St. Paul light rail construction poses parking challenges


On May 20 the University Avenue Business Association (UABA) gathered at the Central Corridor Resource Center in Midway to discuss possible solutions to the most pressing challenge facing business owners as light rail construction nears: parking. 

In the next four years the city of St. Paul plans to erect a light rail line spanning the eleven mile Central Corridor between downtown Minneapolis and the Union Depot station in Downtown St. Paul.  City planners are excited about the economic growth light rail transit could bring to the area, but many Central Corridor business owners fear the project could spell trouble for businesses during and after construction. 

The $957 million project will consist of 18 new stations across 11 miles of rail line and will run down the center of University Avenue.  The primary concern of UABA members is that this would eliminate an estimated 85 percent of on-street parking along the Central Corridor. 

Anne Peterson, a student at William Mitchell College of Law and UABA intern, presented one possible solution at Thursday’s meeting.

Peterson proposed implementing Parking Benefit Districts.  A PBD is a system of (usually) more than 100 parking meters charging fees that vary throughout the day in accordance with parking demand.  The funds generated by these meters are distributed by a governing body comprised of business and property owners. 

PBDs have come into use in San Diego, San Francisco, Austin and many other major cities facing problems of population growth.  It’s a system that seems to be working well in other cities with rapidly growing populations, but the problem in the Central Corridor is a different one: it’s the parking space that’s shrinking. 

So where to put the meters?

Peterson says that one possible solution is to place meters on residential streets.  One third of Central Corridor residents, she says, do not own a car.  Each St. Paul residence is currently allocated 1.5 on-street parking spots, and Peterson proposes reducing that number to 1, or possibly one half. 

This plan would allow room for PBD meters to be placed along residential streets like Sherburne Ave., which is located one block north of University Ave.  Although funds generated by PBDs in other cities have been used to benefit the surrounding communities in the forms of sidewalk repair and lighting, it won’t increase the overall number of parking spots, and it may cause an uproar among residents who already park there for free.

Approval of Peterson’s proposal wasn’t unanimous among UABA members, either.

Dave Barnhart owns Overflow Espresso Café, as well as the building it’s in and three others along University Avenue.  He’s concerned about PBDs and the role of government in distributing funds generated by parking meters.  While the governing body in charge of these funds would likely comprise local business and property owners like himself, he’s doesn’t like the idea of cooperating with city officials who might assign these members. 

He challenged Peterson’s proposal at Thursday’s meeting, saying, “I, for one, won’t support something that takes opportunity out of private hands and gives it to government.”  

In the shadow of a massive construction project that could cripple businesses like his, Barnhart’s sentiment is understandable.  But the city of St. Paul has not turned a deaf ear to UABA.

The Neighborhood Commercial Parking Pilot Program (NCPP) provides forgivable loans to Central Corridor business owners to develop off-street parking.  The city has allocated $1 million to the program, with an additional $1 million on the way for general parking mitigation. 

Each business is eligible for up to $25,000, although larger loans are considered for multiple businesses proposing shared parking lots.  The loans are forgiven at a rate of 1/7 annually, and city planner Craig Blakely says the city has received 50 applications.

Blakely also says that, if approved, those 50 loans will consume the first million entirely.

If one thing was agreed upon Thursday, it was that Central Corridor businesses are in need of real solutions, as well as city funding.  But UABA member Greg Hyman urged his colleagues to remain calm: “The city has not turned its back on us,” he said.  “We need to stay organized, we need to stay focused.”