Minimum Parking in St. Paul

Parking lot with empty spaces and kids riding bikes

Why do we have parking minimums in the City of St. Paul? The current city ordinance is copied at the bottom of this post for reference, but it provides no justification.

Parking Minimums = Control

Mostly empty American Legion parking lot

I once asked an employee from DSI (Department of Safety and Inspections) why a bar should have more parking space requirements than other business types since one would think we’d like to discourage drunk driving. Bars are required to have 1 space per 150 sqft. Restaurants, by comparison, are required to have 1 space per 400 sqft. His response, aside from displaying disagreement with the premise, was a confession that it was more about asserting control over the business than its actual parking needs. This is reflected in the fact that strip clubs are required to have 1 parking space per 75 sqft – twice as many as a bar.

How do parking minimums exert control over businesses? Simply put, they are extremely expensive. I’ve read studies showing the cost of a single parking space as between $5,000 – $10,000. Additionally a business owner, developer, or resident has to find the space to put those parking spaces. That may mean the planned structure will have to be smaller. Or it may mean that surrounding structures will have to be removed – if they can be acquired.

Excessive Parking Erodes Cities

Payne Avenue historical images

This, of course, is how our business districts that were once lined with handsome buildings next to one another have become eroded. This is also why it is much more difficult to walk from home to business to business. City ordinance requires that everything be built further apart to make space for cars whether anyone wants it or not.

I had a conversation with a family member recently about how strange it is for there to be fewer car lanes as one approaches the city. A similar sentiment would be to ask how we could have so few parking spaces inside the city when there are so many people there. The plain fact is that if there is to be a city at all there is no room for all those cars. The more cars we make space for the less city there is, the less place there is for people to live, work, and recreate. A city that has embraced its identity as a location for high human density recognizes that there are more efficient uses of space and modes of transportation, the first of which is walking.

Cub Foods with huge parking lot

Affordable Housing and Subsidizing Drivers

This extra expense not only reduces the walkability of our neighborhoods and city, it also reduces the affordability for everyone who lives there. Requiring a business owner or developer to build parking spaces subsidizes those who have cars at the expense of those who do not. A shopper who walks to Cub Foods will pay more for their food to pay for the parking space someone else used (or remained empty). If someone does not have a car, why should the city require that they live in an apartment that has a parking space, which costs them more in rent? One may imagine lots of millennials who don’t want to drive, but many poor families in our city live without cars because they can’t afford them, and they would be better off if they didn’t have to pay additional rent for a parking space they don’t use.

Minneapolis 2040 Plan

The City of Minneapolis recently adopted a new 2040 plan that eliminates parking minimums city-wide. Policy 6 is entitled “Pedestrian-Oriented Building and Site Design” and Action Step L is:

Eliminate the requirement for off-street parking minimums throughout the city, acknowledging that demand for parking will still result in new supply being built, and re-evaluate established parking maximums to better align with City goals.”

While the actual zoning changes are yet to take place, the adopted document legally needs to align with the zoning code.

St. Paul 2040 Plan Draft

What does the St. Paul draft 2040 plan say about parking requirements?

Policy LU-13. Support strategies, as context and technology allow, to improve off-street parking efficiency, such as shared parking agreements, district ramps, car sharing, electric vehicle charging and reduced parking minimums.
Policy LU-14. Ensure that stand-alone parking uses are limited, and that structured parking is mixed-use and/or convertible to other uses.
Policy LU-45. Minimize the amount of surface parking in industrial districts through a more efficient use of existing parking and development of shared parking.
Policy LU-51. Ensure institutional campuses are compatible with their surrounding neighborhoods by managing parking demand and supply, maintaining institution-owned housing stock, minimizing traffic congestion, and providing for safe pedestrian and bicycle access.
Policy LU-52. Encourage the redevelopment of surface parking lots within the Capitol Area into projects that contribute to the tax base and public realm.
Policy T-17. Use pricing to manage parking demand and improve parking efficiency in areas with high demand and short supply

There are references to shared parking agreements, but only one of these policies directly addresses parking minimums – and that is in the context of sharing parking lots and ramps. There is an underlying acknowledgement that we have too much parking but only roundabout solutions to address the city’s excessive and unnecessary parking requirements.

Would This Mean No Parking Lots?


Eliminating parking minimums means we let homeowners, developers, and business owners decide for themselves how much parking they will need to meet their needs. In fact, eliminating minimums could result in no change at all to the overall parking supply. What it does is give people the right to decide for themselves, to balance the risk of reduced customers/utility with the rewards of less cost and better walkability.

Protecting On-Street Parking?

Since the St. Paul ordinance provided no justification for off-street parking requirements I have to assume that one of the primary reasons is to protect the supply of on-street parking for homeowners.

To be frank, the city should not be protecting a citizen’s non-existent right to have copious street parking for annual garage sales and graduation parties. If said citizen decides to live in an area with high demand for on-street parking, such as near a business district, that citizen will need to decide about whether or not to provide private off-street parking for such purposes. Or get some friends who take transit. And buy fewer cars.

Simply put: it’s not the city’s, the neighbor’s, nor the restaurant down the street’s job to preserve on-street parking in a neighborhood for someone who wants to have or invite multiple cars to their home.

There Is Still Time

The St. Paul 2040 Plan draft will have a public hearing on January 11, 2019. There is still time to write to Planning Commissioners and City Council Members. Here’s what to remember: eliminating parking minimums should reduce not increase costs. We need more housing, we want more thriving businesses. At a time when St. Paulites are going to have significantly higher taxes, this is one way that we can say we are attempting to reduce regulation and reduce costs to live and do business in our city.

Minimum Number of Spaces per Land Use in St. Paul
Residential Uses
One- and two-family dwelling unit 1.5 spaces per unit
Dwelling unit on Irvine Avenue 2 spaces per unit plus 1 guest parking area per unit (see section 63.312)
Multiple-family dwelling unit

*For the purpose of this requirement:

efficiency unit = 1 room,

one bedroom unit = 2 rooms,

two bedroom unit = 3 rooms,

three bedroom unit = 4 rooms,

four bedroom unit = 5 rooms, and so on.

A den, library, or other extra room shall count as a room; kitchen, dining and sanitary facilities shall not

1 space per 1—2 room unit,

1.5 spaces per 3—4 room unit, and

2 spaces per unit with 5 or more rooms.

Housing for the elderly 0.33 space per unit
Live-work dwelling unit 2 spaces per unit
Emergency housing facility, licensed correctional community residential facility, overnight shelter, shelter for battered persons, sober house, supportive housing facility 1.5 spaces per every 4 adult facility residents
Roominghouse 1 space per 3 occupancy units
Adult care home 1 space per every 3 residents
Dormitory, fraternity, sorority 1 space per every 3 residents
Civic and Institutional Uses
Educational Facilities
 Day care 1 space per employee
 Elementary/middle/junior high school 1 space per employee
 Senior high school 1 space per employee, and 1 space per 10 students
 College, university, seminary, technical college, trade school, business school, arts school, dance school 1 space per every 2 employees and 1 per every 3 full-time students not on campus or 1 for every 3 part-time students, whichever is greater, plus required parking for other uses
Social, cultural and recreational facilities
 Golf course 4 spaces per hole
 Museum 1 space per 500 sq. ft. GFA
 Non-commercial recreation, multi-use community center 1 space per 1,000 sq. ft. GFA
 Public library 1 space per 500 sq. ft. GFA
Religious Institutions
 Church, chapel, synagogue, place of worship 1 space per 250 sq. ft. GFA in the main unit of worship
 Convent, monastery, religious retreat 1 space per every 3 residents
Public Services and Utilities
 Utility building or public service building or yard 1 space per employee
Commercial Uses
 Office (including, but not limited to: administrative, financial, insurance, professional, real estate, and sales offices) 1 space per 400 sq. ft. GFA
 Photographic studio 1 space per 400 sq. ft. GFA
Medical facilities
 Hospital 1 space per 2 beds
 Medical or dental clinic, medical laboratory 1 space per 400 sq. ft. GFA
 Veterinary clinic/hospital 1 space per 400 sq. ft. GFA
Retail sales and services
 General retail, service business, bank, credit union, building materials center, business sales and services, convenience market, currency exchange, dry cleaning, commercial laundry, food and related goods sales, food shelf, furniture/appliance store, gun shop, shooting gallery, liquor store, lumber yard, massage center, pawn shop, photocopying, repair shop, self-service laundromat, supermarket, tattoo shop, tobacco shop 1 space per 400 sq. ft. GFA up to 30,000 sq. ft. GFA, plus 1 space for each additional 800 sq. ft. GFA over 30,000 sq. ft. GFA
 Greenhouse, garden center 1 space per 400 sq. ft. GFA plus 1 space per 1,000 sq. ft. outdoor sales or display area
 Mortuary, funeral home 1 space per 150 sq. ft. GFA
 Multiuse center 1 space per 400 sq. ft. GFA up to 30,000 sq ft GFA, plus 1 space for each additional 800 sq ft GFA over 30,000 sq. ft. GFA. Required parking for uses defined as a “bar” or establishment with entertainment license class C shall be calculated independently according to Table 63.207.
 Package delivery service 1 space per 500 sq. ft. GFA
 Post office 1 space per 500 sq. ft. GFA
 Service business with showroom or workshop 1 space per 900 sq. ft. GFA
Food and Beverages
 Bar 1 space per 150 sq. ft. GFA
 Brew on premises store 1 space per 900 sq. ft. GFA
 Catering 1 space per 900 sq. ft. GFA
 Restaurant, coffee shop, tea house, deli, taproom 1 space per 400 sq. ft. GFA
 Establishment with entertainment license class C 1 space per 75 sq. ft.
 Bed and breakfast residence 1 space per dwelling unit and 0.5 space per guest room
 Hotel, inn, motel 1 space per 3 occupancy units plus required parking for bars, restaurants, assembly rooms
Commercial Recreation and Entertainment
 Basketball, volleyball court 6 spaces per court
 Bowling, bocce ball center, billiard hall 2 spaces per lane, 1 spaces per table plus required parking for other uses
 Dance hall, bingo hall, assembly halls without fixed seats, exhibition hall, reception hall 1 space per 200 sq. ft. GFA
 Electronic game room 1 space per 400 sq. ft. GFA
 Golf, driving range 1 space per 15 feet of driving line
 Golf, miniature 1 space per hole
 Health/sports club (including, but not limited to: yoga, martial arts, and dance studios) 1 space per 400 sq. ft. GFA
 Marina 1 space per 2 slips
 Roller rink, ice-skating rink 1 space per 300 sq. ft. GFA
 Stadium, sports arena 1 space per 4 seats or 8 feet of benches
 Swimming club 1 space per 400 sq. ft. GFA
 Tennis, racquetball, handball courts/club 2 spaces per court or lane, 1 space per 300 sq. ft. GFA plus required parking for other uses
 Theater, auditorium, assembly hall with fixed seats, concert hall 1 space per 4 seats
Automobile Services
 Automobile convenience market 1 space per 400 sq. ft. GFA
 Automobile repair station, service station, body shop, specialty store 1 space per 400 sq. ft. GFA plus 1 space per auto service stall
 Auto repair accessory to auto sales 1 space per auto service stall
 Automobile sales and rental 1 space per 400 sq. ft. GFA plus 1 space per 5,000 sq. ft. of outdoor sales
 Car wash 1 space per 2 employees
Limited Production, Processing and Storage
 Limited production and processing 1 space per 1,000 sq. ft. GFA or 1 space per 2,000 sq. ft. GFA if more than 50% of production floor space is occupied by automated machinery
 Warehousing, storage 1 space per 5,000 sq. ft. GFA
 Wholesale establishment 1 space per 1,500 sq. ft. GFA
Industrial Uses
 Industrial, manufacturing 1 space per 1,000 sq. ft. GFA or 1 space per 2,000 sq. ft. GFA if more than 50% of production floor space is occupied by automated machinery
 Research, development and testing laboratory 1 space per 575 sq. ft. GFA
 Sheltered workshop 1 space per employee plus 1 for each 25 program participants


Eric Saathoff

About Eric Saathoff

Eric Saathoff is a public school teacher living in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul. He is a regular walker, cyclist, transit user, and driver with his wife and three young children. Eric serves on the Payne-Phalen Community Council and the St Paul Transportation Committee.

28 thoughts on “Minimum Parking in St. Paul

  1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    My favorite parking minimums are the golf ones. One space per mini golf hole? One space per 15 feet of driving line?


    1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff Post author

      I think the oddest for me is near the end: 1 space / 575 sqft for “Research, development and testing laboratory.”
      Few others were that specific. Someone must have been really doing some tape measure research for that one.

  2. John Maddening

    I remember when Cupcake wanted to open a location on Grand Avenue which had enough spots for a restaurant, but they wanted to serve liquor, and they couldn’t get a variance, so they just didn’t open.

    I asked the Council rep for that area at the time about the reasons for the difference and never got an answer. Glad there is some admission of guilt there finally.

  3. Scott

    Fascinating post. Those parking minimums are bananas. 🙂

    I’d love to hear more about the St. Paul 2040 Plan from writers on that side of the river. Seems like the document is pretty timid about proposing policies to make the city more dense and less car dependent? Any other themes people notice in the plan?

  4. Josh

    The article triggered a thought – how long before the Minneapolis 2040 plan is actually reflected in the zoning code?

  5. pat

    Providing an abundance of parking does not help transit.
    All the colleges in St Paul were forced to build multi-millions parking garages when they could have built student housings.Unless the Govt stop providing subsidized parking the city will continue to lose businesses ,people aren’t going to take transit when they can drive and find free and ample parking .

  6. Bill Siegel

    OMG, yes, this stuff drives me crazy. I lived just of Grand when that cupcake stuff went down and I thought it was such a huge disappointment. Now I own a house in Midway, I take the train to work in downtown Minneapolis. Everyday and as walk and commute along University Ave all I see is huge empty parking lots stretching as far as the eye can see. I think we can all imagine so much better uses of such prime real estate!

  7. Merritt Clapp-Smith

    As a St. Paul City Planner, I led the update of the off-street parking standards that are currently in place. You should have seen them before they were updated and reduced off-street requirements – they were even crazier. If you want any history on them, I probably have the answer, but what justified decisions 8 years ago has changed. What’s key to recognize is that at the time they were updated, the notion of no minimums was unthinkable by the electeds. Minneapolis had just reduced its standards and St. Paul updates followed closely. Since then, attitudes about parking have continued to shift and elected officials in St. Paul may be ready to embrace further reductions. It’s absolutely time to revisit and see what’s possible.

  8. Brian

    Of course, these articles always cherry pick photos of empty parking lots. I could find photos of full parking lots just as easily. I have been to businesses along Hennepin near 35th or so on the weekend where the parking lot was full and street parking was a block or two away. However, most parking lots are way too big and are almost never full.

    One of the YWCAs in Minneapolis recently converted to a paid parking lot because other lazy drivers were parking there because they didn’t walk further to open street parking.

    Most American drivers, myself included, are lazy and don’t want to park a block or two away. It has been brought up a lot that drivers like to park where they can see the door of the business. That generally explains why drivers don’t have an issue walking long distances across a big box parking lot, but they won’t park around the corner on a side street and walk a shorter distance.

      1. Brian

        I did state that most parking lots are too big and almost never full.

        A business should be allowed to choose the amount of parking they want to have but I am not sure zero is the answer unless they have arrangements for off street parking. Is there any business that has no employees or customers arriving by car?

        1. Rosa

          but nobody’s forcing any business to have zero parking spots. Removing the parking minimums means allowing developers/businesses to choose how many.

    1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff Post author

      The first photo is of my kids using a parking lot to learn how to bicycle, just a few hundred feet from my home. The other photos are straight from Google streetview showing businesses or locations on Payne Avenue and Arcade Street near my home. They’re just places I thought up – one is a bar and another is a grocery store with a massive lot.

      When we lived in Chicago between 2002 and 2010 we regularly parked our car 1-3 blocks away from our apartment. Two blocks was expected. Only 1 block was a good day! It’s all a matter of perspective.

    2. Monte Castleman

      There’s also the crime issue- a suburban parking lot is generally in a lower crime neighborhood, well lighted, patrolled by security or at least minimum wage cart pushers, and covered by security cameras. Walking down a city street is none of these.

      I agree that there’s plenty of full parking lots around. More than once I’ve driven a 20 minutes to a business in St. Paul, and then circled the block for another 20 minutes minutes waiting for a parking space to open up. (Obviously if I knew there wasn’t going to be parking I wouldn’t have gone). I still haven’t been able to stop at Andale Tacqueria because literally every single time I’m in the area and hungry there’s been no parking.

      If someone shows pictures of these lots on a Friday during the holiday shopping season with empty spaces I’ll believe there’s too much parking.

      1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

        Remember that I did not advocate in this post for parking maximums. Removing a parking minimum would still allow Cub or a Taqueria to have a sizable lot commensurate with their capacity for customers and demand. Empty lot or full lot doesn’t change the argument, but empty lots do exist and underline the problem as they are required by ordinance.

        Once again, I didn’t cherrypick these photos to show empty lots. They were nearby examples of a bar with a parking lot and a grocery store with a large parking lot.

        The Payne Avenue shot shows lots of cars. Lots of cars are to be expected in a built environment that requires them for getting around. I don’t think we should be forced to continue building that environment. This article doesn’t advocate outlawing it.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          When the “new” Lunds & Byerlys opened at Hennepin and 12th, I thought the tiny parking lot (for both the grocery and liquor stores) was likely to be packed all of the time. Turns out, it doesn’t ever seem to be, even though the store is often busy. It seems that context matters a lot and we mostly overestimate the importance of parking in the city.

    3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Walking a block or two needs to be a normal thing. It is not difficult and a lot of problems would be solved by simply walking a bit more, a feet that most people can easily accomplish.

  9. Frank Phelan

    I would think political conservatives a free marketeers would be very much in favor banning minimums. it should be right up their collective alley.

    The east Saint Paul Target on Suburban has a massively oversized parking lot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it more than half full. I do pass by during the Christmas shopping season, though not necessarily on the weekend.

    A good sized strip mall could be built in that parking lot. Or the lowest lying area could be converted to remediating storm water run off. Given the way the land slopes away from the store eastward, I suspect that most of the storm water currently makes it’s way to the river in minutes. Given the acreage of the asphalt and the store roof, that’s a massive amount of water even for a half inch rain.

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