Despite a recent setback, Minneapolis City Council Member Jacob Frey says he hasn't given up trying to beautify 70 unsightly surface parking lots downtown. Good for him. It's high time someone at City Hall tried to get defiant surface lot owners to comply with ordinances already on the books. Those ordinances generally require the kind of landscaping and upkeep now common in other cities but are, for some reason, too heavy a burden for local owners.
"There's no other single action we could take that would improve downtown more than to beautify or eliminate these surface lots," Frey said.
He's right about that. For competitive reasons, the city is in the midst of updating its downtown into a friendlier, more walkable environment for residential and business growth. To accomplish that, it must vastly improve what planners call "the consistency of the pedestrian experience."
To understand what that means, think of your last visit to an appealing city or town and how, block after block, you walked through attractive, interesting places. In none of those great cities did you encounter seas of surface parking lots, and surely not the shabby, weedy lots of Minneapolis with their crumbling pavement, broken fences, lack of landscaping and an attitude that seems to announce: "We don't care."
But what appears like a simple fix has, for the city, turned into an impossible task — at least so far. Frey's initiative required lot owners to submit plans for landscaping and other improvements by October. But owners, after ignoring the law for years, continued to balk. One filed an appeal with the city's zoning administrator and won. The result seems to have rendered meaningless the city's enforcement efforts.
Siding with the owners, the administrator ruled that state law protects parking lots from the more robust landscaping requirements passed in 1999 because those requirements would reduce the capacity of the lots and thus cause a potential loss of business. Lot owner Brian Short pointed out that his lots and most of the others in question date to at least the 1980s, when landscaping requirements were minimal at best. "You simply can't change the rules in the middle of the game," he told a Star Tribune reporter.
Actually, cities change the rules of the game all the time. They pass new taxes and fees. They change rules on dining, drinking, bar hours, traffic patterns, street repairs and hundreds of other things that affect businesses, directly and indirectly. Cities have to change rules because markets and preferences are constantly shifting.
What was acceptable urban policy in 1970 — demolishing historic buildings and promoting surface parking lots — is recognized as terrible urban policy today. What was acceptable environmentally in 1970 is today considered a violation of stormwater management principles that urge more planting and more permeable surfaces.
While meeting the 1999 standards on landscaping and upkeep would impose extra costs on lot owners, including the loss of some spaces, Minneapolis has, for decades, borne the cost of neglect, ugliness and lost potential. It's a cost that's harder to calculate but no less real.
Both sides are at fault. The city shouldn't have passed ordinances that it didn't intend to enforce or that it could not successfully defend. Lot owners should have maintained their property, at least to minimal standards. They have, after all, enjoyed a sweetheart deal for decades: low taxes, no maintenance costs to speak of, no apparent civic pride and no pressure from city officials who seemed happy to turn a blind eye.
Council Member Lisa Goodman struck a positive blow in 2009 when she placed a moratorium on new surface lots downtown. Now, Frey's efforts, despite his frustrations, should be applauded and encouraged.
The current downtown building boom helps a bit. Frey estimates that one-third of the 70 commercial lots and 70 accessory lots (parking for employees, for example) will be redeveloped — including aging lots previously owned by the Star Tribune — or are being considered for redevelopment at some point.
Even so, that leaves scores of ugly surface lots that the city, it seems, is stuck with for the foreseeable future.