How parking requirements are turning Southwest into a suburb

What makes a good city?

There's a startling consensus these days on this once-divisive question. A good city embraces opposites. It's easy to drive and park in and fun to walk in. It's full of shops, restaurants and offices and housing of all shapes and sizes. It's active during the day and at night. Above all, it's made up of streets that work both for cars and for pedestrians.

A bad city, on the other hand, is a lifeless jumble of disconnected buildings, streets and seemingly endless parking lots.

Despite this consensus, most residents of Minneapolis would be startled to learn that arcane parking requirements -- more than any grand design vision for our city -- shape day-to-day development decisions. And these parking requirements may be fundamentally at odds with making a good city.

Take as an example the development in recent years along Hennepin Avenue between Franklin and 28th Street. What was once a grand avenue of two-story brick buildings facing the street, with shops or restaurants below and offices or apartments above, is slowly devolving into a stretch of suburban-style strip malls, one-story, single-use buildings facing enormous parking lots.

Everyone agrees that strip malls do not make a good city.

Enter a new player. Chipotle, the Mexican fast food restaurant owned by McDonald's, has bought and is planning to tear down the Embers Restaurant at the corner of Hennepin and 26th Street.

Chipotle and their designers, Wilkus Architects of Eden Prairie, first explored a building that would come right up to the sidewalk along Hennepin Avenue and include a second floor with apartments -- everyone's ideal urban building.

But here's the parking rub: Minneapolis requires, through a complex formula, a minimum of 24 dedicated parking stalls for the restaurant. The apartments would require a minimum of one dedicated parking stall per apartment.

Suddenly, Chipotle is looking at 36 dedicated parking stalls on a tight, urban site. And the ugly reality is that parking chews up an obscene amount of land. A standard parking stall is roughly 9 feet by 16 feet, or 144 square feet. Plus driveway.

Minneapolis makes little allowance to its standard parking formula for the potential overlap of restaurant and apartment parking. That is, the restaurant primarily requires parking during the day, while the apartment primarily requires parking before and after work hours. Theoretically, an apartment dweller's parking stall could be available for restaurant use 10-12 hours per day, reducing the overall number of stalls necessary.

Minneapolis also makes little allowance for the reality that Hennepin Avenue is a major transit route. An apartment dweller living on Hennepin Avenue could easily function without an automobile.

To no one's surprise, Chipotle decided not to build the apartments (though according to architect Jonathan Buerg, Chipotle also abandoned the idea because of cost and the hassles of being a landlord as much as for parking requirements).

But we're now guaranteed that the new Chipotle will be a relatively small building surrounded by a big surface lot full of cars. Sound familiar? This is exactly the scenario that shaped the building-surrounded-by-parking-lot strip mall effect along Hennepin.

Minneapolis' parking requirements were written with good intentions; they are calculated to provide enough parking on-site so parking doesn't spill onto surrounding streets, alienating the neighbors. And there's no arguing that dedicated parking right at the doorstep of a store or restaurant is convenient.

But Chipotle's experience sparks a torrent of questions. Are parking requirements forcing us to build a bad city? How do we find the right balance between convenient parking and good design? And how can the city encourage developers, like Chipotle, who want to do the right thing?

Ironically, St. Louis Park is busy building a dense community center along Excelsior Boulevard, kitty-corner to The Miracle Mile, the first-ever strip mall in the Twin Cities. The three- to four-story development is made possible by "district parking," an approach where one central ramp serves restaurants, offices and housing alike. No parking stalls are dedicated to any individual business, and the ramp will be used 24/7.

Is district parking -- whether in a ramp or in a surface lot -- the answer for Hennepin Avenue's sprawl?

It just seems odd to me that St. Louis Park, once the grand-daddy of suburban sprawl, is evolving into a good city, while Hennepin Avenue, the core of Minneapolis' urban cool, feels more and more suburban.

Robert Gerloff, AIA, is the principal of Robert Gerloff Residential Architects, in Linden Hills. He can be reached at