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Duluth rethinks parking capacity requirements

The city could join others around the nation that have ditched parking minimums, as it also considers how to better accommodate electric vehicles and bikes.

parking spots in Duluth
One of several large parking lots at the Miller Hill Mall in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Lately, the city’s strict parking requirements have drawn scrutiny and calls for reform.

At present, Duluth tells developers how much parking they must provide. But those parking minimums could become a relic of the past, if proposed changes to city code are adopted.

“I personally don’t believe that the city should be enforcing mandated minimums that just drive up the cost of development for a building, whether it’s commercial, office space or housing,” said at large City Councilor Noah Hobbs.

parking spots in Duluth
Cub Foods located along Central Entrance in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

He suggested that by doing away with those burdensome regulations, Duluth can make itself a more desirable site for new development. Hobbs referred to the parking minimum requirements as “kind of arbitrary” and noted that other cities across the nation have been moving to eliminate such rules.

If Duluth chooses to do the same, it would be following in the footsteps of a number of cities adopting “established best practices,” including Minneapolis and St. Paul, said Adam Fulton, deputy director of Duluth’s planning and economic development division.

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“This is an area where regulation is very extensive and very costly,” Fulton said.

He explained that a one-size-fits-all set of rules has made it difficult for developers to navigate, especially when they seek to deviate from what’s prescribed in the code. It makes for a lot of work for the city planners, too.

“It ends up eating enormous quantities of staff time. It’s just incredible,” Fulton said.

parking spots in Duluth
A large parking lot fills the area between the Olive Garden and The Home Depot.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Many of the city’s parking requirements seem to be based on the assumption that every household owns one or two vehicles, and that’s simply not the case, said Andrea Crouse, a community development manager for Zeitgeist. She noted that more than one-third of households in Duluth’s Hillside neighborhood lack access to a personal vehicle. And citywide, about 11% of households are without an automobile, according to Minnesota Compass.

Crouse said that in extensive door-to-door visits with neighborhood residents over the past couple of years, “At least for the majority of folks we spoke to, where they’re parking their car was not a pressing concern. Having affordable housing, having cleared, safe sidewalks and walking paths to get where they need to go is a much higher priority.”

It has been more than a decade since Duluth last considered major revisions to its parking policies, and Fulton sees benefits to the changes being proposed.

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“The goal is that we will be able to spend more time on parking solutions that are community-driven and cooperative, versus spending as much time on the regulatory side of that. And the market will drive what that demand is,” he said.

Hobbs suggested that right-sizing parking capacity could free up more space for “higher, more productive uses” of land that could build the city’s tax base.

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“It’s one of those rare changes that would be good for the taxpayers, good for developers and good for the environment,” he said.

“The city shouldn’t be in the business of dictating down to a ‘t’ how many parking spaces you absolutely need. If you have a business model that may not rely on automobile traffic, it provides greater freedom for businesses to operate in the way that they see fit. And it takes away a little government overreach,” Hobbs said.

It bears noting that there are already parts of the city that have been exempted from parking minimums, namely downtown Duluth and Canal Park.

parking spots in Duluth
An electric vehicle charging station seen in Canal Park.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

While the code modifications proposed would loosen parking requirements, staff are also suggesting future parking be built to better accommodate electric vehicles, with charging stations available for 10% of a parking area’s total capacity.

Joe Kleiman, a local developer, questioned the wisdom of requiring such an investment in charging stations, and suggested they should be installed based on market forces instead.

parking spots in Duluth
An electric vehicle charges in Canal Park in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

But Hobbs believes it makes sense for the city to look forward.

“You're going to have a shift over the next decade or so, from traditional fossil fuel-powered automobiles to electric vehicles. And it’s better to think about that now,” he said.

Crouse, too, said she likes the thought being given to electric vehicles.

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“It aligns more closely with Duluth’s Climate Action Plan to incorporate that and the Imagine Duluth 2035 Comprehensive Plan. And I’m just a huge supporter of seeing codes and ordinances that support the vision the community has expressed in those documents. … Otherwise, they’re guiding documents that just sit on the shelf,” she said.

parking spots in Duluth
The display of an electric charging station in Canal Park.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The proposed ordinance changes also increased accommodations for bicycles, as future developers would be expected to provide bike parking equivalent to 5% of motorized vehicle parking. For residential developments, the city would call for bike parking capacity at a rate of one space for every five dwelling units.

“As somebody who does some biking around the city, it is very difficult to find legal bike parking in town. So, I love that they included that,” Crouse said, noting that cyclists often resort to makeshift solutions, such as locking up to a street sign, which can impede pedestrian traffic.

She applauded the city’s efforts to think about other modes of transportation.

“More and more young people are choosing not to even get a driver’s license, and our community currently isn’t set up well to support that choice. But it sure would make us a lot healthier and decrease a lot of the traffic on the street if we could be more supportive of people using other modes of transportation,” she said.

The proposed changes to the city’s parking requirements are slated to go before the Duluth Planning Commission on Feb. 14, with a public hearing scheduled before it can take any action.

If the proposed amendments garner sufficient commissioner support, the matter will then go to the Duluth City Council for consideration, with the ordinance change receiving two public readings before the council could act, likely bringing the matter to a vote in March.

parking spots in Duluth
The Canal Park solar powered electric vehicle charging area.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Related Topics: DULUTHDULUTH CITY COUNCIL
Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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