St. Paul’s popular Grand Avenue seems peaceful enough these days, as hints of pumpkin spice stab the air and sweaters take the place of polo shirts in store windows.
But those storefronts also sport light green signs that read “No Meters on Grand Ave,” and you hear snippets at the bakery about “the broken process” at City Hall. Soon enough, it becomes clear that there’s dissension brewing beneath the placid surface of St. Paul’s premier shopping and restaurant district.
With the St. Paul City Council expected to vote this month on installing an estimated 525 metered spaces on Grand Avenue, merchants and residents are threatening to resist even if it means seeking an injunction to stop the city.
“We’re not going to stand for it,” said Jon Perrone, executive director of the Grand Avenue Business Association (GABA), which includes 165 member businesses.
“They’re saying they’re going to do it no matter what, and they don’t care what people think. … [but] all options are on the table for us.”
Those opposing the plan say the meters have less to do with freeing up parking on the busy street than with bolstering the city’s 2016 budget. And they’re outraged that city officials chose Grand for meters without consulting them, especially because Mayor Chris Coleman said the city would do just that in his August budget address.
The pitchforks came out last week, when nearly 200 people showed up at the Linwood Recreation Center to boo and hiss Public Works Director Kathy Lantry and mayoral policy director Nancy Homans as they explained the city’s parking meter plans.
“What do we have to do to get you to stop?” one man asked.
A recent trip down Grand found virtually all shop owners and customers echoing Perrone. They said parking meters would discourage shoppers from stopping and fill neighborhood streets with workers’ cars, and they criticized City Hall for failing to seek their input.
“The one thing rubbing us the wrong way is that the process here has been, at best, unethical,” said Jimmy Fritz, president of the family-owned Wedding Shoppe. “This isn’t about parking. If it was, there would be a better dialogue … I think this is more about revenue, and about getting things pushed through.”
Revenue certainly is a factor, Lantry said last week. But Grand Avenue is a healthy commercial district that could benefit from increased parking turnover, she said.
“There are valid concerns by businesses nervous about what this will do, and I understand that perspective,” Lantry said. “I just don’t know that the facts as they know them will be borne out in how that street is used.”
In August, Coleman directed that usage hours for downtown parking meters be extended for evenings and special events. He also proposed adding metered parking on a neighborhood commercial street, to be chosen from among a dozen areas with the help of district councils and business groups.
But city officials, sensing apprehension in the neighborhoods and pressed by the year-end budget deadline, quickly settled on Grand Avenue.
The Grand Avenue meters, planned between the Ayd Mill Road bridge and Dale Street, would be permanent and serve as a pilot program for other commercial areas outside downtown, Homans said.
The extended downtown and Grand Avenue meters would deliver $1.6 million in revenue next year, including about $400,000 from Grand Avenue alone after the meters are installed in May. Pay stations and signs on Grand will cost about $730,000.
Grand Avenue meters are expected to generate nearly $800,000 annually. That money would go to the city’s general fund rather than back to the street, contrary to the wishes of a 2006 city and community task force that decreed parking revenue “should be used on Grand Avenue and the adjoining neighborhood for operations, maintenance and capital improvements.”
That task force, the most recent of eight since the 1980s to examine parking on Grand, didn’t agree on any recommendations to improve parking.
Homans said meters not only would open up spaces for more customers, but they would enhance the area’s pedestrian character by encouraging more people to walk or bike.
Of a dozen business owners surveyed last week, only Dan Lallas of the Uptowner Cafe said he was on the fence.
“There’s an opportunity for problems to arise, because it will push cars into the neighborhoods,” he said. “But St. Paul is an expanding city. It’s getting bigger, population-wise. There’s a lot of things being built. … What I do know is, if you have a great service or a great product, people will go out of their way to find it.”
True, said Drs. Ann Brownlee and Heather Stadtherr, veterinarians and owners of the Grand Avenue Veterinary Center. But “people will think twice about stopping for small purchases,” Stadtherr said.
“And we’re really worried about our clients juggling cat carriers and dogs on leases, and having to stop to feed the meter,” Brownlee said.
A GABA petition to stop parking meters on Grand had collected nearly 2,200 signatures on Change.org as of late Saturday, with more names being added on clipboards in shops up and down the avenue.
“It’s a solution looking for a problem, and an ill-conceived, ill-executed process,” Perrone said.