Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What NIMBYism Looks Like: It's All About the Parking Requirements (and Lenny Russo is a Wise Man)

This post by Lenny Russo in the Twin Cities StarTribune is a great, if depressing, explanation of how NIMBYism actually occurs.  Read the whole thing, but this is a key story and it involves parking:
Most recently, Kevin VanDeraa, owner of Cupcake on University Avenue in Minneapolis, attempted to open a second location on St. Paul's Grand Avenue.  The plan for the new location included a wine bar.  According to the code, VanDeraa would be required to have ten off street parking spaces in order to receive his licenses to operate.  The previous tenant, a toy store, was only required to have three such spaces.  Consequently, VanDeraa applied for a seven space variance which was reduced to six spaces with the condition that he install a bike rack.  The six space variance was granted on December 27, 2011.  At that time, VanDeraa agreed to lease parking from a nearby dry cleaner to satisfy the St. Paul Board of Zoning Appeals.
When a variance is granted in St. Paul, there is a ten day waiting period to allow for appeals from those who might be opposed to the variance.  VanDeraa waited ten days, and then he began work on his new location.  Unfortunately, he was unaware that the variance wasn't actually finalized until January 9.  That effectively pushed the appeal deadline to January 19.  In the meantime, two appeals came in just under the deadline.  One was made by the Summit Hill Association, and the other by a neighboring law firm.  Consequently, city officials pulled a previously granted building permit.  Why there was a delay in finalizing the variance and why he was granted a building permit before the deadline expired is not clear to me, but the result was a new hearing on the variance.
At the new hearing, a thorough review of Cupcake's parking proposal showed that VanDeraa could guarantee at least eight parking spaces, but he would only be able to temporarily guarantee two additional spaces.  Under the leased parking agreement, the dry cleaner would have had the option of reclaiming those spaces if it needed them in the future.  On a vote of 5-2, the City Council upheld the appeals and denied Cupcake its previously granted variance.
The Pioneer Press quoted City Council President Kathy Lantry as saying that, "We've got to stop voting for the applicant...The code is very clear. You cannot, for economic reasons alone, grant a variance."  I admire and respect Kathy Lantry, but those seem to me like pretty good reasons to grant a variance, especially at a time when LGA money has been withdrawn and property taxes have skyrocketed as a result.  For perspective, the property tax assessment on the commercial property owned by Heartland in Lowertown increased by nearly $17,000 this year.  Also for perspective, Mark Prokop, who owns the building that Cupcake planned to lease, was quoted in thePioneer Press as saying that due to increased property taxes he could not charge a tenant less than $5,500 per month.  One would have to sell a lot of cupcakes to make that rent payment.  VanDeraa needed the additional wine and beer sales to help Cupcake make rent.
I am not sure what the reasoning is behind requiring a business that is selling wine and beer to have seven additional parking spaces when the previous business only required three.  I can only wonder if there is any empirical evidence that a place selling cupcakes and wine would generate any more traffic than one selling cupcakes and coffee.  Nonetheless, 15 to 20 jobs were lost; a $300,000 investment in a commercial property was discontinued; and a landlord is left with an unleased space with a mortgage that needs to be serviced.  This is because the business owner fell short by two parking spaces.  I wonder how anyone can justify that such a variance would have contributed immensely to congestion on Grand Avenue or to the long term detriment of the community.  Bad precedent was cited as a reason to deny the variance, but variances are reviewed and approved on an individual basis.  There is no reason why a similar request could not be denied in the future if circumstances justified that.
I know the restaurant business well as I spent nearly a decade owning and operating a place in downtown Minneapolis (where there were not minimum parking requirements). This story is all too common. If parking requirements were based on science that was any better than voodoo I would support the community concern. However, planners have argued for decades that they know exactly how many parking spaces are required for specific land uses. So forgive communities for thinking tht planners knew what they were talking about. But this, and many other, cases,  show how nonsensical minimum parking requirements are.

Consider that the city is specifically telling this restaurant that they city knows something about the restaurant's customers that the restauranteur does not. The city is saying, through their minimum parking requirements, that the cupcake buyers will all drive. I know this area quite well (and used to go to the toy store), and this is exactly how minimum parking requirements destroy a vibrant commercial area by forcing too much parking and preventing adaptive reuse of existing structures. But importantly, why not let the restaurant succeed or fail on its own? The city won't require a certain number of cupcake flavors, so why a certain number of parking spaces?

Listin to Lenny Russo. And if in the Twin Cities, eat at his restaurant Heartland. Both will improve your life.

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