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.