Roberts Commons under construction (Source: Kilbourne Group Facebook page)

Roberts Commons under construction (Source: Kilbourne Group Facebook page)

Fargo, ND removed parking minimums several years ago and the results of that simple act have been astounding.

Parking minimums are laws that mandate a certain amount of parking spots for specific uses in a town—for instance, three spots per 1000 square feet of retail, or two spots per apartment unit. Minimum parking requirements hinder the potential of strong towns by creating barriers for new local business start ups, and filling our cities with unproductive, empty parking spaces that don’t add value to our places. (Learn more about Strong Towns’ fight to end parking minimums here.) Parking minimums are present in most American communities, although a growing number of towns have abolished or decreased them.

As Strong Towns member Jason Schaefer chronicled a few years ago, the removal of parking minimums in Fargo was part of a wider shift toward downtown investment:

As Fargo leaders started putting more emphasis and investment downtown, North Dakota State University began locating several programs downtown including its architecture and business schools. In addition to the programs, a 104-unit mixed-use housing development, called Cityscapes, was built in the core of the downtown. These projects resulted in over 4,000 students and faculty living, working and studying downtown. This all happened in a relatively short time frame. […] Downtown shops are thriving and storefronts do not stay vacant for very long. 

An increase in bus service and bike share also helped to support this downtown renaissance and cut down on the need for parking.

In light of this, I was glad to hear about a new parking garage in downtown Fargo called the Roberts Commons Garage. Yes. You read that right. Our friends and Strong Towns supporters at Kilbourne Group recently helped to develop a new parking garage in the downtown and I’m glad. Here’s why it’s a project worth admiring, and why its success is partly due to the removal of parking minimums:

1. It wasn’t forced.

Strong Towns advocates for a removal of parking minimums, not because we want every parking spot in the country to disappear but because we want businesses and developers to be able to decide how much, if any, parking they need to provide in order to be successful. That’s exactly what happened in the case of this new parking garage. When the developer worked with the city to decide how many spots to build, they didn’t have a rulebook they were required to follow. Instead, they saw a need for covered, consistent parking as downtown residences, offices and retail have grown, and they built to fill that need. Today, nearly all of the 405 monthly spaces in the Roberts Commons Garage are reserved and there’s a waiting list for spots. The remaining 50 spaces are available for short-term parking and they’re consistently full. Additionally, because many of the reserved spaces are empty during the day (while residents are at work), the city also utilizes shared parking arrangements where shoppers use the spots during peak day time hours. The city has a software program that tracks hourly usage of the different types of parking and enables them to adjust their offerings based on this data.

“The market is a better gauge of parking needs than blanket parking requirement policies,” says Adrienne Olson, Communications Manager for Kilbourne Group. “The minimums made everything more expensive and took away the choice.”

Front view of the Roberts Commons building. Can you spot the garage?

Front view of the Roberts Commons building. Can you spot the garage?

2. It was designed with care and intention.

First, this parking structure is a multistory garage built on a corner that was previously occupied by a surface lot. The garage makes far better use of space than the lot and was carefully designed to complement the street, not detract from it; when finished in early 2018, it will be wrapped on three sides with a mixed-use building that contains restaurants, retail and dozens of apartments. These uses will keep the street active at all hours and invite foot traffic, instead of the previous lot, which was less attractive and unfriendly to pedestrians.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that, according to Kilbourne Group’s website, “Contrary to the 120-feet deep retail spaces typically found in downtown Fargo, the Roberts wrap will reduce a barrier to entry in the downtown retail market by offering smaller, more affordable space options along a pedestrian-focused retail corridor.” That’s certainly something to celebrate, and it also means that small businesses occupying these storefronts don’t even need to think about parking, since it’s already provided in the connected garage and much of their traffic will likely come from pedestrians or cyclists anyway.

As part of the development, the street adjacent to the building was also narrowed, protected on-street bike lanes were added, and the sidewalk bumped out, making the area even more inviting to people not in a car. Furthermore, the whole development was built next to a new commercial area, Roberts Alley. As Kilbourne Group’s website explains, the Alley “has undergone a slow and steady transformation into a walkable pedestrian passage, with businesses opening alley entrances and artists beautifying the space.” The addition of new commercial and residential in this area will further support that economic activity.

Finally, if the need for automobile parking decreases in the future, the building will still be a profitable, useful asset for downtown Fargo with its shops, restaurants and housing , unlike the former lot (or a typical single-use garage). Along those lines, as Kilbourne Group contemplates a future downtown garage, they’re thinking about an intentionally flexible design that could later be converted into apartments once Fargo moves further away from car dependency.

The unobtrusive garage entrance. Note the special bike parking entrance just to the right of the truck entering the garage.

The unobtrusive garage entrance. Note the special bike parking entrance just to the right of the truck entering the garage.

3. It nudges downtown in the right direction.

In a rural region like Fargo’s, we aren’t likely to see the end of the personal vehicle any time soon, so it’s unrealistic to think that downtown residents will be living completely car-free. They need to put their vehicles somewhere and in a cold, snowy climate, a garage makes sense. The fact that residents are willing to pay for this parking (and fill the monthly garage spots completely) bears that out.

“We’re in this ‘turning the herd’ phase where people are gradually coming around to the idea of parking a couple of blocks from their destination,” Olson says.

This multistory garage allows visitors from out of town or people who reside out of busing, biking or walking distance from the downtown to drive to the area and leave their vehicle in one, unobtrusive place, at which point they can continue the rest of their shopping, dining and entertainment on foot.

The garage also contains about 50 bike parking spaces and even has a special bike entrance, which make this mode of transportation more appealing for residents. And, as highlighted above, much of the design of the new building is oriented toward making the street safer and more welcoming to pedestrians, which will help nudge Fargo toward greater walkability, too.

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It may seem odd to praise a parking garage after Strong Towns has been outspoken against the American obsession with parking for quite some time. However, Kilbourne Group has approached this parking garage with an intentional, forward-thinking and context-sensitive mindset. The result will hopefully benefit Fargo for years to come and could serve as a model for other active downtowns that want to create parking in a sensible manner.

Of course, towns that can decrease their reliance on cars and parking will be financially stronger in the long run. But I see this development which incorporates well-used parking as a good step in the right direction, especially given its many components that help to create a less car-dependent downtown and support a thriving local economy.

(All images courtesy of Kilbourne Group)


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