Img 2672r

Stillwater’s Parking Ramp Problems

This is Part Four in a loosely-related series of the evolution of retail and parking issues. Part One covered the alleged dislike of people for parking ramps and why it’s causing problems for the Shops of West End. Part Two covered the evolution of regional retail from downtown to lifestyle centers. Part Three compared several of the Twin Cities lifestyle centers with some other formats along with plenty snarking at their attempt to fake a sense of place and  history with superfluous arches, cornices, and finishes. Now, we conclude with an article about a place with real history and real historic buildings, but that has also seen retail change and its fair share of parking ramp issues: Stillwater.

Stillwater’s Parking Ramp Problems

Stillwater has parking problems. They have a nice parking ramp that no one seems to use, and they have 760 spaces of surface parking, mostly along the river.  Yet they got involved in a nasty legal fight to condemn a historic family-run business, Shorty Dry Cleaners, in order to tear it down and eventually build another ramp. What gives?

Img 2828r
Stillwater’s underutilized parking garage
Img 2514r
Targeted for Destruction: Shorty Dry Cleaners.
Img 2501r
The existing parking lot with the dry cleaners in back

You can be forgiven for not knowing that Stillwater even had a parking ramp. But I’m sure you’re aware of the acres of parking along prime real-estate between the downtown and the river. This creates a barrier between them, and additionally, the Loop and the Browns Creek bicycle trails both run straight through. Yes, Stillwater realizes this was a regrettable planning decision, but businesses absolutely flip out over the loss of even a couple of parking spaces. The city even has an official parking commission to resolve these kinds of disputes.

Here’s an aerial view, showing the sea of surface parking. The red lines are bicycle trails, the yellow areas are surface parking, and the purple areas are existing and possible ramp locations. The existing ramp is second from left and the dry cleaners is 2nd from right.

Quite a bit of the surface parking is paid and those prime lots are usually full, so it’s not a matter of getting something for free as opposed to paying. Instead, the city of Stillwater believes that the existing ramp is too far from the south-end of the shopping district to be a viable parking destination for shoppers.

So is it really too far to walk from the parking ramp to the south end of the shopping district?  For what it’s worth, I parked in the ramp twice and timed how long it took me to walk from my car to Leo’s Malt Shop (in the center of the business district) and then to the Brick Alley shops (at the far south end).

Img 2509r
Le0’s Malt Shop, a clearly popular destination. Photo taken pre-pandemic.
Img 2507r
Brick Alley Shops

The time to the malt shop were 5:32 and 6:00, and the times to Brick Alley were 10:13 and 9:25. I was also able to walk directly from the Brick Alley to the ramp on 2nd street, bypassing the pedestrian congestion and signals on Main Street, in 7:33. You could probably shave a minute or so off these times by using the stairs instead of the elevator at the ramp like I did. These times would obviously be unacceptable if you only had a few minutes to pick up your dry cleaning or grab a burger at McDonald’s. But are they too long for people taking a day-trip to downtown Stillwater? Perhaps. The Downtown Plan considers 1/4 mile distance, which is about a 5 minute walking time, acceptable. Here’s a map with the area for the existing ramp marked as blue, the lot to eventually become a ramp marked as a red, and the area for both marked as purple.

Stillwater Existing and Proposed Parking Coverage

If given the choice, most people would choose surface parking over structured parking. Again, people don’t like ramps. Right now, people have that choice. If not given this choice for parking, I think downtown Stillwater is compelling enough that people would choose parking in a ramp over not coming. Additionally, the cues to use structured parking are far too subtle. As you come over the hill, the first thing you see is a vast surface-parking lot to your right, so your natural reaction is to veer to the right pull into it. The signs directing you to go ahead and to the left into the ramp are way too small and subtle and are printed in nonstandard white-on-black. Additionally, it’s hard to make a left turn in downtown Stillwater– only Myrtle Street has a turn lane and protected phase. The turn for the parking ramp is at Commercial Street, which doesn’t have a protected turn lane or even a traffic signal.

Coming downhill to a sea of parking
Coming downhill to a sea of parking

For a while, Stillwater was considering building remote lots with a shuttle service, but they discarded the idea out of fear that people wouldn’t want to ride the bus. I agree; people may be willing to ride a bus for a once-a-year trip to the State Fair or a Twins game, but not as their main way of accessing a location that people more frequently visit such as downtown Stillwater. I would venture a guess that having to ride a bus to get to downtown Stillwater would cause many people to simply stop coming. The aversion to riding transit is likely greater than the aversion to parking in ramps.

Instead, I’d proceed with building an additional ramp as well as trying to improve wayfinding to the current ramp. There definitely needs to be more signs for it in standard white-on-blue lettering. I’d suggest a sign coming down the hill entering downtown saying “Public Ramp Parking Straight Ahead” as well as an overhead sign on the traffic signal mast at Myrtle Street. Perhaps it would also help to screen the surface lot from the main street to eliminate the cue that you park in lots on the right, although this could create a safety issue.

Regarding the future ramp location at the dry cleaners, the litigation ended with a settlement and a few details have emerged (paywalled).  Although identified as a ramp location by the city, the first overture was actually made by a realtor on behalf of the dry cleaners. The city offered an assessed value of around $500,000. But the dry cleaners wanted more like $1,200,000 and the city moved to condemn the property when the city’s offer was refused. The eventual settlement was $900,000 and the dry cleaners accepted, but then made a statement that although they wanted to stay in business it wasn’t enough to cover moving costs. Beyond these facts I don’t want to speculate as to the motives or what may have been going on behind the scenes. At any rate, the dry cleaners have now closed, and the bulldozers will soon come for the building.

Stillwater’s Planning Mess

At this point, you’re probably wondering how the current parking situation in Stillwater came about. The short answer is that there was one major event that has hindered urban planning in Stillwater for decades: the new bridge and the amount of time it took to build (see “The Stillwater Bridge Story, Parts One, Two, Three, and Four). Stillwater was promised a new highway-style “high bridge” as far back as the late 1940s, but with the existing bridge in good condition and Stillwater being located fairly far away from the interstates, it was never a statewide priority. There was a 1961 proposal for a new freeway bridge near the existing one that would encircle the downtown by a five “ring road” and convert Main Street to a pedestrian mall. However, the city understandably didn’t want to do to much planning for their downtown until they knew if a freeway approach to a new bridge is going to go through or near it.

1961 Proposal for Ring Road and freeway system.
1961 Proposal for Ring Road and freeway bridge.

Meanwhile, the demand for parking grew as retail shifted from everyday retail (with many residents within walking distance), to a more regional, destination retail. Looking at this old postcard,  you see Montgomery Ward (a cocktail lounge), and a liquor store called the Eagle’s Club. Not the type of places you’d likely drive from Bloomington to visit.

Stillwater Vintage Postcard
Google Street View today

Since it was impossible for me to stand in the middle of the street with a zoom lens to safely replicate the postcard, here’s a Google wide-angle, street-view image. Bars and restaurants are important for both local and regional retail, but now you see stores selling souvenir clothing instead of suits and nice dresses and antiques instead of department store merchandise. Presumably now they go to Target and Menard’s along the highway or order from Amazon for their daily needs. It’s also hard to imagine a scenario where enough people live downtown to have local retail come back. Although the downtown plan envisions units in what I presume is now mostly vacant and underutilized space above the shops, most of the single family homes on the west side of downtown are considered historic, precluding more density, and anything between the downtown and the river will be limited to a couple of stories as to not overwhelm the historic main street with mass.

When it came time to add parking for regional retail downtown, the path of least resistance was to use the land the railroad was then in the process of vacating. But now with downtown spared a bridge, it’s time to look at a more permanent, long-term plan. The latest downtown plan still maintains some surface parking, presumably for users of Lowell Park and downtown businesses. However, Stillwater envisions that most of the private surface lots along the riverfront will be converted to parks or other kinds of redevelopment and has developed guidelines for such use in it’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan. There is, in fact, a plan to build something like a skating ribbon on the block behind Maple Island Brewing in order to give people a reason to come downtown in the winter. As of now, ambling around downtown to visit bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, and antique malls basically ends as soon as the weather gets cold.

The new parks along the river north and south of the downtown will also be a huge draw, centered by the restored lift bridge. I was there on opening morning, and despite all the festivities being cancelled and the workers unceremoniously removing the baracades, there was excitement in the air. Stillwater has old and new bridges as well as authentic historic buildings. Stillwater has something special, something the lifestyle centers will always fail to re-create.

The Lift Bridge 10 minutes after reopening
The Lift Bridge 10 minutes after reopening

About Monte Castleman

Monte is a long time "roadgeek" who lives in Bloomington. He's interested in all aspects of roads and design, but particularly traffic signals, major bridges, and lighting. He works as an insurance adjuster, and likes to collect maps and traffic signals, travel, recreational bicycling, and visiting amusement parks.