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Mending Our Broken Heart: Minneapolis Strategy Can Teach Downtown a Lot About Transit, Parking

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“Downtown KC: Mending Our Broken Heart,” was a groundbreaking series originally published by The Kansas City Star 20 years ago this month.

It was written by former staffers Jeffrey Spivak, Kevin Collison and Steve Paul, with photographs by Rich Suggs. It was edited by former deputy national editor Keith Chrostowski.

CityScene KC thanks The Kansas City Star and Mike Fannin, its president and editor, for granting permission to republish this report.

While The Star retained the text of “Mending Our Broken Heart,” the original photos and graphics were unavailable. Photos of that missing material from a reprint of the series were used as much as possible.

MINNEAPOLIS – When it comes to downtown transportation planning and working Washington for money, this Midwestern metropolis has it all over Kansas City.

Ten years ago, community leaders in Minneapolis persuaded the feds to build a new downtown expressway and pick up 90 percent of the tab for a $138 million garage complex where its drivers could park.

Then the wily Minnesotans got Washington to approve a dedicated busway plan, which its congressional delegation upgraded to light rail – at little cost to local taxpayers.

Whether you call it street smarts or pork-barrel politics, downtown Minneapolis has given its 167,000 workers and 90,000 daily visitors good choices when it comes to parking and transit.

More than 40 years of planning have led to a downtown where the city runs a third of the parking. Garages are on the fringe, leaving room in the core for development and people. And 45 percent of the workers ride the bus.

Sam W. Grabarski, president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, says his organization’s three-word mantra is “safety, mobility and vitality.”

“If people can’t get there, can’t park there or move around downtown, then the future can’t be bright,” he says. “Vitality, the glamour word, depends on the other two words.”

Until the 1970s, Minneapolis was like Kansas City: Parking was pretty much a private business. Then in 1974, the city built its first downtown parking garage.

That garage was subsidized with parking meter revenues. Over time, it began generating revenue to help build the next garage, and the next and the next. Now the city operates 22 garages with 21,000 spaces.

Contrast that with Kansas City’s one garage under Barney Allis Plaza, with 975 spaces, and the one being built next to City Hall, with 1,340 spaces.

The Minneapolis “parking fund” now generates $10 million in annual net revenues from parking meters, garages and the city impound lot.

That makes parking operations self-sufficient. In its annual budget, the city’s public works department includes maintenance and capital expenses for parking garages.

The biggest public venture was the construction 10 years ago of three garages with 6,755 spaces on the western edge of downtown. In an example of creative lobbying, officials persuaded the feds to foot most of the $138 million bill.

The garages were built as part of the construction of Interstate 394, a new freeway from the western suburbs. State officials convinced Washington that commuters would need a place to park to minimize congestion once they arrived downtown.

They also wanted to offer special parking rates to encourage car pooling on I-394. Now 2,400 car poolers use the garages, paying $40 a month. Regular rates range from $115 to $130 per month.

Ten years ago, community leaders in Minneapolis persuaded the feds to build a new downtown expressway and pick up 90 percent of the tab for a $138 million garage complex where its drivers could park. (Photo from “Downtown KC: Mending Our Broken Heart” series courtesy The Kansas City Star)

The experience using the garages is seamless. Drivers on I-394 pass electronic signs that inform them which garages have space. They then exit on ramps that lead directly into the garages.

After they park, many people use the Skyway, an extensive network of climate-controlled pedestrian bridges, to reach their offices. The garages are about four blocks away from the center of downtown.

At the end of the day, homebound commuters can exit the garage right back onto the freeway.

Because the garages are on the edge of downtown, as are the other city-operated ramps and most of the private garages, land in the core is available for development.

Partly because developers didn’t have to worry about their parking needs, downtown Minneapolis went through a building boom in the 1990s that led to several skyscrapers; major retail, including a Neiman Marcus store and a prototype Target store; and a new sports arena. Parking is only half the story, though.

“We can’t build enough parking spaces to handle the transportation needs of downtown, nor should we try to,” Grabarski says. “You can’t sustain an office market, entertainment market and retail market based on roads alone. You have to have an intermodal system with roads and transit.”

For 30 years, Minneapolis has emphasized improving mass transit, so now almost half of downtown workers ride the bus to their jobs. And light rail is on the way in 2004.

Visit a bus stop at the start or end of the workday and you’ll see a column of buses stretching for several blocks. Buses use “reverse flow” lanes that go counter to one-way streets to reduce traffic disruptions.

Park-and-ride express buses are a big hit with suburban riders, and the express buses are allowed to bypass freeway traffic jams by driving on the shoulder.

“We have signs with a mirror on the buses that say, ‘See how pathetic you look being stuck in traffic,”‘ says Bob Gibbons, marketing director for Metro Transit.

Downtown businesses support mass transit big time, subsidizing bus passes so employees pay as little as $35 a month. Employers also have formed a Transportation Management Organization.

“In 1989, the real estate industry was terrible,” says Dick Allendorf, the chairman. “Buildings were losing people because of rent, congestion and parking. We tried to put together programs that would draw people downtown.”

Nacho Diaz, an official at the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning agency, says downtown Minneapolis is robust because community leaders displayed a long-range vision and stayed persistent.

“For downtown to be healthy, you need as good of a transit system as you can afford,” he says. “It’s also important to have some sort of targeted idea so that parking doesn’t become the center of the universe. You need to find a balance.”

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