In my hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota, we’re having a healthy conversation about parking. I’m calling it healthy not because we’re all agreeing, but because we’re starting to question things that have long been taken for granted. That is an important first step.

A big part of this conversation is the realization that tearing down buildings to add parking destroys the tax base, makes the city less desirable a destination, and, ironically, makes the parking less necessary. Here parking is having the opposite of the Yogi Berra effect. (“Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.”) Here, all the parking lots make it seem so desolate that not enough people want to go there. We’re starting to grasp that parking has become a liability.

That doesn’t mean the parking isn’t needed. Most patrons of our local businesses arrive by automobile and thus have a need to park. Most business owners and employees likewise drive to work. While it is clearly a winning strategy long-term to have more people living downtown and to improve walking/biking connections with the surrounding neighborhoods—both strategies that would add patrons without adding parking—that is not a viable short-term reality.

As cities (including ours) have a tendency to do, there is a push to skip to what everyone knows is the ultimate end condition: a parking garage (or parking ramp, as we call them here in Minnesota). I italicized “what everyone knows” there because I don’t actually agree with this conclusion. But many people in this conversation do, especially the ones who live outside of the city and drive in. For them, it’s obvious that we need a parking ramp, and so the process of justifying more debt to a struggling population in an already highly-indebted city is underway.

Those advocating for big action on parking ramps closely correlate to those calling for big action on a local initiative called River to Rail, a plan to spend millions on a reimagined city (to instantly make it more appealing to those who don’t live here). This past summer, I wrote about this initiative and identified three truths related to parking:

Truth #1: If we ask people who drive to Brainerd whether there is enough parking, they will say no.

Truth #2: If we ask downtown business owners whether the city of Brainerd should provide more free parking, they will say yes.

Truth #3: Whenever I go downtown—which is multiple times per week—there are always plenty of places to park within a block of my destination. Always.

As I wrote in that piece, I can agree with the eventual need for a parking ramp, I just think we have a lot of work to do to get there. Along those lines, I’m going to offer three phases of action that we can take, steps that will be applicable to far more places than my own.

Phase 1: Manage our Existing Parking

I can’t think of a single business in our downtown that would make a massive investment to expand their inventory when all their data is showing that they lose money on their existing inventory. It’s a silly notion.

Today, the city owns and leases out space in a number of parking lots downtown. The city is losing money on each of these sites when comparing revenues simply to annual maintenance costs—not even accounting for long-term costs or for any opportunity costs from having that ground sit fallow. It’s difficult to take any spreadsheet projection on future parking ramp revenues seriously when we’re losing money today on surface lots.

Here parking is having the opposite of the Yogi Berra effect. (“Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.”) Here, all the parking lots make it seem so desolate that not enough people want to go there.

The city needs to charge a break-even amount for city-owned surface lots. That’s really a basic first step—nothing else has much credibility. If the data doesn’t support people’s willingness to pay for parking, then a ramp is a doomed proposition from the start.

Let’s assume that people refuse to pay a break-even amount and the lots see a reduction in demand. That’s fantastic; it’s signaling to us that some of this property can be converted back into buildings and other productive land uses. Let’s get to work on that ASAP. The thing that is going to make downtown successful won’t be more parking; it will be having such a fantastic collection of destinations that people are willing to walk a bit to get to them.

To that end, in this phase there are two simultaneous things to be done that reinforce each other: 1) convert our underutilized traffic space to on-street parking, and 2) use that conversion to improve walkability.

Brainerd’s South 6th Street. Photo by Adam Brown Photography.

We just finished a multi-million dollar renovation of South 6th Street, putting back a highway designed for 40,000+ trips per day on a corridor experiencing 11,000. Outside of rush hour….er…. rush 15 minutes, that extra capacity adds to a feeling of desolation and makes walking feel more dangerous. There is no reason why, outside of an hour in the morning and another in the afternoon, the outside lanes of South 6th Street through the downtown couldn’t be used for on-street parking. This would create dozens of parking stalls in a prime location. It would also create some separation between people walking and the vehicle traffic, distance that would make the sidewalks feel less treacherous.

Throughout the downtown, we have widened low-volume streets and put in turn lanes that, while used at times, are not necessary given the low volume of traffic and the speeds desired. Shifting street design from an emphasis on throughput and high vehicle speeds to emphasize safe walking and low vehicle speeds will free up many more parking spots. This is all a matter of paint and signage; a tiny fraction of the gamble of an investment needed for a parking ramp.

We also need to have a deep conversation with business owners about their needs regarding turnover of parking spaces. We’re currently marking some spaces with shorter time limits where high turnover is needed. That’s a great strategy we can expand upon where our business owners need it.

And finally, during this phase, we need to get working on that long-term strategy to create more housing units in the downtown and improve walking connectivity from the downtown to the surrounding neighborhoods. Even identifying this as a priority strategy would be a major shift in policy that would have positive ripple effects.

Phase 2: Validate the Market

A parking ramp is a multi-million-dollar investment. That is something we shouldn’t do on a whim, without supporting data and proof-of-concept.

Now that we’re charging for the city’s surface lots, it’s time to start charging for on-street parking. Again, there is no credibility to the notion that people will pay for a parking ramp when they won’t pay for on-street parking. We need the data to show this will work, otherwise we’re just gambling with public money.

At this point, I would recommend we establish a Business Improvement District that includes our core downtown properties. In cooperation with the city, I would empower this group to direct how the money collected from downtown parking meters be spent. That money absolutely needs to be kept out of the city budget; it must go to improving downtown as a destination.

I have a lot of ideas for how this could be done, but my ideas are not nearly as valuable as those the downtown business owners will have. The goal here is to create a virtuous feedback loop, where parking fees are used to improve the downtown, an improved downtown draws more patrons, and those patrons generate more parking fees. This is how we turbocharge downtown development.

The goal here is to create a virtuous feedback loop, where parking fees are used to improve the downtown, an improved downtown draws more patrons, and those patrons generate more parking fees. This is how we turbocharge downtown development.

The city also has a responsibility in this phase to make some serious investments in walkability. Massive parking lots at the county government complex are a mere two blocks from the core downtown, yet they feel much further. The high school complex has a mind-numbing amount of parking—and is about to add much more—a mere three blocks away. This is an easy walk, but few voluntarily take it. Modest urban design improvements can shorten the perception of this distance and open up lots of parking for people who would rather walk than pay.

And when we get into Phase 2, the downtown is going to really start to hum. This means living in North Brainerd, South Brainerd, or the area just east of downtown is going to be a lot more attractive proposition. Making that short walk or bike ride as easy as possible is a key strategy to a virtuous feedback loop between improvements in downtown and the desirability of Brainerd’s neighborhoods.

Said more simply: this is how Brainerd becomes successful in its own right, not just a poor version of Baxter.

Phase 3: Build the Parking Ramp

Now we’ve done the hard work and we’re ready to build this ramp. We’ve proven there is demand for parking, even paid parking. The risk that this will fail is now minimal, and those spreadsheets are credibly backed with real data.

By not merely skipping to the end condition, we leveraged our efforts to add new buildings to our downtown, grow our tax base, and strengthen our business ecosystem. We connected our neighborhoods and made our downtown more reachable, walkable, and friendly. We have more people living here (patrons) and more people walking here from our core neighborhoods (more patrons) and they don’t even need cars to do so. None of this would have happened if we hadn’t deliberately approached this incrementally.

Most importantly, we have a group of business owners working collaboratively together and in cooperation with the city to lead the initiative. We’re not dependent on the city gambling with debt, ongoing taxpayer subsidy, or trying to meet the preferences of those who would rather drive their Ford Expedition to Walmart. We’ve built on our strengths to become something uniquely Brainerd.

It is backward to think of a parking ramp as a catalyst for success; it ought to be the outcome of success. We must do the hard work it takes to get there or the effort will be wasted. There is no shortcut to building a Strong Town, but lots of rewards for the effort.