Giant Riverfront Parking Garage Rejected by Minneapolis Planning Commission

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On Monday, the Minneapolis Planning Commission denied approval for the Federal Reserve Bank’s proposed 790-car riverfront parking garage. The vote to deny the conditional use permit to allow a parking facility split the commission 5-4, with President Sam Rockwell casting the tie-breaking vote. Site plan approval was denied by a larger 7-1 margin. It is likely the Fed will appeal the decision to the City Council.

Representatives of the Fed made the arguments you’d expect when justifying a parking garage: we need more parking. Duane Carter, a senior vice president at the bank, also said a few unexpected things in his presentation. He reminded the Commission of the time a man fired a gun at the Fed building (he didn’t mention the shots were fired from another nearby parking garage belonging to the US Postal Service). He told them the bank keeps unfathomable “treasure” in their vault. He showed the Commission on the projector what $36 million dollars looks like when you stack it up real big. Weirdest of all, he claimed the parking garage would be good for bikers and pedestrians.

This didn’t feel like a presentation put together by PhD economists — or maybe it was the kind of presentation that PhD economists would put together for an audience of children. Speaking as a non-economist, I’m not convinced that a parking garage can prevent gun violence, stop bank heists, or keep bikers and pedestrians safe.

Carter started the bank’s unusually long presentation (around 45 minutes) by rattling off a list of people (the consultant, the high-powered lawyer, the former-council-member-turned-lobbyist, and others) joining him for the day. It felt like an attempt to overpower and overwhelm the Commission.

Critics noted in advance of the hearing that the Fed’s existing parking lot, according to the bank’s own consultant, is currently never more than 70% full. In what appeared to be a response to that criticism, the bank’s land-use attorney Carol Lansing, told the Planning Commission that, legally speaking, the bank doesn’t actually have to show that the parking is needed in order to get city approval.

Opponents of the parking garage say that building such a large parking structure will incentivize more driving. This is counter to policy adopted by the City of Minneapolis to significantly reduce the car trips (by 37%) that are driving climate change.

The parking garage is being sold to the public as “green” and “solar-ready.” The bank pledged to make the grassy area — to be located between the garage and the bank’s main building — available for public use. Several residents voiced skepticism of the bank’s willingness to follow through on pledges for public parking and amenity space. The bank promises that 100 spaces will be available for public use during business hours; and that the entire garage will be available on nights and weekends.

Commissioner Jono Cowgill called the project “greenwashing” in the face of climate change. Parks Commissioner Chris Meyer showed up to testify against: “To build a gargantuan parking ramp in one of our most transit accessible areas would be a real act of climate vandalism. Cities that are taking climate seriously are going in the opposite direction.”

Carter stressed the need for more parking by touting the fact that the bank hosts many events, including 6,000 people over the course of a weekend for the recent Open Doors. Commissioner (and Ward 11 Council Member) Jeremey Schroeder asked him: “Where did they park?” (Carter’s answer: they made their existing lot available to visitors)

Commissioner Matt Brown made it clear he believed a parking garage was permissible by the zoning code in this location, but not in the form proposed. City planning staff recommended against approval, citing a long list of ways the parking garage doesn’t comply with city standards, including: building placement, entrances, materials, active ground floor uses, landscaping, and “crime prevention through environmental design.”

Commissioner Amy Sweasy, who on most days is a stickler for protecting the shoreland overlay, was in an unusually permissive mood regarding this riverfront parking garage. She said, “This is not only about climate.” Sweasy explained her vote to approve the garage because it’s important to have a city where people can come to work who don’t live in Minneapolis.

70 years of planning have cemented Minneapolis as a place you can very cheaply and easily drive to work. Rejecting this parking garage is a good first step, but I don’t think we’re in danger of changing that status overnight.

What did parking garage proponents say?

  • North Loop needs more parking. It’s good for business.
  • Nobody comes downtown anymore because there’s no place to park.
  • Look at this pile of money.
  • Remember that time someone shot a gun at our building?
  • Jackie Cherryhomes is here.
  • We are Minneapolis. We are not [insert other city name].

What did the parking garage opponents say?

  • An 800-car riverfront parking garage in a transit accessible part of downtown is really just fossil fuel infrastructure constituting a long-term investment in the continued destruction of the planet.
  • PhD economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis should be able to figure out how to incentivize the efficient use of existing parking for their employees who need to drive; and how to incentivize alternative transportation for those who don’t.
  • The bank is only pledging that 100 of the 790 spaces will be for public parking during business hours. Though they are promising to open up the entire ramp on evenings and weekends, the bank has a history of denying the public access to their grounds for security concerns.
  • The bank’s current parking lot is currently never more than 70% full. The bank has no history of offering the empty spaces in their current parking lot for public use — either during or after bank hours.
  • This would be better as housing for people.
  • This will encourage more traffic/pollution in the neighborhood.
  • I don’t want this big ugly thing blocking my townhouse.