The space race on University Avenue

  • Article by: CHRIS HAVENS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 24, 2008 - 9:41 PM

Business owners along the St. Paul street are already trying to figure out where customers will park when the new light-rail line -- and its pedestrian crossings -- eat up most of the area's street parking spaces.

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Long Her, at his New Fashion store on University Avenue, fears that he will lose business because of a lack of parking after the Central Corridor light-rail line is built. A pedestrian crossing planned right in front of his shop would eliminate several spaces.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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For 29 years, Dr. Zachary Kimble has been treating people's pain at his chiropractic office near the intersection of Lexington and University avenues.

In six years, he said, he's likely to be gone, and not because of retirement. Parking -- or the lack of it -- could be his downfall.

As planners press forward to design the proposed Central Corridor light-rail line, it has become clear that nearly 1,000 of University Avenue's 1,150 on-street parking spaces could disappear. Two sets of tracks, two lanes of traffic, left-hand turn lanes, traffic lights, stations and sidewalks take up room. In many areas, the combination of those things means parking has to go.

That has many small businesses along the avenue concerned about getting customers through their doors. Planners and project leaders acknowledge the potential for hardship and are working on ways to lessen the pain, but there won't be a perfect solution for everyone.

Kimble has about 13 spaces on his side of the street, but under proposed plans, all would go.

"People need to have good access to my business because of health problems," he said. Asking people to walk a half-block or farther isn't fair, he said.

At least 625 of the spaces need to be cut because of mandatory features, such as the double traffic lanes in each direction. Another 360 spots could be eliminated because of desired features, such as pedestrian crossing at areas without traffic signals, sought by residents and St. Paul.

There are plans for pedestrian crossing islands at nearly every block, and that's important for keeping the feel of the avenue, said City Council Member Russ Stark, who represents the Fourth Ward.

But pedestrian safety and convenience are butting -- quite literally -- into business operations. "Everyone across the board seems to recognize the problem," he said.

Solutions, he said, will come from a case-by-case study of business needs and looking for resources, such as improving existing surface parking lots so multiple businesses can share spaces.

But if the city wants businesses to share parking, the city needs to offer incentives, Stark said. He said he has been looking into funding options.

Met Council employees are already starting to visit business and property owners, and they plan to get to all 2,500 of them, said Laura Baenen, Central Corridor spokeswoman. The process should take about two months, she added.

Meanwhile, the city also is exploring ways to control parking on side streets, such as using meters or requiring permits.

There's no one-size-fits-all solution because the businesses have differing needs, said Allen Lovejoy, a transportation planner in the public works department.

"On some blocks parking is critical, on others not so much," he said. People might be willing to walk a block to get to a one-of-a-kind store, but not to get to a doctor's office.

"Can every parking problem be solved? No, clearly not," said Anne White, chairwoman of the District Councils Collaborative, a group of neighborhood associations and district planning councils helping to get people involved in the light-rail project. "That's unfortunate, but certainly everybody's goal is to make sure that as many businesses as possible can stay where they are, retaining the diversity that there is along the avenue and particularly local independent businesses."

Long Her has been in business on University for about 15 years, the last eight at his New Fashion location on the corner of Kent Street. An assortment of businesses also rent offices on the second floor of his building.

The Dale Street station will be close by, and a pedestrian crossing is penciled in right in front of his building, taking away several parking spaces. He'd rather see it moved to the eastern side of the intersection.

Her said he already rents some parking spots from a neighboring business but that there isn't any other convenient space to lease nearby. He's not sure how necessary it is to have crossings at nearly every block.

Most of his customers drive from outside the neighborhood. If the city were to offer some sort of monetary incentive, such as reducing property taxes, he said the loss of parking wouldn't sting as badly.

Adding to the frustration is the uncertainty of getting all the money needed for the $909 million project. Construction on the 11-mile line, from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, is scheduled to begin in 2010, with completion in 2014 if everything falls into place.

Businesses can't wait until 2010 to decide whether to stay or relocate, said Brian McMahon, executive director of University United, which represents businesses and neighbors along University. His group is trying to work on ways to get businesses to share parking.

"We have to show merchants that we care," he said.

Planners are still welcoming comments from businesses and residents, and it's likely things will change before the final designs are set.

Said Baenen: "We're not done."

Chris Havens • 651-298-1542

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  • More University Av. information

    Wednesday May 21, 2008

    Online: To see preliminary maps of University Avenue with light rail, go to www.metrocouncil.org/transportation/ccorridor/UnivAv.htm. Other Central Corridor information: www.centralcorridor.org.

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