The Grand Avenue parking meter plan is no more

 

By Frederick Melo
fmelo@pioneerpress.com

Posted:   10/30/2015

Parking meters along Grand Avenue? Don't expect them anytime soon, if ever.

On Thursday, Ward 2 City Council Member Dave Thune held a press conference in the lobby of the downtown Ramsey County Courthouse to declare the mayor's parking meter proposal all but dead.

Little more than an hour later, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman announced that in light of the lack of council backing, the meter issue was dead and not likely to return soon. Certainly not in his soon-to-be-revised 2016 budget proposal.

Thune, who had once supported installing meters along Grand from Ayd Mill Road to Dale Street, said he had reversed course after heavy community opposition. Most of Grand Avenue is in Thune's ward; meters are unlikely to be adopted by the council without his support.

"Being a 20-year veteran of politics, that pretty much ends it," Thune said. "The option was always a good one to look at, but it doesn't work to try and force it."

Even family members laid into him.

"My wife is mad at me, my sister is mad at me. I just talked to a city attorney, and his barber yelled at him," Thune said. "The meters just are not a good idea anymore. It does show that City Hall does listen."

The news came as relief to Tavern on Grand manager Ashley LeMay.

"I'm glad his family was on the right side," LeMay said. "I can't believe that's what it took for it to happen."

Thune's office had sent out a community email as recently as Oct. 21 defending the meter proposal.

He said he met with Coleman twice on Wednesday to look at how to make meters work, and neither conversation was easy. The council member called the mayor at about 12:45 p.m. Thursday to say he was abandoning the effort.

The meters were expected to generate some $400,000 in net revenue in 2016 and $600,000 in 2017.

Thune said he expects the "half-billion dollar" city budget can absorb the loss in projected revenue. The mayor said later he had not sat down with his budget officials to determine how that would be done, but he planned to present an amended 2016 budget proposal to the council before December.

Coleman acknowledged that the proposed meters had politicized residents and business owners in advance of the Nov. 3 city council elections and overshadowed candidate forums, even ones located well outside of the ward.

The mayor referred to the 800-page book "The High Cost of Free Parking," which spells out how providing free parking cuts into city budgets, increases energy use, discourages foot traffic and fuels urban sprawl.

Thune's Oct. 21 email to constituents had talked up the possibility of using meter revenue to pay for a circulator bus or subsidize a pay parking lot for employees of avenue businesses.

The mayor said metered parking would have helped businesses by encouraging customer turnover and inspired more visitors to use public transit, but it was impossible to have a serious discussion in an "emotional" political climate.

"I'm a little disappointed," the mayor said. "It's political season. We understand there's an election. There were some political considerations, I'm sure, playing into this."

The mayor's meter proposal drew some supporters, such as cycling and transit advocates, but far more vocal critics. In recent days, a coalition of opponents dubbed "St. Paul Strong" pointed to the parking meters as evidence that City Hall lacks transparency and too many decisions take place behind closed doors, with limited input from residents.

Bearing similar arguments, Grand Avenue tax preparer Chad Skally declared himself a write-in candidate for city council on Wednesday in Ward 3, which spans Mac-Groveland and Highland Park.

Skally, who set up a Facebook page critical of the city council, softened his tone Thursday.

He noted that while years of studies have failed to achieve widespread consensus about how to deal with parking issues in one of the city's busiest business districts, the reports did offer some suggestions worth revisiting.

"There were ideas that would help," Skally said.

Thune's announcement was attended by Ward 2 candidates Rebecca Noecker and Darren Tobolt, as well as representatives of the Summit Hill Association and the Grand Avenue Business Association. The two associations had fought hard to kill the meter proposal, and the two candidates had come out against the meters in recent days after once expressing openness toward them.

"Thank you for listening, and it really shows that (the process) works as it is supposed to," said Jon Perrone, director of the Grand Avenue Business Association, addressing the council member.

John Wolf, a co-owner of Dixie's on Grand and two other restaurants on the avenue, said he was pleased with how city officials ultimately embraced the opposition. "We couldn't be prouder of the way the city responded," Wolf said.

In mid-October, a rally in the Dixie's parking lot drew some 300 participants, all but a handful of them opposed to the meters.

"We think it would actually create more congestion -- people fumbling for money," said Wolf, noting that avenue-area residents were as opposed to the plan as business owners.

Tad Vezner contributed to this report.

Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172. Follow him at twitter.com/FrederickMelo.