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The fences, shrubs and trees that line the sidewalk on 5th Avenue S. do little to hide the vast parking lots that Chris Keimig considers blemishes on downtown Minneapolis.
The asphalt is so abundant that the St. Paul English teacher has made a hobby out of snapping photos of the frequently deserted parking lots and posting them on his new blog, "Empty Lots," along with catalogues of other missed opportunities in urban planning.
Now city planners are considering how to transform the lots into the kind of dense, urban development needed to meet the city's aim of doubling the downtown population over the next decade.
Minneapolis recently won a $43,250 grant from the Met Council to examine the large surface parking lots near the Metrodome light-rail station. In its grant application, the city described them as the most prominent barrier to building up the area.
"These are all prime development sites, and we are seeing no movement on them," said downtown city planner Beth Elliott, who wrote Minneapolis' grant proposal.
A city map shows at least 140 surface parking lots scattered around downtown, from the Metrodome to the Mississippi to Nicollet Mall, where cars aren't even allowed. Many of them offer parking as cheap as $6 a day. Some, including lots owned by the Star Tribune, take up entire blocks. One lot on S. 2nd Street, near the waterfront, takes up two.
Wildflowers and other greenery lining the sidewalk hardly spruce up the drab vista from the Central Library entrance on Nicollet Mall, where visitors see surface parking lots on two sides of the building and two parking ramps nearby. The surface lots are half empty by the end of the workday.
The parking lots multiplied after World War II, when Minneapolis and other American cities pursued policies hostile to urban development and friendly to suburbanization, said Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Design at University of Minnesota.
Many of downtown's buildings were torn down to make way for parking, he said, noting the Nicollet Hotel was razed two decades ago for one of the parking lots next to the library.
And as Minneapolis struggled to compete with the suburbs that were stealing its population, the city also began requiring parking minimums in 1963 for new development.
The city since has taken some steps to tame the spread of parking lots. In 1999, Minneapolis barred new commercial parking lots downtown. In 2009, it eliminated minimum parking requirements for buildings in the downtown zoning district.
Still, on 5th Avenue in particular, "it's a sea of parking lots," Downtown Council President Mark Stenglein said. "It's like you're floating among parking lots."
Will stadium trigger growth?
Several managers of downtown lots say the business actually isn't so lucrative -- and the whole point is to wait for a developer to come along with an attractive offer.
"It's obvious that kind of property is not the highest and best use," said Doug Swanson, chief financial officer and vice president of Benson Parking Service Inc., which operates six downtown surface lots. "There's no doubt about it -- they're eyesores."
Some anticipate that the planned Vikings stadium will spark new construction on the lots to better connect the Downtown East area with the more vibrant areas to the west. At least a dozen square blocks with substantial surface parking, including Star Tribune-owned property, sit near the stadium.
City leaders do not want to make the same mistakes they did with the Metrodome, said Fisher, who is also co-chairman of the stadium implementation committee.
"We absolutely cannot have just big asphalt surface parking lots around the new stadium or we will have failed," said Fisher, suggesting they find a more creative, urban way to allow tailgating.
In Minneapolis and around the country, he said, land values downtown are increasing as more people move in, and "a lot of these surface lots are in kind of a holding pattern as land prices go up and demand increases."
Part of the problem is that it is far cheaper to build parking on the ground.
A 2003 report by Transit for Livable Communities titled "The Myth of Free Parking" citing Minneapolis planners said one surface parking unit costs $3,000, an above-ground parking garage space costs $15,000 and an underground parking unit costs $27,000.
The study noted that free or abundant parking discourages people from carpooling and using public transit.
Today, the rate of commuting to work using public transit is 15 percent in Minneapolis, ahead of Portland, Atlanta and Los Angeles, but behind Seattle, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, according to a census survey.
What the city might do
The city wants more people using public transportation, however, and has high hopes for the area around the Metrodome/Downtown East light-rail station.
The city's master plan for Downtown East and the North Loop calls for a so-called "complete community" at the light-rail station, promoting the reduction of car dependency and restoring a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood of houses, offices, shops and parks.
The area around the station currently lacks major destinations other than the Metrodome, Elliott wrote in her proposal to the Met Council.
Even with the Mill District to the north and offices to the west, both "feel miles away due to the inhospitable uses a pedestrian is forced to walk past."
The grant will pay for the city to hire a consultant to examine alternate tax structures -- parking lots are currently taxed at a more favorable rate than built-up property -- and come up with a list of development strategies for a report due out in 2013. The consultant will also study how other cities around the country have addressed surface parking.
'Not a good place to walk'
Keimig, 28, a Maryland native, noticed the abundance of parking soon after moving to Minneapolis in 2009 to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota.
Downtown "is supposed to be the densest, most vibrant area of our city, and when you insert these large ... parking lots you diminish that vibrancy," Keimig said.
"A lot of people I know here come from outside the Twin Cities, and we've all sort of had this similar experience where we're traveling a certain distance, it's maybe far, but not too far, where we say, 'If we were in New York, we would walk this, or if we were in D.C., we would walk this,' but there's a very subtle thing from a planning perspective that sort of communicates to you that this is not a good place to walk," Keimig said.
As more high-end apartments spring up downtown, Keimig questions whether the city can meet its goal of doubling the area's population to 70,000 by 2025 without making better use of its parking lots.
"They're asking people to pay a premium for housing, much less housing that you can get not just in the suburbs, but in Uptown and Northeast right across the bridge, and you're not really providing a built environment," he said.
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210