makes money” is demonstrably false. Publicly funded parking ramps are a perfect example of something that should be privatized or gotten rid of entirely. They often benefit wealthier outsiders or private companies at the expense of city taxpayers …and around fifteen percent of St Paul households don’t even own a car.

Spending huge sums of public money on unnecessary freeways and parking is the reason that downtown Saint Paul was nearly destroyed by I-94, I-35, and Hwy 52. All of these roads pinned downtown against the Mississippi and cut it off from its neighborhoods with huge concrete trenches that make walking and biking into downtown dangerous and difficult. The roadways and parking lots also obliterated huge swaths of taxable property and replaced it with additional concrete infrastructure that the city was forced to spend shrinking tax revenues maintaining. This 1950s notion of car-oriented downtown development was a total failure, not just in Saint Paul, but across the United States. Yet we can’t seem to let go of it. I hope our mayor and elected officials will reconsider prioritizing this parking garage and focus their energy and money on our city’s more urgent needs.

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29 Responses to The RiverCenter Parking Garage

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke May 25, 2018 at 12:30 pm #

    It’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine downtown Saint Paul and the Xcel Center functioning without this ramp. Could it be done? Sure. Would it be a big change? Yes. I imagine it would impact things like what concerts the Xcel people could book, etc., and challenge some of the investments in that arena.

    But as you point out, there are lots of alternatives. A “free circulator bus” is a terrible idea. The regular MT buses are eveywhere here, and it’s all within the 50 cent “downtown zone.” Even better, imagine people walking through downtown to attend a hockey game. Maybe we should re-purpose some of the municipal ramps to make them better serve the market demand for parking?

    One other point is the opportunity cost here. What could be done with the riverfront land where the ramp exists? What kinds of tax-generating development might exist here on this property? I know Ramsey County is already marketing the other (former jail/ West publishing) riverfront site. It’s taking a long time and it seems there’s little interest, at least not without a huge piublic subsidy for (you guessed it) a massive parking ramp.

    There, the County said “No” to publicly funding a huge downtown ramp just two blocks away. (https://www.twincities.com/2017/09/08/river-bluff-deal-at-former-west-publishing-site-called-off-says-ramsey-county/) This project is even more expensive, with zero added benefit to the tax base. I don’t quite understand the difference, so maybe someone in the loop could explain it to me. My guess is that it all comes down to convention center economics, which is already a dubious proposition.

  2. Matt Steele
    Matt May 25, 2018 at 12:47 pm #

    Not sure how anyone supporting this project (Mayor Carter, Gov candidate Erin Murphy, etc) could consider themselves to be progressive OR fiscally responsible when supporting this project.

  3. Matt Steele
    Matt May 25, 2018 at 12:56 pm #

    Also worth noting that a taxpayer-subsidized car storage facility was built a decade ago on the other side of the Xcel center. 600 spaces for $24 million, or $40,000 per parking space. I’m sure we learned from that mistake, right?

  4. Monte Castleman May 25, 2018 at 1:20 pm #

    If St Paul’s not willing to provide adequate parking for a regional amenity it should have been built in the suburbs. We used to have an ice arena and it had plenty of parking.

    Having said that I could be convinced that adequate parking adequately exists. But making people ride a shuttle is a nonstarter because a significant number of people won’t go if they’d have to do that. Stillwater rejected the idea of providing shuttle buses from remote parking lots to replace their massive surface parking lots downtown for that reason. Instead the long term plan is to provider structured parking a block or two on the other side of downtown, a distance most people are willing to walk.

    Similarly you can’t “force” a lot of people into transit. Again, if that’s the only way to get to a regional amenity they’d decide not to go and not spend their money rather than set foot on a bus.

    • Matt Steele
      Matt May 25, 2018 at 1:34 pm #

      Nobody would be making anyone take a shuttle bus. Private entities are capable of providing parking as needed. Not-subsidizing car storage doesn’t mean prohibiting car storage or “forcing transit.”

      Also, the thought that Stillwater needs more parking is laughable. Their existing municipal parking garage is barren whenever I’ve been there, and it’s easy to find on-street parking a few blocks up the hill for free.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke May 25, 2018 at 1:56 pm #

        The lesson here is that urban parking perception should be and must be different from suburban / rural parking perception. When people go to downtown Saint Paul, we should expect them to understand that they will have to walk a little way, as with any thriving downtown. That involves a change of mindset.

        I just think there are way better ways to spend $50M city dollars that would do a lot more for Saint Paul, for downtown, for walkability, for our economy, etc. (Not to mention the state tax share.)

      • Monte Castleman May 25, 2018 at 3:04 pm #

        I take it St. Paul hasn’t banned private entities from providing needed parking like Minneapolis has.

        A substantial number of people that visit Stillwater are probably the sort that don’t know how to parallel park (although the on-street parking tends to be full). It’s not that they need more so to speak but that they want to reallocate the massive surface lots between the river and the downtown as parkland and new development. But they’re getting a lot of pushback from the local businesses about the idea, and as you noted no one uses the existing municipal garage.

        St. Augustine proves that you can have parking garages at the periphery of a historic downtown area and people will use them, so I don’t know what the issue is with Stillwater. Maybe people find it psychologically easier to park on the surface lots? Or that they’re more visible?

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke May 25, 2018 at 4:07 pm #

          Minneapolis isn’t banning parking. They’re just making it more expensive to build by raising the bar on design considerations.

  5. Alex Schieferdecker
    Alex Schieferdecker May 25, 2018 at 2:04 pm #

    This parking lot supports events at the River Center and the Xcel Energy Center. What are these events worth to the city of St. Paul? Do they contribute to the vibrancy of downtown, spending additional money downtown, or do attendees mostly attend the event and then leave? With the parking ramp out of commission, will the booking of events at these venues suffer, and if so, what is the cost?

    I have a hard time believing that the city gets $60 million in benefits from this ramp. The economics of hosting big events is overstated, and the area’s main tenant, the Minnesota Wild, are a big enough draw right now that the loss of the ramp won’t have an effect on their attendance anyway. There are, as this article mentions, a huge amount of other parking spaces nearby.

    The opportunity costs are huge here. To use a more direct example, for $60 million, the city could build three more apartment buildings like the $17 million Oaks Union Depot, which will probably be home to over a hundred more permanent residents of downtown. Or with $60 million, they could work with the private sector and heavily subsidize six, nine, twelve apartment buildings like that. What would have greater benefit to the vibrancy and tax base of downtown St. Paul, a thousand more permanent residents or a thousand cars of people coming in for events and leaving immediately afterward every couple days?

    The opportunity cost of this parking ramp is simply insane, and the idea of vibrancy that the boosters of this ramp are working towards is an old fashioned one. St. Paul needs more residents and jobs, not more special events and parking.

    • Cobo R May 25, 2018 at 4:05 pm #

      To play Devils advocate a little

      A downtown can’t be vibrant without visitors. The one thing that every “vibrant downtown” in the country has in common are tourists. If a city can’t get visitors on reputation alone it needs to have events to attract them. If downtown can’t attract people to visit it cannot attract business to setup there, if it has no business it cannot attract people to live there. So without visitors downtown dies. Its not foolish to believe that making it easy to park encourages people to visit. Its not foolish to think that events help people remember that downtown exists and care that it exists.

      Pretty much every time I go to downtown St Paul I park in the Riverside or Smith Ave ramps. I’m not going to touch the all merits and demerits of these particular ramps because I agree that the while financials are wacky, they are easy to find, easy to get in, easy to get out and with them in existence it makes it easier to justify the hassle of going to St Paul. (a bus ride to st-paul would be ~2 hours one way for me, too long for me to consider it an option .)

      I don’t think downtown st paul can remain relevant/healthy without induced demand produced by events. And making it easier for visitors to visit is a good thing.

  6. Dan Choma May 25, 2018 at 4:56 pm #

    I am no fan of St Paul $ going to parking ramps and I would prefer we spend city money on city and neighborhood assets like The Victoria Theatre, etc.

    That said, Minnpost estimated to revenues of the ramp to be 12 million a year in State sales tax revenue. It seems egregious of state politicians to not invest in a cash cow for their own books. The state only has to put up 60 mil and the get all that back in a little under 5 years for a resource that is used primarily by the constituents of the party that currently holds the majority in both the senate and house.

    The MNLeg coming back with 5 mil to blow up the ramp seems punative to the civic government for no reason and also fiscally irresponsible.

    Optimally I would love to see the state pay for all of this ramp: as 12 mil in state property taxes would pay off in about 10 years. Isn’t the money bonded for like 20-30?

    It seems a dumb financial move by the state to me and I think the city of Saint Paul has been more than generous at the expense of its own people to offer to front 60 mil.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke May 25, 2018 at 5:04 pm #

      Is that direct or indirect sales tax revenue? Do you have a link?

        • Dan Choma May 25, 2018 at 8:04 pm #

          Sorry to double post, I was “train posting,” please forgive my bad spelling and poor citation. The link is MPR, actually, pull quote :

          “The ramp generates an estimated $12 million in state sales tax revenue each year, city officials said, as it serves events at the RiverCentre as well as Xcel Energy Center, the Science Museum of Minnesota and other nearby venues.”

          From the phrasing of the article, it seems to be indirect sales tax revenue.

          That said, it’s aaaalmost worth noting that each year, that indirect sales tax of $12 million dollars generated results in $60,000 in transit funding. So at least we’re getting half a train wheel out of it. Maybe three quarters of a train wheel if the Wild are having a good year.

          http://www.revenue.state.mn.us/businesses/sut/Documents/Local_Tax/General_Notice_Ramsey_Co.pdf)

          I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I begrudgingly think this is a necessary ramp to rebuild. The cultural benefit of having outstate visitors in Saint Paul is too big to ignore. Kids from the country need to be able to go the Science Museum.

          That said, I think the City needs to hustle the state harder on this. The RiverCentre ramp is located such that it’s benefit is greater to those coming from out of town to an event much more so than those coming from within the tax base of Saint Paul to downtown to work.

          Those who live here understand there are other places to park as they spend more time here and have found those lots and found them to be generous in number and low in price. Those who live here have had more time to understand and facilitate our robust public transit system.

          Politicians who represent out-state residents need to realize that assets within the city that are used by out state residents should not be payed for primarily by city residents.

          It’s not fair that Saint Paul should be expected to foot the bill for something that has special benefit for people coming from out of Saint Paul. I applaud the city for trying to get funding from the state, and I applaud the city for saying they can’t move forward without state funding. The state stands to benefit the most from this, at $12 million a year in sales tax and a benefit to all outstate residents in access to cultural capital. It’s only fair that the folks making the money from the deal make the investment.

          • Julie Kosbab May 25, 2018 at 8:28 pm #

            No worries on the chain. I saw you were getting eaten and I think I have you whitelisted.

    • Andy Singer
      Andy Singer May 26, 2018 at 3:53 am #

      This is a made up number. I think it comes from the Mayor’s office or from the RiverCenter execs because it’s quoted in multiple papers. It says that they THINK that $12 million in sales taxes received from the Xcel, RiverCenter and the Science Museum each year is attributable to the parking ramp. Is $12 million the total sales tax revenue from these three venues? We don’t know. If there was no ramp, would they lose all or part of that $12 million? We don’t know. Without more data, the figure is totally meaningless …and it smells like one of those numbers that promoters of something stupid wave around to suck people into their scheme– like “Hosting the Superbowl will pay off the entire US Bank Stadium” …or “Stadium X will make our city rich” …or “We can pay off the public share of US Bank stadium with pull-tabs” …etc. Most of the time, these gimmicks prove to be completely bogus. Right now, if the figures are to be believed, the parking ramp “makes” 4 million or so dollars per year in fees (total), of which about half goes to “maintenance” (which I assume means staff, plowing, fixing leaks, etc). The rest goes to subsidizing RiverCenter. Nothing goes to depreciation. I’m not even sure if the Xcel or RiverCenter make money. Certainly the Science Museum doesn’t. It’s a tax exempt non-profit (part of the third of all property in Saint Paul that doesn’t pay property tax). So I can’t buy the “The Ramp makes $12 million per year in sales taxes” argument. It just doesn’t hold up.

  7. roy k May 25, 2018 at 6:11 pm #

    Build a mixed use hi-rise with the some parking below ( 5 level parking).Street level retail and housings or hotel .Two iconic views of the Capitol and Cathedral plus the river and the skyline.
    This better use of land with some parking .
    A movie theatre incorportated with the Science Museum can operate with OMNI.

    The city should work with Metro Transit to run shuttles during events like STATE FAIR from Suburban Park/Ride use existing express bus weekdays.
    Maplewood mall ,
    P/R Hwy 36
    Afton P/R ,these buses are deadheading in PM rush only return trip need to be added .

    Local buses from these locations if possible use larger buses with extra trips for events as needed.
    /Como/Eustis #3 .
    Sunray #63/74/70
    28th Ave Park/Ride #54
    Hwy 36 ,#62
    Signal Hills #68/62/75 .
    ST PAUL TECH College/MetroState Univ parking ramps are available in the weekends run a shuttle coordinating with metrotransit buses .State Capitol area ramps are available GREENLINE is available as shuttle.

  8. Sean May 25, 2018 at 6:20 pm #

    Ramp revenue on game nights goes to the Wild. All other ramp revenue goes to the convention center for operations. If you want both of these things to leave the city, then don’t rebuild the ramp. It’s that simple.

    • Monte Castleman May 25, 2018 at 6:36 pm #

      Considering major sports venues in this market seem to last about 20 years before teams start demanding replacements (see the Met Stadium, Met Center, and Metrodome) it might be good to look at how long a new parking ramp will be good for before we need to build and entirely new arena there or someplace else.

      • Eric Saathoff
        Eric Saathoff May 27, 2018 at 7:18 pm #

        Great point!

  9. Derek May 25, 2018 at 9:22 pm #

    As much as I would rather the city spend the money elsewhere, isn’t this the place it makes sense to build parking? It’s close to all the main tourist attractions, it’s on the fringe of downtown, and it’s kind of an awkward location anyway. The other comparable location, West Publishing, isn’t exactly flying off the market and I don’t see why it would be any different for this site if they chose to redevelop. I just wish the state would pay more for what is really a regional asset.

  10. Evan Roberts
    Evan May 26, 2018 at 6:28 am #

    It’s really unclear why this can’t just be built by a private developer, taking on the financing and risk. The fact that private companies don’t want to do it suggests maybe it’s not as needed as claimed.

    • Monte Castleman May 29, 2018 at 9:02 am #

      Sometimes a city provides things that private developers can’t or won’t, for example any public park or modern sports stadium.

      Also, the difference between what the a government agency can borrow money for vs a private developer can easily make or break a project. That’s the idea behind the city building the Mall of America waterpark. The difference in interest rates will make a difference as to whether or not it can be operated as a profit.

      • Frank Phalen May 29, 2018 at 9:09 pm #

        I’m always suspicious of developers who say things like, “this will only be feasible if we don’t pay sales tax on the construction materials,” or something similar. They never request, say, only half of the sales taxes be forgiven. It’s a very odd coincidence to me, that the subsidy request just happens to correspond to the sales taxes, or whatever it is they don’t want to pay.

      • helsinki May 30, 2018 at 6:25 am #

        Private developers won’t provide public goods (non-excludable, non-rivalrous). Unless it is free of charge and has virtually unlimited capacity, a parking ramp is not a public good. If there is zero interest from the private sector, as suggested above and as seems to the case here, it is likely true that the project is not financially viable. Whether it supports a worthy public policy goal (subsidizing the hockey team) is another question entirely.

  11. Frank Phalen May 29, 2018 at 9:05 pm #

    This strikes pretty close to home for me in many ways. Working and attending Xcel (it’s an arena, not a spread sheet) events 40 – 50 times a year, I bike when I can and yup, being a local I know where to park free 4 blocks away (ain’t giving away my secrets.)

    Minnesota Sports Entertainment owns the Wild, and operates the entire complex. So when some of the revenue goes to “the convention center”, does that mean it just pads the bottom line of MSE? Also, how much does the lease tie the Wild to the building? I recall it was for 30 years, and were a little over half way into that.

    The Science Museum has it’s own ramp. Is that ramp ever full of museum goers? Why would museum goers park in the slightly less convenient Rivercenter ramp?

    If the ramp is closed for the coming Wild season, that will be a good real time test of how the world would be like without it permanently. How full is the new 5th Street/transit Center ramp for Wild games? I know the city ramp at 4th/Kellogg/Minnesota/Cedar
    has event rate parking for either 5 or 7 bucks. It’s only two blocks to the heated tunnel then two more blocks to Gate 1. Too many people only know “go to the Xcel ramp” or “go park on W 7th.”

    Watch the traffic coming east bound on 94 to Wild games. Everyone exits the 5th Street exit, and it gets congested. They could take the 10th Street exit and park near St Joe’s Hospital (they’re ramp discourages Xcel event parking), but like sheep they take the same route every time.

    I may not be opposed to the state/city financing this, provided user fees go directly to retire the bonds. I’d like to see a professional back of the envelope calculation on that. The Wild may lose revenue, but maybe it’s time they “get off the wagon and help push”, in the words of the late Texas Senator Phil Gramm.

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