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Free Parking’s High Cost, Another Example

August 02, 2012 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Walker Church in south Minneapolis, where I had hung out for the past 41 years, burned to the ground in May after a lightning strike. Until that sad evening, the 103-year-old red brick edifice was long a bustling center of community life, and not just on Sunday mornings. Social action and 12-step groups, theater companies, musicians, artists and diverse spiritual congregations found homes there.

All this happened with no off-street parking on the church's three residential lots at the corner of 31st Street and 16th Avenue S. In 1909, when the cornerstone was laid, no one saw the need to accommodate motor vehicles at a neighborhood place of assembly. In fact, it was only after the freeway age began that Minneapolis set minimum parking requirements in 1963 for new development.

So now the church is under the gun to provide dozens of parking spaces if it rebuilds on the former site, a step that would require purchase and demolition of surrounding homes. A grandfather clause appears to be the only way out of that unpalatable choice.

Parking mandates have become controversial in recent years as scholars led by Donald Shoup of UCLA have documented the high costs and perverse incentives of devoting so much American real estate to pavement that's unoccupied most of the time. The Shoupistas call for repealing parking minimums in local zoning codes and letting property owners decide how to meet their visitors' access needs.

Minneapolis has edged in that direction. According to the Star Tribune, it banned new commercial parking lots downtown in 1999 and scrapped parking minimums downtown in 2009. But 140 surface lots remain in the city center, and even their operators have little good to say about them.

"It's obvious that kind of property is not the highest and best use," Doug Swanson, a top executive of Benson Parking Service Inc., told the Star Tribune. "There's no doubt about it—they're eyesores." Other parking lot managers said the business isn't very lucrative, and the owners are just waiting for the right development offer.

It's easy to see why. So much "free" parking is provided by the public and private sectors that it drives down the prices pay lots and ramps can charge. Of course, no parking is really free. A 2003 study by Transit for Livable Communities found that a surface parking space costs $3,000, a garage space $15,000 and an underground space $27,000. And all of them discourage more healthful and earth-friendly forms of travel such as transit, bicycling and walking.

The results for Minneapolis are on display in the Empty Lots blog about from St. Paul English teacher Chris Keimig, who has made a hobby of photographing and posting the vacant expanses. Downtown, he told the Star Tribune, "is supposed to be the densest, most vibrant area of our city, and when you insert these large parking lots you diminish that vibrancy."

Something similar is true for outlying neighborhoods, as well. The birthplace of both Fresh Air Community Radio and In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater, Walker Church stayed vibrant for more than a century with zero off-street parking because so many came by foot, bicycle, streetcar or bus. Many members want to rebuild on-site with insurance proceeds and fund-raising, but not if it means paving Paradise to put up a parking lot. Our transformational pastor, Bryan Peterson, crusaded successfully in the 1970s and '80 against city institutions leveling affordable housing to provide parking for suburbanites.

Last weekend, the congregation voted to begin planning a new structure on the site. This will be a huge rush-job, constrained by the footprint of the old church and a November deadline to pull a building permit before our grandfather rights dissolve and contemporary zoning and parking rules take effect.

We don't know if this tight timeline is even feasible. If not, we will likely look to relocate at existing space nearby that is unencumbered by parking regulations. Either way, it's a shame that a church that has served its neighborhood and the wider world so well for so long without dedicated parking has to jump through so many hoops to keep on keepin' on.

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  • Dale says:

    August 2, 2012 at 7:27 am

    Although I would agree that Walker Church should be allowed to rebuild in the same location without the need to provide off-street parking that wasn’t there before the fire, it is the lack of free parking downtown and lack of transit options in my neighborhood that guide my decision to not go downtown, no matter how “vibrant”.

    The only bus service withing 3 miles of my home are commuter routes and sense I do not work downtown eliminates transit as a way to “do downtown”.  After I add the cost of parking to the price of dinner, drinks or whatever else I would be doing downtown the result becomes a potential budget buster that I will not do more than a couple times a year.