For weeks, the green “No Meters” signs posted on Grand Avenue storefronts told St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and other city officials how most business owners and neighbors view a plan to install parking meters along one of the Twin Cities’ best known shopping avenues.
On Monday night, a raucous crowd of several hundred people took the opportunity to tell him in person.
It wasn’t pretty.
“What we need is honest politicians,” Mike Schumann, owner of Traditions on Grand, a home furnishings store, said to loud cheers from the crowd. “This is not about parking, this is about raising revenue.”
Coleman repeatedly attempted to defend the plan despite often being shouted down during a community meeting at William Mitchell College of Law. Coleman heard firsthand what many have been saying since a controversial plan to install 525 parking meters on Grand was first revealed: They don’t like it.
Neighbor after neighbor rose to complain, with many booing or shouting over the handful of people who spoke in favor of the plan.
Some expressed worries that residents will be forced to park farther away from their homes. Others were concerned that the feeling of neighborhood will be lost if Grand is geared more toward out-of-town patrons coming to visit the avenue’s restaurants and shops.
“This isn’t Michigan Avenue,” said Kate Hebel, who lives nearby. “This is my neighborhood.” She said that her everyday shopping stops would become more difficult with metered parking.
While city officials have said the meters will collect an estimated $800,000 annually in new parking revenue — money that will go into the city’s general fund — businesses and neighbors have rallied against it, saying it would discourage shoppers and push more cars into surrounding residential areas.
“No one has been willing to advance a specific way to deal with parking on Grand Avenue,” Coleman said, arguing that parking meters have been seen as a way around the country to solve parking problems.
“I know that all of you, particularly those who live in Crocus Hill, are concerned about property taxes,” he went on, adding that the idea behind parking meters is to come up with revenue that does not put all the burden on property taxes.
The Grand Avenue plan would serve as a pilot program for potentially adding meters elsewhere in St. Paul. The city already has increased hours and raised parking rates at meters around Xcel Energy Center and CHS Field in Lowertown.
Parking on Grand has always been free. As Grand Avenue’s popularity has grown, some say it has become more and more difficult for customers to find a nearby parking spot, despite signs imposing two-hour limits in many spots. One of the few moments when Coleman got applause was when he said he planned to talk to the police chief about enforcing the letter of the law about parking on Grand.
For 30 years, the city has looked for better ways to turn over street parking and improve traffic flow in the area. The issue is so contentious that the last such study, about 10 years ago, failed to make any recommendations.
A petition by the Grand Avenue Business Association to stop the plan in its tracks had collected nearly 3,000 signatures on the website Change.org as of Monday afternoon.
Toward the end of the meeting, a young man loudly challenged Coleman. “What do we need to do to get you to take this out of your budget? Or is this a done deal?”
Then, and afterward in the quiet of a room away from the dispersing crowd, Coleman said he would not have hosted the meeting if the plan “was a done deal.” He said he intends to take what he has heard into the budget process over the next several months. Whether that would be enough to shelve the parking meter plan, he would not say.
One thing Coleman said he knows: “The problem will not go away.”