Monday, June 29, 2015

New Parking Rules not Ready for North Minneapolis Implementation

Stock photo of a parking lot across the street from my home.
 
At a recent Penn Avenue Community Works meeting, I was asked how I felt about the removal of some parking spots along the corridor.  My swift response was, "North Minneapolis is too addicted to its parking spots and on principle I support any action that reduces parking in this part of the city."  (After that, I did dial it back a bit and got into an actual conversation about the issue.)

So with that as my starting point, I heard some rumblings over the past few weeks about a change in zoning that would eliminate certain parking requirements.  My knee-jerk reaction was the same.  If it gets rid of parking over here, so much the better.  And maybe it could help attract a developer to the fallow land currently owned by the Minneapolis Public Schools just off of Broadway.

But then I read a quote from Council President Barb Johnson, who said that she'd be shocked "if there are fifteen people in north Minneapolis who know about this."  That piqued my curiosity and I decided to bring that number up to sixteen.  I didn't just read a newspaper article on it though.  I read the staff report, the public comments, reviewed the maps and watched the Zoning and Planning Committee meeting.  After immersing myself in the topic, I am not sure I support the ordinance at all and I fully support President Johnson's proposed amendment to exempt north Minneapolis from the change.

Here's why...

...First, a word about equity.

Here we have a citywide change that could have profound effects on the northside, and in multiple communities of color.  There was one public meeting held on May 21st at the Mill City Museum. Now, what can you tell me about parking near the Mill City Museum?  That's right, it ain't free.  So if you were to set up a meeting about changes to parking requirements, and you chose a location entirely devoid of free parking options, how many poor people who use a car as their primary mode of transportation would you expect to show up?  Better yet, the city can produce the sign-in sheet from the event and we can contact attendees to see if anyone fits that description.

Were neighborhood organizations in places like north Minneapolis given proper notice?  Was any meaningful outreach done through media operated and used by communities of color?  What kind of outreach was done in the African American, Hmong, Latino, Native, and other immigrant communities?  Frankly, it's time that the city take this equity thing seriously.  If sweeping, citywide proposals like this haven't seen the light of day in communities like mine, then they aren't ready to be adopted.  End of story.  And don't even start with how doing that is harder, more expensive, or longer.  The long-term costs of getting it wrong and inadvertently contributing to systemic racism are far greater, and it's high time the city realize this.

In the body of every city staff report like this one, city staffers have to cite whether the proposed amendment complies with, among other things, the Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan.  There ought to be a similar requirement for the same level of detail in regards to engaging our citizens, especially those whose voices are routinely overlooked.

The last thing I'll say on this topic for now:  The public comments included in the staff report were overwhelmingly supportive.  Forty-five in favor, six against, and one that I discounted.

(This one was a satirical piece written by a group that mocks its opponents.  I discounted it not because of its satire or mocking tone, but because it was signed by a coalition that identified itself only by an abbreviation and no author or list of signatories was provided.  Therefore the piece cannot be attributed to any one person or any group of people separate from those who already had their voice heard.)

Out of the forty-five in favor, thirty-two were a form letter copied and pasted.  At least twenty-five of those form letters were from south and southwest Minneapolis, and most of those were from richer and whiter neighborhoods.  The staff report comes with a handy map showing what areas would potentially be impacted--the change, after all, applies only to areas zoned for three or more units and within close proximity to transit.  If you took this same map and overlaid it with dots for the location of each commenter, you'll begin to see that many of those commenting do not live in impacted areas.  Their opinion does deserve to be heard, but again, if the proposal hasn't been vetted by people who will feel its impact firsthand then on principle it's not ready for approval.

Equity and outreach aside, let's get into the meat and potatoes of what's being proposed.  For any structure or project zoned R3 and above--that's a triplex or higher--AND within 350 feet of certain kinds of transit amenities, parking requirements would be completely eliminated.  Before we go any farther, let's be clear:  Although the change is citywide (minus the University of Minnesota areas, which have their own parking issues) it does not apply to single-family homes or duplexes, nor does it apply to multi-family housing far from high-frequency transit.  However, proponents make it clear that their end goal is to include every single parcel in the city in this change.

Even though, for now, the proportion of land affected is relatively low, it would mischaracterize the change to say it applies to "very little" or "almost none" of north Minneapolis as its supporters claim.  The ordinance would apply to residential zoning of three or more units and housing on parcels that allow for certain kinds of commercial use, provided they are within a certain distance of high-frequency transit.  Well when you look at what land in north Minneapolis is zoned in a way that would be affected by the change, and when you add the next layer of where there is currently enough vacant land to create multifamily housing, you will see a very different picture.

This change impacts a negligble amount of the  total geographic area of north Minneapolis, but it affects almost all of our most viable development opportunities in the near future.  The potential impact here is HUGE.

And let's talk about those high-frequency bus routes.  As a sole factor in contributing to the ordinance, that metric doesn't do north Minneapolis justice.  The question that should come up for anyone who has used public transit on the northside is, "Where do those buses GO?"  We are a food desert.  We currently have one large grocery store (and more than a few unheralded ethnic grocers, it should be said).  It's rather easy to live in this community, be only a mile from the Cub Foods, and need to take two buses to get there.  Scratch that.  It isn't easy, and as a result we have a disproportionate number of northsiders who use taxi services for such basics.

Don't even get me started on how isolated we are from other parts of the city by our bus routes.  The dearth of direct routes from north to other destination points could be a series of blog posts in and of itself.

North Minneapolis doesn't have the same bike amenities as the rest of the city.  We are not a dense, walkable community (yet) that allows residents to meet daily needs on foot, bike, or transit.  Until those inequities are addressed, the wholesale removal of parking requirements does a disservice to those who would live in such housing.

If this passes, what does north Minneapolis get in return?  More green space for parks and community gardens as part of new development projects?  Rooftop patios?  Balconies?  Bicycle storage requirements in lieu of parking stalls?  No, no, no, and no.  At the neighborhood level, we often have to push developers for some of these basic amenities.  We are not always successful.  Giving this carrot, with no proverbial stick to offset its impact, could encourage developers in a race to the bottom.

In spite of all these reasons, I remain supportive of the goal to reduce dependency on automobiles and to create communities that function well while minimizing the need for parking.  That's why I favor Council President Johnson's idea of an amendment exempting north Minneapolis from the new rules, but that amendment alone is insufficient.  If I could wave a magic wand here, I would set benchmarks for walkability and equity around transit and other amenities for north Minneapolis.  When we hit those goals, then we can justifiably say that the northside is ready to relax such rules.

At this time, there has not been sufficient community input and the real-world impact of the proposal doesn't provide a net benefit to the northside.  The ordinance needs to be put on hold or exempt north Minneapolis until those bars are met.

12 comments:

  1. "The public comments included in the staff report were overwhelmingly supportive. Forty-five in favor, six against, and one that I discounted."

    My letter was not included in the staff report and I believe others were left out as well.

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  2. "North Minneapolis doesn't have the same bike amenities as the rest of the city. We are not a dense, walkable community (yet) that allows residents to meet daily needs on foot, bike, or transit. Until those inequities are addressed, the wholesale removal of parking requirements does a disservice to those who would live in such housing."

    You're right, of course. North just doesn't have the density that much of South does, and that makes it difficult to justify the ordinance.

    But at the same time, how will North ever become dense and walkable and bikeable if it doesn't ween itself from its car addiction? Yes, this proposal has the potential for outsize impact in the North, but I see that as an opportunity, not a problem. If all the North ever gets is a couple big apartment buildings with two parking spaces per unit, it will never really become more walkable or transit-friendly. The fact that South has all of those buildings in Whittier and Stevens and the Wedge without parking are a lot of what make it so much more walkable.

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  3. Look at West Broadway to see the difference that reducing parking minimums can have... one side of the street was built with minimums in place; the other without.

    Re-focusing our streets and public spaces around transit and pedestrian activity has huge benefits for neighborhoods where many people can't afford to (or choose not to) drive.

    Your point about outreach is apt, certainly, but how many times have I seen parking conversations quickly derail into angry shouting matches?

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  4. "the real-world impact of the proposal doesn't provide a net benefit to the northside."

    I think, at a high level, you've failed to even acknowledge what impacts, positive or negative, the northside would even experience from this type of parking reform. My personal opinion is that making development at a smaller scale at price points that have less gentrifying or displacing impact on existing residents is a good thing anywhere, but particularly in this part of our city.

    As to what North Minneapolis lacks in transit (or bike infra), I won't necessarily disagree with you (though NE has even worse frequent transit coverage). But I'd disagree that these differences aren't being addressed. The 26th Ave N protected bikeway is Tier 1, as is the Plymouth Ave N protected extension to the bridge from Fremont. 7th St and Fremont/Emerson are slated as Tier 2 PBWs. You acknowledge the Penn Ave CAC at the start of the meeting but don't see that as an in-process investment in transit. Along with Chicago-Fremont, Broadway, and Blue Line extension (plus SWLRT if you count that), North Minneapolis is seeing more transit investment in the next 5-8 years than any other part of the city, perhaps combined.

    Parking is a very emotional issue for people. I'm not disagreeing that public commentary should be necessary. I just don't know what type of technocratic policy reform is more supported by economic theory and precedent research to help spur low-cost, low-impact development that supports transit & walking with few downsides.

    Thanks for writing an honest take on this issue!

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  5. As someone who lives car free, it is very difficult on the Northside to get around within the Northside by transit because the transit is all oriented to just go downtown. It is as if everyone only wants to get the hell out of the Northside. I find it difficult to circulate WITHIN the Northside to attend to your daily needs - particularly if you are time constrained and financially stressed.

    If I am at Lowry and Lyndale and I want to go down to the hardware store at Penn and Lowry, I would have to take a bus down Lyndale transfer to Broadway, go up Broadway, transfer to Penn, and then back up Penn to Lowry. While Lowry technically has bus service, when does it run? (I'm completely serious about that) It simply isn't practically useful. We don't have many walkable amenities unless you really like walking a lot. Because you will have to walk some long ass distances.

    The comparison about Broadway is not really a good comparison here. Hawthorne Crossings was built before we had a corridor land use plan that calls for pedestrian oriented businesses and discourages surface parking. We already right now have that in place through the West Broadway Alive Plan.

    My point is that we have not (yet) in North Minneapolis "refocused our streets and public spaces around transit and pedestrian activity." South may be ready for this, but North would be better served by setting goals for actually reaching some of the benchmarks first that make this ordinance practical and useful.

    I feel like this ordinance was South Minneapolis originated and driven and then applied to North Minneapolis with very little input or representation.



    I don't hear Jeff saying the spirit of this ordinance is not worth striving for. I hear him saying that when we have not built up our density or created those amenity rich, walkable environments yet and that we need to phase this in as we reach benchmarks. That seems sensible. North is not like most other areas of the city. Just because South is ready for this does not mean that North is.

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  6. Here is an idea for the City Council: Go along with Johnson's exemption provisionally until community outreach on the matter has been completed with intentional efforts to hear what communities of color have to say on this matter. Then vote on a permanent decision after the community has been heard.

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  7. I am in favor of what this ordinance can achieve, that's for sure. Since posting this, I've had some very good conversations with folks who support the ordinance, and they've sent me some rather detailed information along those lines. I'm digesting that and plan a follow-up post.

    I may yet be convinced that this ordinance is indeed ready sooner rather than later, or that it is part of a broader set of changes that will ultimately have a positive impact. What I will not be swayed on, however, is the lack of meaningful outreach within north Minneapolis on the issue.

    My prediction if that outreach does happen is that there will be a vocal element saying, "Don't take away my parking, no matter what." I disagree with that viewpoint, but that doesn't give policymakers an excuse to ignore it or overlook my community.

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  8. Some of the data coming my way in support of the ordinance shows that the best way to get a reduction in automobile dependency is through "sticks" instead of "carrots." I'm curious to really go through that information to see what it yields.

    At this time I want either the ordinance delayed entirely or a north Minneapolis exemption inserted. After sufficient outreach has been done, we can revisit the issue.

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  9. Also, in general, I think we find ourselves in a very chicken or egg situation. We need parking because our streets are not yet human scale. Our streets are not yet human scale because we need parking. I don't know how to painlessly pull ourselves out of that loop with the snap of the fingers. It will be a slow transition.

    But that being said, this will not prevent the construction of off street parking spaces. Do you think that developers will start building buildings without parking, even though potential tenants want/need that parking (serious question)?

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  10. Most of the development impacted by this is going to be large develops of largely subsidized housing along West Broadway. This ordinance is not going to make housing more affordable for those folks because their housing is already going to be based on income. Many people are going to have employment or child care arrangements that require vehicle ownership - most often daily needing to navigate from home to day care to work and back again. Poor people's lives are stressed enough already. As the West Broadway Alive Plan already addresses pedestrian oriented commercial frontage and discourages surface parking, what this ordinance will do is eliminate underground parking at the large developments, some of which we are already seeing.

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  11. If the real effect is to remove underground parking from large new developments on Broadway with no real change in the pedestrian oriented nature of the land use, it seems this only inconveniences those needing a vehicle for employment or child care arrangements - things Northsiders NEED much more than having Southside ideals imposed upon them. Poor people may want a vehicle in structured parking for the same reasons anyone would - safety, prevent vandalism, so it STARTS in the winter. What are small deals for regular folks can be devastating for poor people, such as if a car does not start or a car is vandalized.

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  12. I agree with the points about North residents being disengaged with this discussion. This ordinance is in response to the pinch that more walkable and transit-friendly South neighborhoods are facing, where land prices are skyrocketing.

    But I do feel like creating the option of omitting parking along transit corridors could create more desirable developments. If this ordinance is successful, I'd hate for North's growth to be slowed because their exemption requires parking to be built on new developments, driving up the cost.

    By focusing on transit corridors, the proposed ordinance is cautiously dipping the toe in the water so we can see the results, rather than halting requirements citywide. I think this is a very measured and reasonable approach. If new developments spiral out of control in North (ha!), then at that time consider creating some kind of overlay district. I'm just not a big fan of creating special exemptions for North, as well-intentioned as they are...

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