Urban Parking, Suburban Style

I recently attended an open house put on by the City of Minneapolis to discuss two options for the upcoming reconstruction of Hennepin Ave from Douglas to Lake Street. In a sign of progress on street design in Minneapolis, both designs reduce car traffic to a single lane to promote traffic calming and to provide space for permanent, dedicated bus lanes. Neither option has the bus lane being curb protected, even as staff acknowledge that drivers are likely to swerve into and occasionally stop in the lanes, but the red paint will have to suffice. 

Like nearly all public hearings and open houses, this project isn’t without division. The heart of contention in these designs is that one of the options has a bidirectional protected bike line running on the east side of Hennepin and the other has no bike facilities at all as a means to protect parking in the corridor. In the events that I have attended so far, the questions and comments were heavily (75%+ in my estimation) supportive of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, particularly given that such a design would conform to the existing Complete Streets policy and the City’s climate goals. There continues, however, to be a small but repeated call to protect parking in the corridor. These commenters insist that there is no way for a small business to survive without free, city-provided and maintained parking directly in front of every business. Neither the parking analyses referenced by staff showing ample capacity for side street parking, nor economic analyses showing that pedestrians and cyclists spend the same if not more at local businesses will assuage these concerns.

I understand the fears of the small business owners. These shops are located in a high rent area and have been punished by an ongoing pandemic and limited federal support (TBD on how much the new Biden stimulus helps). Running a small or startup business anywhere is incredibly challenging, and the majority don’t last longer than five years (I had my own business failure for a couple of years!). Finding the right product for the right customer type at a manageable price while making money is precarious. Removing parking feels like losing an amenity that brings customers in. What struck me as I was listening to the questions and comments, though, is how we parse out how something feels vs the reality of the situation. 

Let’s take a look at other shopping experiences to compare parking realities. I grew up, for better or worse, in the western suburbs of Minneapolis near Ridgedale Center. This is a typical, sprawling suburban mall surrounded by a massive parking lot (shoutout to the rooftop solar, at least). There is really no instance where you can’t find a parking spot somewhere in their staggeringly large parking lot. Picking out a few random spots and mapping them to the nearest entrance to the mall, shoppers can easily walk 300+ feet from an average spot and almost 1,000 feet from the farther spots – and this is just to get to the mall entrance, not the actual shop!

The blue line is 335 feet. Hard to fit the whole mall in frame!

Here, the blue line is 455 feet.
Showing a farther spot, this blue line is just under 1,000 feet!

Keeping those distances in mind, take a look at how far away someone could park along Hennepin and still have the same walking distance. Again, keep in mind, the distances in the Ridgedale example were just to get to the mall entrance. The Hennepin examples are to get to the front door of the actual shop. You can park multiple blocks away and be the same distance away, while getting a much more pleasant walk with houses to look at, shade trees, and generally enjoyable Cityscape. 

The blue line coming south on Fremont Ave S and turning west onto W28th St before turning north on Hennepin Ave is approximately 985 feet.
This route from Dupont Ave S, turning west onto W 24th St and onto Hennepin Ave is 500 feet.
This route along W 26th St to Hennepin is 316 feet.
This route coming from Girard Ave S and turning east onto W 25th is 585 feet.

Is Ridgedale an outlier? Not really. See several examples of popular shopping destinations in the Metro. It turns out, parking lots really are as big as multiple city blocks. Yes, you can find a spot right up front sometimes, just like in the City. It is also still very important to make sure that handicapped residents have a means of accessing shops, wherever they are. The point, though, is that the way that parking is talked about by Uptown businesses is a bit overblown. The reality is that parking is still ample, even if it requires a short walk in a delightful surrounding neighborhood. Businesses also get the added benefit of protected bike lanes, which allow another community of users to access their wonderful shops.

Menards parking lot in St Louis Park. The blue line is 243 feet.
Shops at West End, parking ramp. Blue line is 238 feet.
Mall of America, parking ramp. Blue line is 772 feet.
Southdale Center, ground lot. Blue line is 323 feet.

I hope that the City takes this kind of distance reality into consideration when choosing which option moves forward for Hennepin Avenue. One other reality is that we are dealing with a climate emergency and need to quickly find ways to encourage more trips by methods other than driving. EVs are an improvement but we need to reduce overall vehicle miles travelled. Creating a Hennepin Ave that supports walkers, bikers, transit users and cars is a good step for the climate, our community and our local businesses. Oh, and even with the bike lanes, there are still stopping/parking areas on nearly every block of the design, so it’s not like parking is totally left out anyway. 

Share your comments on the project’s interactive map here. The project team is seeking input through April 16, 2021. City Council will vote to approve a design later this year, so make sure to reach out to your City Council representative, as well. Construction is slated to begin in 2024. Help make Hennepin better for everyone!

PS: One final fun fact for you in terms of urban vs suburban size and distance comparisons: The Ridgedale Center complex including the buildings and parking lots is a little under 75 acres. That is roughly equivalent to everything between Hennepin Ave and Lyndale Ave from 26th St to 28th St.

Blue polygon between Hennepin Avenue and Lyndale Avenue from W 26th St to W 28th St is approximately 75 acres.
Blue polygon showing Ridgedale’s full campus and parking facilities is also approximately 75 acres.

Peter Schmitt

About Peter Schmitt

Peter Schmitt lives in the Lowry Hill East ("Wedge") neighborhood with his wife in the attic unit of an 1893 triplex that they own. Together, they are working to reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible, including building a net zero energy passive house behind the triplex. Peter is a year round biker and pedestrian. Professionally, Peter works around the country as a solar developer.

32 thoughts on “Urban Parking, Suburban Style

  1. Lou Miranda

    Thank you, Peter, for this great article explaining how people everywhere walk to their destination, even if it’s from their car. We’re all pedestrians.

  2. Rob H

    It’s worth noting that Ridgedale and the City of Minnetonka have been active in reducing the parking footprint with the development of an apartment building and a new upcoming park space in the Southwest corner of the property. https://www.minnetonkamn.gov/services/construction-projects/park-and-trail-projects/new-park-at-ridgedale-center. Ridgedale drive around the mall is currently undergoing an overhaul which will create a boulevard and walking trails. It’s slow, but the mall area is becoming a much more pleasant pedestrian experience.

    1. Peter SchmittPeter Schmitt Post author

      I definitely agree that Ridgedale is taking steps to make this a more usable, pedestrian friendly area! My parents (who still live in the house nearby where I grew up) are a bit skeptical about how much use the walking trails and meeting/concert areas will ultimately get, but I think that is a somewhat understandable initial perception given the development of the area to date. I am personally quite excited to see more housing adding to the area, particularly with multiple modes in mind, and hope that the addition of the parks and trails does make it more vibrant. A nice change to how this area developed when I was growing up. Thanks for pointing it out!

      My main goal was just to shift the talking point for Minneapolis businesses that parking doesn’t have to be immediately in front of the shop entrance to be a viable business. This is a great community/neighborhood and walking a block or to through it to get to shops actually isn’t a big deal and can be a pleasant experience.

  3. Janne

    Is there a streets.mn author willing to compare the total property tax (and income tax) contributions in the blue polygons of 75 acres? I want more information on how Ridgedale and that swath of Lowry Hill East contribute to supporting the city, county, parks and schools, and state.

    1. Megan

      That’s not even remotely a fair comparison, especially since you’d be missing the revenue Ridgedale generates from sales taxes. Plus property values for Lowry Hill East typically outperform their suburban counterparts, especially a mall adjacent to a freeway. Is Ridgedale perfect? Far from it. But it can be fixed, and they’re making strides to doing that by adding residential to the outer ring.

  4. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    I didn’t realize that side-street parking was that “ample” in East Isles/Lowry Hill East. I was under the impression that, even 20 years ago, street parking was a bit tight…and I’d imagine it’s only gotten worse since then.

      1. Megan

        Sure, and those cities have vastly superior public transportation systems. We’re not NYC. We will never be NYC. Constantly bringing up NYC is a nothing burger. Keep the comparisons local and on point, Bill.

      2. Monte Castleman

        I finally quit going to Uptown because besides being difficult to drive to, it was rare that I could park anywhere remotely close to 985 feet from my destination (generally Famous Dave’s or Majers and Quinn)- 5-6 blocks or so was more typical. Having tried to park in San Francisco though I agree everything is relative and I don’t frequent regional malls either due to the walking distance, although anytime short of Black Friday or a non-COVID winter Saturday it’s going to be less than 1000 feet.

          1. Monte Castleman

            That’s something I realize. I also realize how expensive it is even by parking ramp standards. Made a meal at Famous Daves much too expensive and a bargain book from Majers and Quinn cost more than a brand new book.

    1. Peter SchmittPeter Schmitt Post author

      I agree that the perception is that there isn’t parking in East Isles/Lowry Hill East/Uptown – I have certainly heard that from my parents enough over the years when they come into the neighborhood for dinner. They also lived in Uptown when they were younger and similarly talked about parking challenges then.

      The argument that I was trying to make (inaugural post, so I probably need some polishing on how to make a better argument) is that parking availability is a bit more of a mindset trap than it is an actual problem. The mindset is that cars should be able to park directly in front of their destination, which is understandably challenging in a city. When looked at in comparison to how far people walk in other situations, though (malls in this case, a sports stadium would be another good comparison), the situation is rather different. I live on a block without an alleyway, for example, which makes parking feel a lot tighter. Alleyways begin one block south, though, and there is always parking available on that block. It feels tight on my block but is ample within a very short, (in my opinion) ultimately reasonable distance away. Maybe parking in the Uptown area overall falls into the “death, taxes, and complaining about parking” category, though.

  5. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    This is great. I call these kinds of jaunts a “walkatunity.” I almost always park a few blocks away and walk, even if I don’t have to. It’s more fun and good for you!

    1. Peter SchmittPeter Schmitt Post author

      I’ve never used that term before, but I certainly intend to do so now! Even as an avid biker, I often choose to walk in the neighborhood just so I can look around at the houses and window shop as I am walking by. It takes a bit longer but is quite enjoyable.

    1. TJ

      It’s rather entertaining, as someone who biked frequently on Cleveland from 2018-2020, to watch all these people predict doom and gloom from the concept of allowing bikers onto that road back in 2015.

  6. Scott

    Yeah, parking scarcity is pretty overblown most places in Minneapolis particularly on Hennepin. Many businesses have large, off-street parking lots including several that are 1980’s-era strip malls on the west side of the street.

    Hennepin is a pretty hostile place currently to walk and cross the street, so I understand why folks wouldn’t want to park multiple blocks away now. However, the proposed design will significantly calm traffic and decrease crossing distances for pedestrians. Plus, the bus service is going to improve drastically with the new dedicated bus lanes. Maybe it is time for folks to consider that they will not always be able to drive their personal vehicle and expect to park it for free in the central city of Minneapolis.

    1. Brian

      What about the businesses that have no off street parking, or very little off street parking? Most businesses don’t want customers of other businesses parking in their parking lot because the lot might fill up and not leave room for their customers.

      Some businesses that have a large lot might be willing to lease some parking spaces. but then the businesses that relied on street parking are taking on a new cost. Some businesses will do just fine with only pedestrian and bicyclist traffic, but others depend on customers from all over the metro. Someone coming in from Burnsville is unlikely to want to go to a blue line park and ride, get on a train, and then transfer at Lake St to a bus and maybe transfer a second time to get to their final destination. No, they will just drive the whole way and if they can’t find a convenient location to park they won’t come back.

      Personally, I gave up on going to Uptown over 20 years ago due to the difficulty of finding a parking space.

      1. Peter SchmittPeter Schmitt Post author

        As a former business owner myself, I would find it an odd/unbankable business plan to assume that a business located on a main corridor in a city only has customers that can park directly in front of the business. Especially along Hennepin, the storefronts are only 2-3 car lengths wide. If a business is reliant on just that amount of parking and not the surrounding neighborhood or bikers/pedestrians/transit users, they are likely going to struggle. As I wrote about in the article, though, a majority of businesses struggle to get started regardless of location, business type, or parking presence. And in talking to some of the business owners along Hennepin, they know by their receipts that the majority of their customers come from the immediately adjacent zip codes and are local, which is also great and supports the idea that a dense enough area will support a business regardless of parking presence.
        This of course isn’t meant to discount that it might be a bit more work for someone coming in from Burnsville, but I would still encourage the City to support a safer street for more user groups, particularly if the data points to these broader user groups also spending more money at local businesses. As another commenter mentioned (paraphrased), a short walk in a nice neighborhood also isn’t a bad thing.

      2. lyricsforlynn

        I find comments about how impossible it is to find parking Uptown to be suspect. I lived spitting distance from Calhoun Square for years, a bit further away before that, and frequently visited the neighborhood for years before and after that period of time. Parking on the street is and was generally easy to find if one was willing to walk a for 2 to 4 minutes (500 to 1500 feet, depending on how slow a stroll one takes). Only during the Uptown Art Fair or a snow emergency did it ever get difficult, and even then I’ve never turned away for lack of parking.

  7. Brian

    There is a certain psychology about parking. Drivers seems to like to be able to see the business from where they park their car.

    Safety is also a huge factor. A big box parking lot has cameras and often a security guard. Drivers feel secure when they can park on the street close to front door. Drivers not familiar with a neighborhood may not feel safe parking around the corner in front of empty houses. If street spots are not reserved for businesses they might all be used by residents.

    Several years ago I placed an online lunch order with a neighborhood restaurant in NE Minneapolis. I jumped in my car and figured I would get there about the time the food was ready. I planned to eat at the restaurant. I got there and the parking lot was completely full. It took me ten minutes to find a place to park as the surrounding streets all had no parking posted. I had a ten minute walk to get to the restaurant. My food was cold by the time I got there. I would have skipped lunch if I hadn’t already paid for it.

    1. Peter SchmittPeter Schmitt Post author

      I would agree that there is a current and certain psychology about parking. Whether that psychology should be encouraged and perpetuated is perhaps a discussion for a longer, separate post. For my two cents (given my obvious bias for writing this post), I find that expectation/psychology something that we should be actively working to change.

      Similarly, on a safety front, I would argue that having more people walking neighborhoods, whether because they live there or because they are parking there to walk to a business or just enjoying the neighborhood, is a good thing! More eyes and ears on the streets means more eyes and ears to respond if help is needed or call for help. Obviously an individual observation, but visible cameras on buildings or on streets honestly makes me feel less safe or like I should be expecting something to go wrong. That isn’t the atmosphere I want in my neighborhood (obvious full disclosure that I live near the corridor that is being discussed in this post).

      I can also sympathize that it sucks when you have a certain timing in mind and it doesn’t work out. “Just in time” might be better suited for major supply chains than picking up lunch at a popular local spot along a busy commercial corridor. On the bright side, if the off street parking lot and immediately surrounding street parking areas were full in the middle of the day, that probably means that the business was doing quite well!

      1. Brian

        The reason the parking lot was full is because there is an Islamic community center across the street that has services right around noon on Friday. The restaurant tolerates them using the parking lot as many of them eat lunch at the restaurant after the service. I wasn’t aware of this prior to that day. I have never experienced a full parking lot other days.

        I took the bus to work for several years before the pandemic. My co-worker also takes the bus to work downtown, but he refuses to take the #10 bus to this restaurant as he doesn’t like how long the bus takes with all the stops.

      2. Monte Castleman

        I’ve explored the psychology of parking before in my articles, and I do agree that people have a distorted sense of distance in a surface parking lot vs city streets. FWIW the city of Stillwater considers a 1/4 mile distance an “acceptable” amount for people to have to walk to visit their downtown, and recently acquired a property to eventually use for a second ramp, to but the entire downtown within 1/4 mile of one or both ramps.

        Agreed on the security cameras. I think the fear of crime is a major reason people avoid parking in ramps, to the dismay of West End. Parking ramps usually have very visible security apparatus. One person might be reassured by them, but another person might think that crime must have been really bad for them to have put them in, and wonder if those panic buttons actually work or if anyone is watching the cameras, or if you need help in seconds if it will take minutes to arrive.

        Besides being more regularly patrolled by police / security, I will note mall parking lots also tend to by much better lit than city streets. Myself, I didn’t feel unsafe visiting Minneapolis until last summer’s crime explosion (between crime fears and COVID fears I haven’t been back for a year), but I have heard people posted here and elsewhere before about safety concerns, as one example in the discussion about having to walk farther since the parking lot across from Acme was redeveloped.

        Obviously the streets are safer with more people around and that’s obviously something to encourage, but you don’t want to be the first one to start walking down an empty street hoping others will join you.

  8. Steve Gjerdingen

    Personally, I enjoyed parking at around 25th and walking the 5 blocks to Lake and Hennepin. Anything south of there was metered, which was a no go. To me, I’d also rather look at an urban streetscape and storefronts for a few blocks than apartment buildings and street trees. It is nice to be able to see where the parking is too as you’re driving along. All that to say, it seems like a fair trade to give up on-street parking (which I used often) if it prevents a cyclist from worrying about having to get doored on this narrow street. What will probably end up happening is that people will just park in the East Isles area and walk to Hennepin. That area is far more likely to have parking than the dense Lowry Hill neighborhood. The reality is, less car traffic will likely visit this area after the changes because it’s going to be less appealing to drive here once they drop Hennepin down to 1 lane in each direction. While they are at it, they also should consider doing the same with Excelsior Boulevard where it enters the city. That road is in a far more desperate state in regards to having space for pedestrians/cyclists.

    I am glad that Minneapolis is finally looking at changing this corridor but am concerned about the implications for cyclists. It was stressful biking through there beforehand, weaving into parking spots while 2 lanes of traffic pass you. What will be the rules about biking in the bus lanes once this corridor is complete? If on road cyclists find themselves holding up traffic or getting ticketed for riding in a bus lane, that isn’t a pretty picture. The cycle-track could be a decent option if its done well and if pavement is raised near intersections. I am wondering how this would compare to something like Stinson Blvd (probably the cycle-track I’ve used most often). I’m concerned the side streets may be busier. I really wish they’d consider bike lanes for this corridor.

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