A study of relaxed off-street parking requirements geared toward reducing the use of automobiles and increasing the efficiency of land uses in Saint Paul was recently released by the city’s Planning Commission. The proposed changes will be the subject of a public hearing before the Planning Commission at 8:30 a.m. Friday, April 30.
The 154-page study includes dozens of suggestions that could transform the appearance and function of the city. One of the main questions in the study is whether to eliminate minimum off-street parking requirements entirely or scale them back through exemptions.
Saint Paul has 2,659 acres of surface parking lots, 631.2 acres of parking garages, and 8,560 acres of streets and highways. “Altogether, about 35.6 percent of the city’s land area is primarily dedicated to the moving and storing of automobiles,” said city planner Tony Johnson. “If the city plans for driving, as we have done, people are going to drive.”
The new off-street parking requirements have two main goals, according to Johnson. One is compliance with the city’s climate action plan, which calls for Saint Paul to become carbon neutral by 2050. Thirty-one percent of Saint Paul’s carbon emissions are currently attributed to vehicle travel, Johnson said. Promoting alternatives to driving is part of the climate action plan.
According to Johnson, 34.5 percent of Saint Paul families do not own a motor vehicle. “Parking requirements are akin to a regressive tax on low-income residents,” he said. That comment brought pushback from planning commissioner Deborah Michell. According to her, there are many low-income residents who need a car to get to jobs in the suburbs.
The second goal is compliance with the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan and its strategies for development. Those strategies include reducing the amount of land devoted to parking; building structured parking that could be converted to other uses later on; promoting compact, walkable neighborhoods; improving the efficiency of off-street parking through shared parking; and promoting car sharing, car-pooling, walking, biking and public transit.
Providing off-street parking adds to the cost of new housing. The study recommends that landlords be required to separate off-street parking costs from housing costs in leases.
When affordable housing is built with public subsidies, the oversupply of parking can become an issue, Johnson said. The money spent on parking could be spent on providing more affordable housing units, he noted.
According to Johnson, 34.5 percent of Saint Paul families do not own a motor vehicle. “Parking requirements are akin to a regressive tax on low-income residents,” he said.
That comment brought pushback from planning commissioner Deborah Michell. According to her, there are many low-income residents who need a car to get to jobs in the suburbs.
Requirements have led to an oversupply of parking
Minimum off-street parking requirements have long been in place to reduce congestion on Saint Paul streets. Those requirements are sometimes pegged to maximum parking needs, Johnson said, and that has led to an oversupply of parking spaces in some areas.
The city’s current off-street parking requirements vary by land use and size and type of development. New land uses along major transit corridors already have reduced parking standards. Other factors that influence parking demand include the walkability of a neighborhood, and generally the more dense is development, the more walkable a neighborhood will become, Johnson said. COVID-19 has also changed the way people shop and commute, further reducing parking demand. Those changes could continue long after the pandemic is over, Johnson added.
Dozens of parking exemptions recommended for developers
Developers in Saint Paul may currently reduce off-street parking requirements by seeking variances, agreeing to share parking with others, and providing space for car-sharing services or bike parking. The new study recommends dozens of other parking exemptions, including proximity to mass transit, availability of low-income housing, being a small business of under 3,000 square feet or operating in a structure built before 1955.
No district councils or business groups have taken a position on the proposed parking changes. James Farnsworth, interim executive director of the Highland Business Association, said that group began discussing the parking study on April 8. The Summit Hill Association has reviewed the study, according to its president Peter Rhodes, but it has not taken a position. The Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce will be hosting an information session on the parking study for members, but the date has not been set.
The city planning department will hold public webinars on the parking study from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 15, and noon-1 p.m. Tuesday, April 20. To register for the free programs, visit tinyurl.com/2vsbcexn. To review the parking study, visit stpaul.gov/parking-study.
— Jane McClure
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