That unexpected and expensive trek to the Minneapolis impound lot ranks among the most maddening experiences in a snowy city. Now city leaders want to make the visit more pleasant.

A City Council panel on Tuesday advanced a long-awaited plan to upgrade dismal waiting facilities at the impound lot, where owners retrieve more than 32,000 cars each year. The plan would spiff up the waiting area for motorists who crowd the site after street sweeping and snow emergency towing. It also reduces its overall footprint as a compromise with neighbors. The $7 million overhaul would get underway in 2017, if approved.

“While we are required to move cars for snowplowing and street sweeping, we’re not required to treat people poorly in the process,” said Council Member Lisa Goodman, who represents the area and called the improvements long overdue.

The small visitors’ lobby of the 1987 operations building pushed many waiting drivers out in the cold until late 2010, when the city installed special heated waiting trailers. There are also no permanent customer bathrooms — only port-a-potties. And the reward for the grim wait: a charge of at least $138 to retrieve the car.

“Some of the conditions that we have presently verge on inhumane,” said Council Member Kevin Reich, who chairs the city’s transportation committee. Many details of the plan, which still must win full City Council approval, have yet to be resolved — including whether to remodel the existing building or build a new one.

Advocates in the Bryn Mawr and Harrison neighborhoods have long pushed for the impound lot to be moved altogether, eyeing the site as a key development opportunity in what is called Bassett Creek Valley. It lies just north of a planned Van White station on the Southwest light rail line, and a 2006 plan for the area envisioned parkland and housing largely replacing the impound lot.

But the city concluded that relocating the lot was not feasible after searching for other sites. City officials have proposed instead shrinking the lot from 26.5 acres to 15.3 acres, opening up about 11 acres of land for other uses.

“We’re happy with that as a first step,” Bryn Mawr Neighborhood President Kevin Thompson said. “And we hope that as time goes by that technology changes will also mean that we won’t need to be towing and impounding large numbers of vehicles all the time.”

Pressures on the impound lot have fallen in recent years, which city staff attributed to better driver education and fewer police tows. The annual number of tows to the impound lot has fallen by about 25 percent since 2002.

The city’s director of traffic and parking services, Jon Wertjes, hopes the city can continue to reduce that number. That could be aided by technology, such as car- or smartphone-based GPS systems that alert drivers if they are improperly parked during restricted parking times.

“I see that coming sooner rather than later,” Wertjes said.

Council Member Cam Gordon expressed interest Tuesday in the idea of towing cars elsewhere in the neighborhood during snow emergencies, rather than bringing them to an impound lot. But Wertjes said later that it is not very feasible because some dense neighborhoods don’t have available parking space, and informing drivers about the precise location of their car poses logistical challenges.

The impound lot is located just outside downtown, wedged between a school bus garage and a massive public works site. The area grew more connected with the rest of the city in 2013 with the completion of the Van White Memorial Bridge extending from north Minneapolis toward Dunwoody College of Technology, which also required shrinking the impound lot.

The Southwest light rail, if it is constructed, would stop beneath the new bridge. “Everybody I think believes that with the light rail stop at Van White that this area should become much more attractive for development,” Thompson said.

Just southwest of the impound lot, Ryan Companies secured exclusive development rights to construct an office-housing project on city-owned land beside the proposed station. But those expire at the end of 2015. Ryan Vice President of Development Tony Barranco said Tuesday they have explored possibilities for the site, but building now would mean completing a project long before the Southwest’s delayed opening date of at least 2020.

“Most of those [office] users would like to open once the infrastructure is in place and operating,” Barranco said. “So I think we just have struggled to find traction with the tenants that we’ve pitched.”


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