Between a rock and a parking place

A 50th Street redesign — with slower traffic and less parking — divides residents and business owners

"You’re killing us. We need parking to survive and we still don’t have enough to meet today’s needs," said Tom Morgan, owner of Birds N Stuff, 824 W. 50th St.

Morgan spoke passionately at a late-March meeting to discuss implementing a West 50th Street re-striping plan this summer. The plan would wipe out all parking on 50th from Lyndale to France Avenues, except for scattered parking at 50th Street business nodes.

While some details have not be added to the plan,Hennepin County (which owns the affected section of 50th) is working to adjust parking restrictions on business-node side streets for more parking turnover.

Many businesspeople cringe thinking of the re-striping plan, but residents in the Fulton and Lynnhurst neighborhoods anxiously await it, hoping it will slow traffic and make the area safer.

A three-lane system would replace the current four-lane traffic pattern; there will be a lane in either direction with the center lane for left turns only. The new configuration would provide an approximate buffer of 31/2 feet between the sidewalk curb and the driving lane.

This plan was tested on 50th last July to October between Upton and Zenith avenues. According to Hennepin County officials, speeds clocked on 50th slowed by an average of two miles per hour.

Even though the county is still modifying Xerxes- and Bryant-avenue nodes, business owners recently told the county and city that the lost parking remains fatal. At least two 50th Street businesses have moved, anticipating the parking changes.

The business interest

Business owners from 50th’s three nodes (including Penn Avenue) have discussed their continued opposition to the modified plan. Dick Henke, owner of The Malt Shop, 50th and Bryant, said he wants no parking changes for his business and he’s determined to keep it from happening. "We have to stop the paint from going down; that’s our goal," he said.

Merry Beck, owner of Gallery 360, 3011 W. 50th St., said she’s working with a group of 50th Street business owners to distribute printed signs for storefronts and pamphlets to give out to customers to advertise their opposition to the plan. The group will also go door-to-door in the surrounding neighborhoods with a survey to gauge resident support for the plan.

Beck’s Xerxes corner was a re-striping test site last summer. Beck said she and the other Xerxes business owners want the project stopped. "I can’t go through that, it will kill us," she said.

Beck said she does not want to move, but questions how much more she can put into a business that lacks parking. "You always like to think you’re a destination, but people won’t walk a block and a half to get there," she said.

She said although sales remained about the same during the test period, customers grumbled about the scarce parking. Other anchor businesses are moving, such as Judith McGrann & Friends and Needleworks Unlimited Inc. Beck said her business depends on similar anchors to bring in customers.

At a recent 50th Street redesign taskforce meeting, Tom Broder, co-owner of Broder’s Cucina Italiana, 2308 W. 50th St., said other options should be explored to find business-node parking spaces while still accommodating the plan. He said it’s harmful to create a situation pitting residents against business owners, noting that he is both.

Broder said many businesses at his Penn Avenue node haven’t been very involved in the planning process; he anticipates they won’t be until the paint is on the ground.

Henke said that the plan compromises small-business survival for traffic congestion relief. "Work on some other plans for the businesses that don’t choke off their lifeblood," Henke told Grube.

Resident views

At that same meeting, Lynnhurst resident Todd Dalebroux said that he hopes a collaboration between business owners and the county can push the project forward, because he’d like a safer street. "It’s way too fast and people are way too close to the street. We don’t walk it to the park," he said.

Jim Grube, Hennepin County transportation and public works director, said Dalebroux’s sentiment is common among 50th Street residents. Since the early 1990s, Grube said, Fulton and Lynnhurst residents have campaigned to make 50th Street safer and slower, and the restripping plan is the county’s response.

Both neighborhoods funded and completed a 50th Street traffic study in the mid-1990s that ignited county interest in a re-striping plan. Resident activism advanced when more than 50 residents formed the Fulton and Lynnhurst Neighbors for Safe Driving Taskforce.

Peter Nussbaum was a Lynnhurst representative on the taskforce, which he said encouraged the county’s 2002 re-striping test. In addition, he said, the group made signs and bumper stickers urging motorists to "Slow down on 50th."

To drive that point home, he said they purchased a speed radar gun and worked with police to ticket speeding motorists on the busy thoroughfare.

Through the Neighborhood Revitalization Program process, Nussbaum said, the Lynnhurst Neighborhood Association identified 50th Street safety as one of their biggest issues. "People just felt uncomfortable walking through 50th. It has the feeling of a mini-freeway," he said.

In an NRP survey in Fulton, John Finlayson, president of the Fulton Neighborhood Association, said 70 to 75 percent said they wanted to make 50th Street safer and calm traffic. Finlayson said he thinks the re-striping will help. "50th Street has been dysfunctional as long as I can remember. We did that (re-striping) study, and it calmed 50th down and made it go smoother," he said.

Nussbaum said he also enjoyed the drive during the test period, and considers it to be a well-received implementation. He acknowledged some concern that slowing traffic too much might cause motorists to cut through neighborhoods. He said also that the plan should be a compromise with the business owners, to not drive them out of business. "We do not want to solve one problem and create another."

Finlayson agreed and said that the neighborhoods cannot have a good-quality residential area with out a quality commercial zone. However, he added that the plan’s safety bonuses would help commercial prospects. "When it’s calmer it will encourage people to walk to the businesses," Finlayson said.

Government officials

Re-striping’s cost made the project appealing, Grube said. The expense is already factored into the county’s maintenance budget. Because it’s factored into regular maintenance, Grube was unable to provide a dollar amount for the plan.

Grube said he’s been altering the restriping plan to try and address business concerns. The Penn node will have no parking on the south side of 50th Street after the re-striping; at Xerxes, he said he’s still considering a business owners’ request to flip parking from the street’s north side to the south side to acquire more spaces.

Currently, the Bryant node can accommodate 62 parking spots during the day; with re-striping, it would only have 47. Grube said he reworked Bryant’s parking configuration by flipping it to the south side and was able to find space for eight additional spots.

Councilmember Barret Lane (13th Ward) said he supports the restriping project, based on last summer’s test. He said the redesigned street would better serve commercial and residential users.

Lane added that a compromise must be found and supports all efforts for maximized business parking.

County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who represents parts of Southwest and St. Louis Park, said she too wants businesses to resolve their parking problems with the plan. But she said it’s important for residents and business owners to understand that this is only the beginning of county projects on 50th.

Dorfman said the county will totally reconstruct 50th Street in six years. Because the reconstruction is so far off, she said, further details on it are not available.

Dorfman said that because the street will be redone soon, it should be some comfort for those still unhappy with the modified re-striping plan. "It’s only paint," she said.

The public still has time to comment, Dorfman said, citing a soon-to-be announced public meeting scheduled for May, before plan implementation.