Cracked asphalt, crummy wooden planks and concrete-filled metal poles showcasing an endless sea of vehicles.

It's the common theme of downtown surface parking lots, where function trumps form block after block.

That might be about to change.

New Council Member Jacob Frey, who represents part of downtown, wants to beautify the more than 70 pay lots downtown by more forcefully enforcing the city's existing landscaping requirements. "This is something that's already on the books. We're just enforcing it," he said.

The lots are so unpopular that new ones are actually already banned. The acres of asphalt are generally frowned upon by City Hall because of their blighting effect on the streetscape, inability to absorb rainwater and inefficient use of valuable land in a city striving to grow its population.

The initiative could eventually force the lots to install 7- or 9-foot strips of land separating parked cars from the sidewalk — most now have nothing. Other existing city rules that would likely be enforced require lots to have a 3-foot-high fence or hedge to screen views and to have a certain number of trees. Compliance now is spotty.

Many lots are already being developed, but at least one lot manager says he's worried the beautification efforts will cut into the number of spots he can sell.

"How do we address the fact that we're going to be losing a good chunk of stalls in order to meet this ordinance?" asked Jon Fletcher, the general manager of Minneapolis Parking, a subsidiary of Alatus LLC.

Frey envisions two likely results. "Either one: There's beautification of presently ugly surface parking lots, which is a favorable result," he said. "Or two, if those surface lots are sold off and we create green space or density, that's also a favorable result."

Keeping people downtown

Downtown leaders are aiming to make the city's core a more vibrant, walkable place both for visitors and the growing number of people choosing to live there.

But a stroll downtown these days is still likely to feature entire blocks of asphalt and parked cars, which do little to entice pedestrians. Many sit largely empty on weekday nights, bedecked with crumbling wooden fences or bright poles.

Tom Hoch, president of the Hennepin Theatre Trust, said people say it contributes to an "uneven experience" of downtown in surveys they have conducted.

"If we had an environment that felt more walkable and was more engaging, we'd have people who are ultimately doing three or four or five things when they come downtown. Not just one or two," said Hoch, whose organization has plans to beautify a non-pay lot next to the Orpheum Theatre.

The city's zoning code already discourages downtown surface parking lots, due largely to efforts spearheaded by the area's other council member, Lisa Goodman. City ordinances prohibit creating new downtown surface parking lots, which are defined as being able to charge customers by period of time or for a special event. They are distinct from multistory ramps.

Many of the current lots are out of compliance with landscaping ordinances either because they were built before the rules were instituted or the city never forced them to meet those specifications in the first place, said Steve Poor, the city's zoning manager.

That would change under the current proposal, still in its earliest phases, which would tie improvements to license renewals. There are 125 lots with licenses to charge parking customers for a variety of time periods; the majority of them are downtown. The enforcement effort will focus on lots in the general downtown area.

Frey said notices will be mailed to the commercial parking lot license holders on May 1, saying they have about a year to develop a plan to come into compliance.

After reviewing the plan, the city would then give them an additional year to make the changes. "Accessory" lots used by businesses for free customer parking would not be affected.

Minneapolis is not the only city with landscaping requirements for surface parking. Chicago, for example, also requires parking lots to have ornamental fencing, trees and hedges planted within a landscaped yard. Owners balked in 2010 when they began receiving noncompliance letters.

Poor said the challenge will be finding ways to get closer compliance without reducing the overall number of stalls. "We're not here to diminish the number of stalls," he said. "That's not our intention."

There is no buffer at one of Fletcher's lot on the northwest corner of 10th Street and Hennepin Avenue, for example. He estimated that a 9-foot strip would eliminate about 20 of the 275 stalls.

"That's probably one of the main issues that might come up" for lot owners, he said of Frey's efforts.

Handling runoff

Poor also noted that the surface parking lot issue has taken on more urgency because of the distribution of rainwater. As the city has seen major rain storms in recent years, surface lots with no landscaping send more water into the streets, flooding storm sewers.

"The storm sewers are having trouble handling the capacity of runoff water as it is," he said.

Eliminating surface lots also does not necessarily mean less parking downtown. The spaces can be incorporated into a new building, should a developer choose to build there. "The city as a whole does have the goal of moving away from sort of the automobile-centric mentality," Frey said. "But just because there's not a surface lot doesn't mean that you don't have parking available."

Some lots are already being developed. Ryan Companies purchased several lots owned by the Star Tribune with intent to build a massive office, residential and park space on the eastern quadrant of downtown. Several lots around the César Pelli-designed Minneapolis Central Library, one of downtown's most significant pieces of modern architecture, are also being marketed for development.

"In general, most lot owners are looking for redevelopment opportunities to get the highest and best use out of it," Fletcher said.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732

Twitter: @StribRoper