A Parking Problem
St. Louis Park’s lifestyle center, The Shops of West End, has problems. Its vacancies are more than double the metro average and a 20,000 square foot block has never been filled.
In March, 2019 the Twin Cities Business Magazine did an article on why. The article is well worth a read; it details a long sad tale of woe regarding inexperienced developers, terrible timing, the rapidly changing retail scene, and fundamental design errors. The project was beyond the point of no return when the recession hit and building on top of structured parking limited flexibility or being able to build incrementally. But notable was this excerpt:
The center’s awkward design continues to be an obstacle, local developers say. The Twin Cities’ two other similar “main street”-designed lifestyle centers, Shoppes at Arbor Lakes in Maple Grove and Woodbury Lakes, both have the suburban luxury of surface parking on all sides. The underground parking that was thought to be a West End perk has proven off-putting to shoppers.
“Minnesotans don’t view a ramp as convenient. That’s what I’ve learned about Minnesota consumers,” says John Johannson, senior vice president of Colliers International in the Twin Cities. Asking suburban shoppers to shop someplace without convenient up-front parking is really difficult… It’s a good lesson in trying to engineer design where you’re asking people to change their social behavior.”
Colliers’ Central Park Commons in Eagan is an example of the latest thinking about suburban lifestyle centers. Rather than erecting a faux main street in the middle of a parking lot, Central Park Commons was designed as several mini-strip centers throughout the property, each with its own surface parking and circular roads and sidewalks connecting each group of buildings. The design does little to promote walking, but visitors seem only too happy to drive across the parking lot from HyVee to Punch Pizza.
This asseveration might shock some people (and led to a lot of discussion on the streets.mn forum), but it came as no shock to me. Parking ramps are something both myself and my sister try to avoid; I’d prefer not to park in a ramp, and she absolutely will not. When going to the Mall of America, she will opt to park in the surface lots across the street and walk a much farther distance rather than use the ramp. Apart from not having kids and telecommuting I unabashedly consider myself a stereotypical suburbanite. I love driving everywhere. I love chain restaurants. I love living in a single family detached house. So it’s not surprising to me that my preference to avoid ramps is shared by other suburbanites.
So why don’t a lot of people like ramps? I’ll throw out a few possibilities:
- Fear of Crime: Ramps tend to be dimly lit and not as visible from the street or nearby buildings as surface lots, where you have the idea that someone is always watching. It’s true that unlike lots, they generally have security cameras and panic buttons. But if one person is reassured, another person might wonder if anyone is watching the cameras and if the panic buttons actually work, and a third person might think that there must have been a tremendous amount of crime there to justify installing the apparatus.
- Tight spaces. Due to the premium costs ramps tend to have really tight spaces and aisles, no doubt the standards come from when our vehicle fleet was smaller. My Toyota Rav4 isn’t especially big by modern American standards. But it’s still tight maneuvering and parking in a ramp, where the aisle and spaces are less generous than lots due to the extra cost.
- Effort and Orientation: It’s also quite a bit more tedious to reach say the third floor of the parking ramp compared to a space in a surface lot, then to find your way out where you don’t have a visual on where you want to go.
- Ramps can produce something akin to claustrophobia in sensitive individuals, with their low ceilings and pillars relative to their horizontal size. There’s a good reason stores are built with much more ceiling height than is functionally necessary.
- I’d also suggest the one purported advantage of ramps- shelter- is overrated. If the weather’s bad I’m not about to go out shopping anyway. There’s nothing at West End I need bad enough to go out and get in a snowstorm, or even when it’s merely raining or brutally hot or cold. West End doesn’t sell the things you might need regardless of weather- there’s a CVS or Walgreens near you for those.
- Finally there’s the idea parking ramps cost money and/or isn’t for you. Even if a sign says “free public parking” to a suburbanite unfamiliar with them the mass of the parking ramp communicates “this costs money” and “this is not for you”. A lot of places don’t even have signs indicating parking is free or that you can self-park without the expense and hassle of a valet.
Here’s a sign on the Central Park commons ramp. It’s way too small relative to the mass of the parking ramp. There really should be a sign taking up most of the skyway saying “<—FREE PUBLIC RETAIL SELF-PARKING. NO VALIDATION REQUIRED”
For me, on-street parking is not really a substitute for surface lots either. Although it dispenses with all the above mentioned drawbacks, the problem is that it’s often time limited, may not be available, and at many of these places is parallel. I don’t know how to parallel park. My sister doesn’t either. Somehow against all odds we managed to “parallel park” on our drivers exams without hitting anything yet good enough to count. Absolutely no way were either of us ever going to attempt it again in the real world, where you could hit a BMW instead of a flimsy metal pole. Either the places we go have alternative parking, or we don’t go. Maybe self-driving cars will change this in the future but for now I get the impression that there’s many people in the suburbs who likewise won’t or even can’t parallel park.
Why Do Ramps Work Elsewhere?
So what about parking ramps downtown and at the airport? In short, if you’re going there you don’t have a choice in the matter. I get to downtown Minneapolis maybe once a year or every other year, downtown St. Paul once every 5 years. Back in the 1990s when I was forced into going downtown during the business day for jury duty I parked easily and cheaply in a lot by the then derelict Milwaukee Road Depot. Nowadays, however, with the declining amount of surface parking, it’s either park in a ramp or take the bus.
I also think there’s a bit of self-selection in where people look for jobs. If the downtown atmosphere is important and you don’t mind or even like parking ramps or public transit you try to take a job downtown. If you just want a place with convenient, free parking at work you try to take a job in the suburbs. Recently, Prime Therapeutics built a huge new building in Eagan. If it’s anything like the large company I work for in the suburbs, employees are absolutely horrified at the thought of working in a tower downtown instead of a sprawling campus with free parking. I’ve always been able to find jobs in suburban office parks or corporate campuses so I’ve never even applied for one downtown.
That being said, people that normally don’t like ramps and transit are still willing to put up with ramps or transit if the reward is big enough. A lot of people will ride a bus one day a year to the State Fair even if they would never even think about riding a bus any other time. Pro sports are another area where ramps work. Although I’d much rather the Vikings Stadium be located in the suburbs with plenty of surface parking to be able to have tailgating, that’s not the reality. So suburbanites like me will deal with a ramp or a transit in order to attend a game. But a new pair of slacks or a hamburger at West End aren’t big enough rewards since alternatives with surface parking exist.
This was the start of a series on the evolution of regional retail and related parking issues. Part two will step back and look at how we went from the big city downtown to regional malls to lifestyle centers like West End. Part three will take a close look at the Twin Cities lifestyle centers and try to see if West End’s parking ramps make it objectively more inconvenient. Finally, part four will conclude with a look at the parking issues in Stillwater, where there was recently a legal fight over condemning a historic building housing a small business to tear it down and build more parking.