At 50th and France in Edina, shopping trips sometimes end before they begin.
Drivers line up to enter a parking ramp, only to find the garage full. It can take 20 minutes to get out, and some drivers leave in frustration.
That's a nightmare for businesses. More than a year after the city of Edina dropped a $12 million proposal to expand parking because businesses said they couldn't afford the improvements or the disruptions, the city is considering a less-extreme plan to improve parking.
Three city-owned ramps at 50th and France would be repaired, cleaned and painted, some with new elevators and stairways. For the first time, electronic signs would tell drivers when ramps are full and direct them to other ramps.
While the south ramp near Lunds is always busy, some patrons may not know there are two ramps nearby on a side street, said Rachel Thelemann, executive director of the 50th & France Business Association.
"We are thrilled with this plan, and the cost is a lot more palatable than [$12] million," she said. "We think a wayfinding system will help a lot."
The plan, which will have a public hearing on Feb. 18, would be paid for with $3.3 million in assessments to Edina businesses at 50th and France and $2.4 million from the city's Housing and Redevelopment Authority.
Bill Neuendorf, Edina's economic development manager, said the city wants to make the basic improvements first, seeing if new signs help before taking the very expensive option of adding parking. Business owners would be expected to help bear the cost of a new ramp.
"We heard very loudly from businesses that their tax assessments have gone up, that landlords don't want to raise prices and lose tenants, and tenants don't want higher rent," Neuendorf said.
A tale that spans two cities
At 50th and France, Edina's policy has been for the city to pay for capital improvements to the ramps and have property owners pay for maintenance, repairs and operational improvements. But the shopping area spans the Edina and Minneapolis sides of France Avenue, and Minneapolis businesses have not paid to support parking ramps that some of their customers use.
That's been a sore point in the area, and Edina City Manager Scott Neal picked the scab last week in a blog post on the city website called "No Fair."
Neal wrote that it would be nice if Minneapolis worked with Edina to create a special services district to spread the cost of building and maintaining the ramps to all businesses that benefit. Because the district would involve two cities, it would require a change in state law.
"We don't want to cause a family feud," Neal said in an interview. "We are planning to politely ask that the city give it some consideration. … We can't coerce the city of Minneapolis into this arrangement. They have to agree to do it in a sense of fairness and honor."
Minneapolis City Council Member Linea Palmisano, who represents the area, said it is up to the Minneapolis businesses to decide what to do. She said businesses on the Minneapolis side of France already are working to set up their own special services district.
Her own view, Palmisano said, is that free parking is the wrong way to go.
"It begs the question of what kind of community we want," she said. "We don't solve transit issues with more free parking."
Kim Foote of Robert Foote Jeweler, one of the businesses on the Minneapolis side, is a board member of the 50th & France Business Association. Parking, she said, is a divisive issue. "We really are one nice shopping area, but I've been told … that even 40 years ago, the number one issue was parking," she said.
Foote said she was told that as a Minneapolis business, she can't use the employee permit parking privileges in the ramps.
"I've been parking on the street for many years and … I have never sent a customer to that ramp," she said. "I wish there was something over here on our side. … We just concentrate on our small store and try not to get into that political battle."
Improvements 'not sexy'
The three Edina ramps are 15 to 45 years old and have 951 parking spaces, 420 of them for businesses employees. Under the ramp improvement plan, employee permits for parking would increase from $60 a year to at least $120 a year.
Neuendorf said the city also wants to add bike parking and is working with Metro Transit to improve bus stops with more seating and signage.
"If we can get even 1 percent of employees to ride the bus to work, that's a whole lot of money we don't have to spend on parking ramps," he said.
Ramp improvements include fixing broken pipes, painting, replacing lighting and improving maintenance and cleaning. A new elevator and stairs would be added to the South Ramp.
"These are not sexy or glamorous; they're what customers expect and demand in a highly competitive market," Neuendorf said. "We don't want to turn away people even before they get there."
About half a million dollars would go for sidewalk improvements, including replacing decaying pavers and dying trees and putting irrigation systems in garden beds.
The issue over paying for ramp improvements would be less heated if the ramps had paid parking. Neuendorf said it is very clear that business owners oppose that.
"They were fiercely united that parking must be free," he said.
Thelemann, of the 50th & France Business Association, agrees.
"All of our competitors have free parking — the West End, North Loop, Southdale, Galleria," she said.
Neuendorf said that if the plan is approved by the City Council, the ramps would be fixed up, signs added and the effect on parking gauged.
If the situation doesn't improve, he expects the city to eventually build a new ramp.
A 2011 consultant's report suggested adding 140 to 220 parking stalls in the area. While the city recently gave up its attempt to condemn a dry cleaning business to expand parking, it bought the now-vacant Edina Realty Building at 3939 49½ St. with the intention of adding a parking ramp if needed.
"There is a cost to do that, and it can be extremely high," Neuendorf said. "Let's finish these basic improvements this year and come back to expansion later."