Some car-centric suburbs are saying so long to sprawling surface parking lots.

Faced with soaring land costs and desiring to boost walkability and density, places from Edina to Excelsior are looking at revitalizing their acres of vast parking lots, a trend more often seen in cities like Minneapolis. Suburban developers are transforming parking lots into apartments, restaurants, retail space and offices.

But it’s not always an easy sell for suburbs that continue to see a growing demand for parking, along with residents’ opposition to taller buildings.

“Development is great, but the parking ... is even more valuable,” Excelsior City Manager Kristi Luger said. “It’s hard to weigh ... what has the greatest value.”

On Tuesday, Excelsior city leaders will ponder what to do about future redevelopment in their quaint downtown, following a proposal to turn a parking lot there into a two-story building. The Lake Minnetonka community, only one-square-mile wide, has struggled with a parking crunch in recent years owing to its popular restaurants and events.

In Minnetonka, Ridgedale Center has submitted a proposal to turn some of the mall’s parking lots outside Macy’s into restaurants. It’s similar to what Southdale Center did in Edina, where a luxury apartment building was built on the edge of the mall’s parking lots with the aim of drawing residents who want to be able to walk to shopping.

And in Plymouth, vacant parking lots that surround the abandoned Four Seasons Mall will be converted this year into a dense “urban-type village” called Agora. Two upscale hotels, offices, retail, restaurants, a bank, senior housing, a mini plaza and 339-space ramp will replace the lots and the 1970s-era mall.

“I’ve seen it all over the Twin Cities,” Plymouth City Manager Dave Callister said of the trend. “That’s what people are used to with wide open spaces and parking. ... [but] we don’t want to see parking lots sit empty.”

Balancing parking needs

The trend isn’t just driven by developers looking for convenient and affordable land. It’s a change in the amount of parking that suburbs are deeming acceptable, said Sean Hayford Oleary, a Richfield Planning Commission member.

“The philosophy is changing at the city level; cities are getting more tolerant of allowing less parking,” he said. Parking lots, he added, “tend to be way over-supplied ... it makes sense to fit it right.”

Surface lots generally are seen as an eyesore, so redevelopment boosts not just the tax base but the look of the community. Losing valuable parking, though, can be a trickier balance for a suburb, with its car culture, than a city.

Plymouth has relaxed some parking rules for certain developments, requiring fewer spaces for cars. But some residents near the Agora development are more concerned about the size of the four-story hotels planned near their neighborhoods. Lowell Lankford, developer of the Agora project, said Plymouth will still have plenty of examples of expansive surface lots.

On Lake Minnetonka, Wayzata is turning a surface lot into a ramp that will more than double the number of parking spots, while also planning to convert another lot into a pop-up park to host events. City Manager Jeff Dahl said it’s unclear how much of it could be converted into green space.

“It’s heavily utilized now so there’s some concern about losing it,” he said.

Maximizing land

Wayzata’s old Bay Center Mall, a 1960s-vintage shopping center on swampland near the lake, began to have its vast parking lots converted in 2013 into the suburb’s largest redevelopment project ever. Developers, striving for a project to promote walkability, built a hotel, retail, offices, senior housing and condos.

“The land is more valuable ... so it’s a better way to maximize the land, which equates to a more vibrant downtown,” Dahl said.

Back in Excelsior, the Bayview Event Center is up for sale, with potential buyers interested in renovating the restaurant and event center and redeveloping its parking lots into residential housing next to Lake Minnetonka.

And a developer wants to convert a 10-space parking lot off the city’s main drag, Water Street, into a mixed-use development of offices, apartments and retail. It would replace the lost parking with four new parking spots underground.

“It needs to be developed,” Mayor Mark Gaylord said of the parking lot. “It’s going to be good for the city.”


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