It turns out that sprucing up downtown Minneapolis’ surface parking lots is not as easy as it looks.

Hoping to draw eyes away from seas of parked cars and crumbling asphalt, city officials told the owners of surface parking lot last summer that they must meet strict beautification requirements in the city’s code. Those rules say the lots should be lined with a 7- or 9-foot grassy buffer along the sidewalk, a 3-foot-high fence or hedge, and trees every 25 feet.

The initiative reflects the city’s broader attempt to convert or better camouflage surface parking lots — distinct from multi-story ramps — as downtown rebounds and sidewalks fill with residents of new apartment buildings. The city has even banned new surface lots downtown.

But the plan hit a legal snag after an owner successfully challenged the city’s authority to enforce the 1999 requirements on his older lots. Brian Short’s successful appeal last month now threatens to unravel the enforcement effort, since many lot owners could make a similar argument.

For now, some lot owners are waiting to see what the city will do next; staffers say they will revisit the effort in the spring. “I’m not giving up hope,” said Council Member Jacob Frey, who pushed for the enforcement earlier this year.

But lot owners likely will be particularly resistant to requirements that might require a reduction in total spaces, said TransPark Inc. owner Steve Meyer. Many lots have little or no landscaping between cars and the sidewalk, so installing the buffers would eat into their pavement space — and profits.

“I think they [the city] understand that,” Meyer said. “So I think they’re looking for some middle ground where they achieve some improvement to the exteriors of parking lots that don’t necessarily require a large loss of parking stalls.”

The city sent letters in July giving owners of about 161 surface lots until Oct. 15 to submit plans for how they would get them up to code. Most responded to the city’s letter, but only 10 submitted site plans.

It remains to be seen whether other owners will follow Short’s lead, claiming that their lots have been around long enough to ignore the newer rules. “Our short-term plan is to see what position the city takes in the spring,” Meyer said.

If owners do challenge the enforcement, the city could choose to get more aggressive enforcing the older, more relaxed landscaping rules. Those allowed owners to choose between a 5-foot grassy buffer or a 2.5-foot screen with either sidewalk trees or corner landscaping; most went for the latter options. Some lots now have broken fencing or they had paved over their corner landscaping long ago.

“The No. 1 thing is we want to have these lots looking better than they look right now,” said city planner Joe Giant, who has been leading the effort at City Hall. Staff members also have said that the landscaping is needed to capture rainwater that otherwise floods storm sewers.

Minneapolis is not alone in having landscaping requirements. In addition to larger cities like Chicago, St. Paul requires a 4-foot grassy buffer, a 3-foot-high screen and one tree for every five parking spaces.

Short’s family has owned several lots surrounding the Ameriprise Financial building on 9th and 10th Streets for decades. They are lined with knee-high brown wooden fences that sometimes lean into the sidewalk and do little to hide vehicles from passersby — the intent of the newer screening rules.

He notes that the city was supportive when his family tore down several smaller buildings to create the lots.

“We cleared it in the early ’80s and devoted it to what was then an accepted and welcomed use … to provide parking for all the development that was going on around it,” said Short, CEO of Leamington Co., in an interview this fall. “And, hopefully, to hold it for when development occurs.”

The new requirements would require a 25 to 30 percent reduction in stalls for a business that makes enough profit to pay property taxes, he said.

“It either would have significantly driven up the price of the service you provide or made it uneconomic to do it,” Short said. “You simply can’t change the rules in the middle of the game. And apparently, the city has acquiesced in that view of things.”

Short believes the city is also under the false impression that making surface parking lots difficult to own will spur development on them.

“It doesn’t work that way,” said Short, noting that no one has pitched “the next IDS Center” on his properties. “We would much rather have a 50-story office building on any one of our parking lots than to have surface parking there.”

Frey said it sounds like Short is “asking for a date with a developer. And I hope someone asks him out.”

 

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