Suburbs, known for sprawling surface lots, are usually the last place drivers expect to fight to find parking.
But on the opposite ends of Lake Minnetonka, the small suburbs of Wayzata and Excelsior are facing the same parking crunch from the droves of lake tourists and diners converging there, especially now as the weather warms up.
In Wayzata, the buzz of new restaurants on the lake is spurring the city to explore building its first public parking ramp and look for new ways to get people around such as on a trolley or by boat, adding more city docks this summer.
Across the lake in Excelsior, a spree of new restaurants and a brewery are attracting a growing crowd of visitors. But the city has limited parking space in its less than one-square-mile town, so it’s looking for new options like sharing school and church parking lots.
“It’s a hopping place; it’s been busier than ever with the new restaurants that have opened up,” said Laura Hotvet, who runs the local Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a wonderful, exciting problem to have. It means things are happening.”
The problem is somewhat self-inflicted, too, as the two Lake Minnetonka towns seek to cash in on their proximity to the Twin Cities’ busiest lake by driving up the number of visitors year-round with new lakeside amenities like park facilities or a pier. But to accommodate those crowds, the small cities aren’t like other suburbs with a sea of surface lots or urban areas with ample revenue to build ramps.
“It’s the price of success,” Wayzata City Manager Heidi Nelson said of the need for parking. “I think Wayzata and Excelsior are more like urban downtowns in the midst of the suburbs and that’s what makes it attractive.”
Off Lake Street, yards from the lake, Terri Huml’s restaurant, Gianni’s Steakhouse, is sandwiched on a street that has two new restaurants, part of nearly 800 new restaurant seats added in Wayzata in less than a year, she said. Yet no new parking has been added in the restaurant boom in the city, dubbed the “Land of New Restaurants”.
“It’s a hot-button topic right now,” she said. “Parking is a real issue.”
One privately owned ramp near her restaurant can fill up during peak hours, she said, with people vying for spots along Lake Street. That’s in part why the city is considering this summer whether to build its first publicly owned ramp near Broadway Avenue South and Mill Street. The 450-stall parking ramp would replace a surface lot and cost the city an estimated $9.6 million, paid for by city funds and bonds. If approved by the city, construction could start as soon as this winter, opening by next spring.
In the meantime, the city is looking at a three-month pilot project that could start in May, encouraging business’ employees to park further away to free up space in high-demand areas like what Edina does with employee permits. Wayzata is also exploring ramping up enforcement of parking time limits and starting a public valet parking system that people could use no matter what business they’re visiting; the city has up to $30,000 for the pilot project.
The city is also looking for ways to encourage people not to drive, adding a bike lane to a popular street, installing 33 more slips at its docks and a motorized trolley goes to 16 places during limited hours.
‘Talk of the town’
Across the lake in Excelsior, the town of 2,100 residents can’t afford to build a ramp, Mayor Mark Gaylord said, and doesn’t have room for more parking in its city, roughly the size of the State Fair grounds.
“Parking isn’t free — somebody has to pay for it,” he said. “[And] we’re constrained by space. We can’t make a parking skyscraper.”
A 100-space, two-story ramp would cost an estimated $2.5 million to build, or $25,000 per stall. The only way the city is getting a parking ramp, Gaylord said, is if they follow Edina’s lead with getting businesses to help out; a parking ramp at 50th and France in Edina was built by the city but businesses agreed to pay for annual maintenance costs.
On Excelsior’s quaint main drag, Water Street, lined with boutiques and restaurants, parking is free — for visitors. So the city has passed on some costs to businesses, charging “parking impact fees” when the business’ capacity exceeds the spots it’s allotted, assessing $1,200 a year for each spot. That’s helped the city drum up $30,000 but it’s spurred some complaints from local owners.
“It’s the talk of the town,” said Eli Wollenzien, who owns the restaurant, Coalition.
But as an Uptown resident in Minneapolis, he said the fee is reasonable and visitors need to adjust expectations that they may not be able to park quickly or conveniently.
“This town gets crazy in the summer, but a majority of the time, you can get a parking spot,” he said. “It’s part of a going to a good restaurant in a great city.”
Swapping out coin meters
Gaylord doesn’t expect parking fees to go away, but the city is exploring other options, such as partnering with churches or businesses that are closed during peak restaurant hours. (Excelsior Elementary School is already one option for visitors during nonschool hours.)
The city is also pushing for a bike share program. And this summer, Gaylord said the City Council plans to look at costs of swapping aging coin meters along the city’s 13-acre park, the Commons, into electronic ones, which could double the current $50,000 the city makes in parking fees each year.
It’s a popular move for cities to make street parking easier for drivers and boost revenue by adjusting fees based off events. For example, in Minneapolis, all parking meters were converted from coin to electronic by 2012, bringing in $11.5 million in 2014. That’s up from $7 million from 2008, according to city data, but the city’s expenses also more than tripled largely due to credit card fees; revenue from parking tickets also went down.
In Excelsior, Gaylord said the city could also add electronic meters to the city’s two public parking lots, which are now free. All the extra money would help the city re-stripe its lots to squeeze out 35 more spots and add green space, at the estimated cost of $750,000.
That would help put more of the cost on visitors; the city often cites that some 15,000 people visit the town for its July 4th events — all for free.
“The residents don’t have a parking problem; businesses and their patrons may have a parking problem,” Gaylord said. “There is really not an easy solution.”