Parking becomes hot-button issue in downtown development plan

Preliminary ideas for improving the downtown have included adding a fountain, a brewpub, a homemade candy and sandwich shop, and an ice cream vendor near West and East Bridge Parks or an outdoor amphitheater. This graphic shows a transformed area around West Bridge Park. (Graphics Courtesy City of Monticello/Cuningham Group/Tangible Consulting Services)
Preliminary ideas for improving the downtown have included adding a fountain, a brewpub, a homemade candy and sandwich shop, and an ice cream vendor near West and East Bridge Parks or an outdoor amphitheater. This graphic shows a transformed area around West Bridge Park. (Graphics Courtesy City of Monticello/Cuningham Group/Tangible Consulting Services)

Downtown parking became a hot-button discussion item during a recent Monticello Economic Development Authority (EDA) and Monticello Planning Commission meeting.

Last month, EDA commissioners voted 6-1 to shelve the Downtown Small Area Study, which has evolved over five months.

A joint meeting was scheduled with planning commissioners and consultants Andrew Dresdner, a senior associate with the Cuningham Group, and Thomas Leighton, a principal with Tangible Consulting Services.

The Downtown Small Area Study provides a vision and implementation strategy for downtown which includes both public and private investments scalable in small, medium and large projects, and which can be accomplished in increments over time.

It also reinforces the vision for additional housing in the downtown core and provides a framework for dense retail, entertainment and personal service uses.

The study contains strategies to enhance the core as a vibrant, walkable district with a continued mix of commercial and service businesses as well as reinforcing the vision for additional housing in the downtown core.

It also suggests enhanced parks, public space, pathway and signage improvements for ease of wayfinding. The study also recommends zoning and design guideline changes along with signage and park improvements as initial implementation action items.

Finally, the study supports building on existing assets through reinvestment while distinguishing itself from the previous Embracing Downtown Plan (2010) which sought to create a more suburban style, automobile dependent development pattern in the city’s core area.

Preliminary ideas for improving the downtown have included adding a fountain, a brewpub, a homemade candy and sandwich shop, and an ice cream vendor near West and East Bridge Parks or an outdoor amphitheater.

The plan includes three components, which would become appendix documents to the city’s comprehensive plan, similar to the 2010 Embracing Downtown Plan.

The components include the plan document, a market context and a retail vitality study. “This plan, hopefully, continues the pattern of downtown being for everyone,” Dresdner said. “You have a really special environment here,” Leighton added.

Dresdner presented four discussion topics during the July 12 joint meeting: Plan feasibility, parking, housing, and implementation. Parking received the most critical comments.

This  graphic shows the boundaries that were included in the Monticello Downtown Small Area Study. Properties outlined in red are owned by the city and include existing parking areas.
This graphic shows the boundaries that were included in the Monticello Downtown Small Area Study. Properties outlined in red are owned by the city and include existing parking areas.

“As a local business owner and operator in the downtown area, parking has always been a problem,” said Shawn Grady, co-owner of Ace Hardware, 212 W. Third St. “Now [with this plan], you are talking about taking almost all of the parking away and putting in a much higher-density, multi-family dwellings without sufficient parking and traffic flow. As a hardware business, I’m a convenience hardware store. People come to my business because they want to be able to get the help they need and get out.”

Grady said customers would not frequent his store if they had to park two, three, four blocks away. “Who is going to carry 40-pound bags of rock salt two blocks to get to their car?” Grady asked. “It’s not going to happen.”

Dresdner said he agreed 100 percent. Grady said the proposed small area study plan would make it more difficult for existing business that are downtown to survive.

“You are taking all of our parking,” Grady said. “What’s going to happen if I want to redevelop my property, and you’ve come out with all of these new design standards? These drawings show my property as multi-family dwelling and not commercial. We ran into this in the last downtown plan.”
Grady said that plan was not structured correctly. “This hardware store has been in that location for 50 years, and I feel I’m being forced out by this plan.”

Dresdner said the proposed small area study plan would not rezone Grady’s property out of its current function. “You talk about convenience parking, and I 100 percent agree,” Dresdner said. “Convenience businesses rely on convenient parking. For the core blocks around River Street and Broadway, over time, the business models are probably going to change for that area.”

Grady said there was very little parking shown in the proposed plan drawings, adding that the city allowed development of Beef O’Brady’s with very little parking.

“Where do their customers park? They park in my parking lot,” Grady said. That takes parking away from my customers and staff. Where do Cargill’s employees park? They park in my lot. I have to be the police officer and determine which cars don’t belong there. There isn’t enough parking downtown already. This plan makes it more difficult.”

Grady was concerned because the project renderings produced by the Cuningham Group were inconsistent in what they showed regarding his business.

“What does that say to the community about this plan?” Grady asked. “I plan to be here longterm. I don’t plan to go anywhere. Why wasn’t that even considered? You didn’t even leave parking for my business.”

Dresdner said that Pine Street would remain convenience business oriented with ample parking at front doors. Grady said that Ace Hardware requires him to maintain four parking spaces per 1,000 square feet. “I am contractually obligated to do that as long as I want to fly their flag. You are not thinking this through.”

Community Development Director Angela Schumann said the parking concerns expressed by Grady were similar to those expressed by EDA Commissioner Steve Johnson, who asked that Monticello Planning Commissioners attend the joint workshop July 12.

“There’s a difference between a comprehensive plan guide, like this, and zoning,” Schumann said. “I think, certainly, people have looked at this plan and said, ‘Where’s my building, and where’s my parking’ and again, if you decide never to move, there won’t be multi-family housing there. If you leave someday, this plan envisions housing there.”

Grady said that would make it impossible for him to sell his property. Charlotte Gabler, Monticello Planning Commission city council liaison, was concerned Grady and other downtown business owners were alienated.

“They are feeling left out because they aren’t in the picture,” Gabler said. “Where did the parking go? We are showing other things where their buildings are located. Can we redraw this? He’s on an anchor corner. Why don’t we just draw Shawn’s building in there?”

Leighton said he felt bad the Grady felt left out regarding parking. “One of the things that you want to pay attention to is the next layer of policy,” Leighton said. “There need to be some decisions made about zoning property after this plan is adopted. Then, the next layer of policy, in theory, your property could be zoned residential, and you would want to know what rights that gave you if that happened. That’s going to be important.”

Gabler questioned if what Leighton was suggesting was something that needed to rest squarely on Grady’s shoulders as a downtown business owner.

Dresdner replied, “Yes, it is. With an area of this size, when it comes to rezoning, you will make sure that all of the property owners have due notification, and that it will probably go beyond just sending a mailing.” Dresdner said the city could do a parking utilization study of downtown Monticello parking lots as the small area study plan moves forward.

“That study can be looked at over time, as you make changes. I don’t believe that we are removing much parking at all from the current inventory,” he said. “This plan does remove some on-street parking, but a lot of the proposed housing will have underground parking.”

Dresdner said surface parking would primarily remain for business use. Grady reiterated that downtown Monticello parking has been a problem for years because Cargill has a tremendous number of employees that work multiple shifts.

“They haven’t stepped up to the plate and provided enough parking, so what do their employees do? They park in front of my loading dock,” he said. Grady added he has to call the Wright County Sheriff’s Office at least twice a month to have cars towed away.

He said at one point, Cargill was paying to use the Ace Hardware parking lot, but that practice stopped. “I’ve been given a fancy letter that I’m supposed to put on every windshield that says, ‘Let’s be courteous and be good neighbors and not use parking that doesn’t belong to us.’ Come on.”

Dresdner said it’s not uncommon for cities, at some point, to start developing plans for managing their parking. “The parking supply can be managed that way,” Dresdner said.

According to Leighton, the small area study illustration that was developed for downtown Monticello and mentioned by Grady currently showed a 10 percent reduction in parking. Gabler asked how that 10 percent would be made up.

“Right now, you are using 40 percent of your existing parking,” Leighton said. “If it gets busier downtown as a result of this plan, then subsequent decisions should take that into consideration.”

Dresdner suggested that Wells Fargo’s parking lot was under utilized and could be used for additional parking; EDA and planning commissioners disagreed, as well as Grady.

“I drive there from three different Ace Hardware stores,” Grady said. “When I get there to drop off my deposit, the lot on the back half is full, and the customer parking is full.”

EDA Commissioner Tracy Hinz asked about adjusting parking. Leighton said a ramp might be an option. “You don’t want to spend millions of dollars on a ramp, but if you get into a situation where you really have the level of demand, you might have to consider it.”

Hinz wanted specific suggestions to alleviate some of the existing downtown parking issues between Ace Hardware and Cargill.

Dresdner replied, “[Mayor] Brian Stumpf needs to talk to Cargill. It’s a black and white issue. Their employees should not be parking in your lot.”

Leighton said he and Dresdner were told that the Third Street and Walnut city parking lot wasn’t fully utilized. Gabler said all downtown parking lots filled up later in the afternoon and evening.

Grady was concerned about the Riverfest Week Downtown Monticello Block Party parking filling up his lot. That event was occurring the same time as the joint EDA and planning commission meeting July 12.

Hinz said the Downtown Monticello Small Area Study Steering Committee had missed the boat regarding parking. “This never appeared on our radar,” Hinz said. “I think we need to take a step back.”

City Administrator Jeff O’Neill said he hadn’t observed major parking issues. “Personally, I haven’t witnessed this being a big problem,” O’Neill said. “We need to get additional facts and statistics. We [city staff] would have brought something up to steering committee members if we thought it was a problem. Now that it’s been identified as a problem, it’s incumbent upon us to research it,” O’Neill added.

Contact Tim Hennagir at tim.hennagir@ecm-inc.com