Parking solution delayed in Whittier

Arts Institute misses deadline for parking study; gets another six months

The connected campuses of The Minneapolis Institute of the Arts and The Children’s Theater, 2400 3rd Ave. S., and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 2501 Stevens Ave. S. are like the proverbial elephants in the living room.

The three institutions bring hundreds of thousands of people into the heart of the Whittier neighborhood every year and promote the arts in Minneapolis. Unfortunately, the arts complex also frustrates residents because the extra cars stiffen competition for on-street parking in the densely populated neighborhood.

"Eat Street" adds to the problem. The row of affordable ethnic restaurants courses through Whittier’s Nicollet Avenue, bringing in diners by the hundreds. And if that isn’t enough, downtown workers often use Whittier as their own park-and-ride lot during the day. They park on its streets, then bus to their downtown jobs to save hundreds of dollars a year on parking.

These factors make parking in Whittier as tough as anywhere in the city. Chances are it will get worse before it gets better. The Minneapolis Institute of the Arts (MIA) is beginning an expansion plan which will eliminate 66 parking spaces on the building’s west side.

Three years ago, the Minneapolis City Council approved the MIA expansion on the condition that it undertook a neighborhoodwide parking evaluation study which would include MIA, MCAD, Children’s Theater and neighborhood representatives. The deadline was July 1. They missed it.

MIA representative Pat Rezzini was verbally reprimanded by the City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee July 17 meeting for not having the parking plan. Committee Chair Gary Schiff (9th Ward), gave the MIA until Dec. 31 to come up with a plan.

That angered some MIA neighbors. Paul Smith, a city zoning inspector who lives across the street from MIA on Stevens Avenue, said one reason MIA missed their deadline is that they would have had to confess that they did not have enough parking to accommodate their expansion. Such an admission, he said, might have jeopardized Council support for the expansion.

Kaylen Whitmore, MIA community relations director, said that according to city rules, the arts institution has adequate parking even with the expansion. "It was not a problem," Whitmore said.

The parking issue has loomed for years, even before the MIA expansion, but has never been directly addressed until now. A Northeast Quadrant Parking Task Force, headed by Paula Horan, has collected data since March on an area between I-35W, Nicollet and Franklin avenues, and 26th Street. The Whittier Alliance neighborhood group, Minneapolis Planning Commission and the city Public Works Department are involved.

Jon Wertjes, a public works transportation staffer, is coordinating the city’s study. He will bring in neighborhood groups, local businesses and the arts institutions to forge a solution in an open hearing. His department must approve any parking resolution.

"A lot of the discussion is about how to manage on- and off-street parking in the neighborhood," said Wertjes. "The question is how can we all share parking without building more than we need to build? What are the key needs for the residents who live there? And are there current, existing or future off-street parking facilities that we are not making the most use of?"

Finding a typical Whittier day, night or weekend to use as a baseline is difficult because its demographics are in flux. The MIA’s "Eternal Egypt" exhibit alone drew 114,068 visitors from last Dec. 21 to March 16. The MIA’s annual yearly attendance is close to 600,000. The Children’s Theater season runs from August to June, and draws 300,000 people a year to shows and classes. MCAD’s 700 students commute to the neighborhood daily between August and May. Area restaurants are busiest on Friday and Saturday nights.

Wertjes said data collection has been delayed because MCAD is on summer vacation, preventing a count until school starts in September. At that point, he said, there should be enough data to begin forming a solution.

Currently, MIA uses a 154-car surface car parking lot at the site of the old Fair Oaks Motel at 24th Street and 3rd Avenue. However, MIA only has an interim permit for parking there for two more years. "I don’t think the city should pay for it, but I think that the sooner they start building a parking ramp on the Fair Oaks Motel site, the better," Schiff said.

But that could complicate matters because during expansion construction, the MIA would lose 154 spaces. Another solution might be to require residential parking stickers to ensure that locals would be able to park near their homes.

"Our success is a problem," said Horan. "As we build more and more condominiums, we are going to need more parking; as the MIA grows, we will need more parking; as our Eat Street gets more popular, we are going to need more parking."