Minneapolis leaders want to attract more than 100,000 new residents to the city without adding more cars to the street, further amplifying one of the toughest challenges for planners at City Hall: parking.

The debate is playing out in places such as Uptown and Dinkytown, where development is booming and neighbors say on-street parking is becoming scarce. A dust-up over parking near a popular restaurant recently spurred a lawsuit in southwest Minneapolis. Striking a balance between too much and too little parking is a growing quandary, particularly as more residents bike, walk and take transit while also holding onto their cars.

"The first reaction of most neighborhoods would be that there's not enough parking," said Ted Tucker, president of the city planning commission. "But the trouble with that is, of course, the city may devote too many resources to parking automobiles and not enough to making life pleasant for pedestrians and bicyclists."

Parking-free residential developments have popped up in other cities, but several Minneapolis developers said prospective tenants, nervous investors and neighborhood groups still demand ample parking in new buildings.

"We would build ourselves out of business if we did not provide parking," said Brent Rogers with Greco Development, which is behind several properties in the walkable Uptown area.

Current rules outside downtown require at least one stall per residential unit, with leeway allowed if there is bike parking and transit proximity. But new City Council zoning and planning chairwoman Lisa Bender supports loosening that in transit-heavy areas, opening the door to fewer parking spaces in some buildings.

But, she added, "Our transit system [and] our biking and walking system still need improvement. It's still relatively difficult to live in our region without a car."

Businesses and neighbors near the University of Minnesota, where parking requirements are more stringent, are meeting this month to discuss if too much residential parking is required there.

Stefanie Balsis, Minnesota marketing manager for developer Village Green, said she thinks that a project with the right location and target demographic could survive without parking downtown, where there are no parking minimums. At Village Green's skyway-connected, light-rail-adjacent Soo Line apartments, about 70 percent of residents keep cars at leased spaces in a ramp nearby. Residents of expensive units in particular want parking, she said.

"I'm just a big believer that if you build it, they will come," she said. "Or if you don't build it, they will realize they don't need it. … If you keep providing them parking, the city will never evolve into kind of what we want it to be."

Chicken and egg

Since the construction of highways and subsequent urban sprawl, cars have remained a staple in U.S. cities. Census data provided by the Metropolitan Council show that the number of carless households in the city decreased slightly from 2000 to 2010, to about 18.5 percent. However, transit, biking and walking trips by Minneapolis residents grew from 25.1 percent of all trips in 2000 to about 31.3 percent in 2010.

Car-sharing services have also expanded dramatically in the past year, including hundreds of Car2Go smart cars now on the streets.

Chris Barnes, a vice president of Dominium, said most people still view Minneapolis as "a car town." The developer is building a project in Uptown, next to the new Buzza Lofts, that will have one spot per unit. "It would be a different conversation if we had a trolley car stop at our front door that latched into the light rail and you could go … anywhere in the city in 20 minutes, 30 minutes," he said.

The city has recently adopted urban-oriented policies around commercial parking, reducing minimums for most businesses in 2009 and taking a hard line against surface lots in some areas.

Conflict is sometimes inevitable. After the busy Red Cow restaurant opened in southwest Minneapolis in early 2013 with 10 parking spots, neighbors succcessfuly sought permit-only parking nearby during certain hours. The owner sued the city, arguing the process was unfair, and a judge agreed last month to a temporarily halt of the permit parking.

In court filings, the city noted that non-permit parking is available merely a block away, along with hundreds of spaces in a public ramp just over two blocks away.

Accommodating business

Anticipating that the soon-to-open Green Line light rail will bring massive development, one community is planning ahead. Prospect Park, a southeast Minneapolis area peppered with surface parking lots, is coalescing around the idea of a shared commercial parking ramp so outside visitors to future businesses have a place to park.

"You really can't attract the development you're after — the grocery store, the shops — without a parking plan," said Dick Gilyard, president of Prospect Park 2020, an offshoot of the neighborhood group. "So in order to get desired development, instead of just haphazard development, parking is fundamental to that."

The idea would require upfront public or private investment, with the expectation that businesses would pay the facility off over time through rent.

Public parking is also an issue on Lake Street, where Lake Street Council executive director Joyce Wisdom said businesses are sometimes wary to occupy space if only on-street parking is available. And then there are quagmires such as the Lake Street-Minnehaha Avenue intersection, where massive surface parking lots restricted to Target and Rainbow customers don't benefit nearby restaurants.

"We think it's a good thing to relax the minimums," she said. "But we also want folks at [the city] to know that parking is a challenge."

The Whittier neighborhood took steps to limit the proliferation of surface parking lots, saying they are a blight to the streetscape and a poor use of land. But given that customers continue to drive, it supports more partnerships to help create shared commercial parking structures, which also takes pressure off on-street spots.

"The people who live in the neighborhood have to have the security of being able to park their cars someplace and not be pushed out by the visitors, an event or whatever," said Marian Biehn of the Whittier Alliance.

Still other solutions may be on the horizon. City parking officials are exploring the idea of using data from parking meters to help people find open spots in real-time, likely through smartphone apps.

And Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota's College of Design, has advocated building ramps that can be easily repurposed in case parking demand drops off — by avoiding sloped floors, for example.

"As the city becomes more dense, we have to realize that with it comes urban attitudes," said developer Don Gerberding, of Master Engineering. "And density is not a negative."

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732