Minneapolis parking lots might get spruced up

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 3, 2014 - 5:25 AM

City Hall has banned new surface parking lots downtown. Now it’s pushing to enforce existing requirements for landscaping.

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This surface lot on Hennepin Avenue is typical of many downtown. Minneapolis might start enforcing rules that would improve aesthetics and help with runoff.

Photo: JOEL KOYAMA • jkoyama@startribune.com,

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Cracked asphalt, crummy wooden planks and concrete-filled metal poles showcasing an endless sea of vehicles.

It’s the common theme of downtown surface parking lots, where function trumps form block after block.

That might be about to change.

New Council Member Jacob Frey, who represents part of downtown, wants to beautify the more than 70 pay lots downtown by more forcefully enforcing the city’s existing landscaping requirements. “This is something that’s already on the books. We’re just enforcing it,” he said.

The lots are so unpopular that new ones are actually already banned. The acres of asphalt are generally frowned upon by City Hall because of their blighting effect on the streetscape, inability to absorb rainwater and inefficient use of valuable land in a city striving to grow its population.

The initiative could eventually force the lots to install 7- or 9-foot strips of land separating parked cars from the sidewalk — most now have nothing. Other existing city rules that would likely be enforced require lots to have a 3-foot-high fence or hedge to screen views and to have a certain number of trees. Compliance now is spotty.

Many lots are already being developed, but at least one lot manager says he’s worried the beautification efforts will cut into the number of spots he can sell.

“How do we address the fact that we’re going to be losing a good chunk of stalls in order to meet this ordinance?” asked Jon Fletcher, the general manager of Minneapolis Parking, a subsidiary of Alatus LLC.

Frey envisions two likely results. “Either one: There’s beautification of presently ugly surface parking lots, which is a favorable result,” he said. “Or two, if those surface lots are sold off and we create green space or density, that’s also a favorable result.”

Keeping people downtown

Downtown leaders are aiming to make the city’s core a more vibrant, walkable place both for visitors and the growing number of people choosing to live there.

But a stroll downtown these days is still likely to feature entire blocks of asphalt and parked cars, which do little to entice pedestrians. Many sit largely empty on weekday nights, bedecked with crumbling wooden fences or bright poles.

Tom Hoch, president of the Hennepin Theatre Trust, said people say it contributes to an “uneven experience” of downtown in surveys they have conducted.

“If we had an environment that felt more walkable and was more engaging, we’d have people who are ultimately doing three or four or five things when they come downtown. Not just one or two,” said Hoch, whose organization has plans to beautify a non-pay lot next to the Orpheum Theatre.

The city’s zoning code already discourages downtown surface parking lots, due largely to efforts spearheaded by the area’s other council member, Lisa Goodman. City ordinances prohibit creating new downtown surface parking lots, which are defined as being able to charge customers by period of time or for a special event. They are distinct from multistory ramps.

Many of the current lots are out of compliance with landscaping ordinances either because they were built before the rules were instituted or the city never forced them to meet those specifications in the first place, said Steve Poor, the city’s zoning manager.

That would change under the current proposal, still in its earliest phases, which would tie improvements to license renewals. There are 125 lots with licenses to charge parking customers for a variety of time periods; the majority of them are downtown. The enforcement effort will focus on lots in the general downtown area.

Frey said notices will be mailed to the commercial parking lot license holders on May 1, saying they have about a year to develop a plan to come into compliance.

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