South 6th Street is the north/south spine of my community. It’s something of a grand boulevard, the entrance to the city of Brainerd, Minnesota that ends at our most beautiful park. In decades past, spots along South 6th were highly coveted and thus very expensive. These days, not so much.

Excess parking dominates Brainerd

Excess parking dominates Brainerd

Not only is South 6th a stroad where it is uncomfortable to walk and difficult to cross (major obstacles to success for a retail/office environment), it has a lot of gaps — places where there should be buildings but instead there are only parking lots.

One gap in particular stands out because it is perhaps the prime location in the downtown as well as a case study in how we inflict the most damage on ourselves: the city hall parking lot. And because we’re doing this damage to ourselves, we have a golden opportunity to stop doing it. Right now.

City Hall's parking lot (Source: Chuck Marohn)

City Hall's parking lot (Source: Chuck Marohn)

The site is ready for a substantial building, something with ground floor retail, office space and some residential options, something that complements the other two high-quality buildings at this intersection (and hopefully prompts the redevelopment of the third). At this site, such a building is the next increment.

This can’t happen, though, because of parking. We “need” the parking. Never mind that the lot is typically half-empty during normal business hours and completely empty the rest of the time. Any conversation that mentions redevelopment of this prime property is cut short because city employees must have a place to park.

If the city parking lot could be developed with a building valued at $1 million — I think it could easily be much higher — it would mean thousands of dollars of additional tax revenue for the city at no additional infrastructure expense. How could we use this fact to transition this parking lot to a higher use in a way that benefits everyone?

I would start by charging city employees to park in the lot. For example, I’d say that a monthly parking pass for the city hall’s parking lot is $50 (this is Brainerd and that’s a lot of money for something you can get free a block away). Everyone who wanted to park there will pay $50 per month to the city of Brainerd.

Excess parking capacity at the county government center (Source: Chuck Marohn)

Excess parking capacity at the county government center (Source: Chuck Marohn)

I would then offer each employee a $50 a month transportation stipend. This would give them the option of using their stipend to park in the lot or choosing to park somewhere else — perhaps a block away at the massive county government parking lot — and pocketing an extra $600 per year.

How many current staff members would prefer $600 each year over a guaranteed parking parking spot right outside their office door? I don’t know. Maybe it would be enough to completely clear the lot. Maybe it wouldn’t be.

If it weren’t, I would increase the fee and the stipend until I had the lot sufficiently cleared so it could be repurposed.

I’d also phase out the stipend for new employees. This would be something I would only offer to those currently used to parking in the existing lot. As a transition cost, this makes sense. As an ongoing expense, it doesn’t, at least not until we have a parking scarcity (which it’s hard to imagine ever occurring).

We don’t need a parking lot as badly as we need our city to become financially strong and healthy. If we shift our obsession from having adequate space to store cars to having adequate tax base to cover our expenses, all kinds of new ideas become possible.

That’s what building a Strong Towns is all about.


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