Tuesday, May 12, 2009

CARAG is for (Car) Lovers

When the CARAG Master Plan was completed in 2000, it was intended to serve as a guide to the next several decades of development and change in the CARAG neighborhood. It was created after a lengthy process involving many neighbors and other local stakeholders, and continues to inform the neighborhood’s decisions today. While there is much about the plan to be admired, there are also some glaring examples of hypocrisy, or at least examples of two deeply conflicting viewpoints that are never fully reconciled. Chief among these is the plan’s – and by extension the neighborhood’s – vision of the role of cars in CARAG. Some initial relevant snippets from the plan:

“Our plan begins with an understanding that CARAG is a great urban neighborhood and the actions that we undertake will only enhance its urban qualities,” states the plan in the introduction. (i)

“We believe that CARAG is a place where people could live without a car. (4-3)

“Our master plan recognizes that our dense, urban character is critical to the neighborhood, and if a parking problem is a by-product of what we like about CARAG, we will find ways to live with it.” (4-4)

So far, so good – these statements support the vision of CARAG, and of Uptown in general, as a vibrant urban neighborhood. Things don’t stay this clear, though, and conflicting views are quickly folded into the mix.

“We recognize that we live in a dense, urban neighborhood, and that people in CARAG will not give up their cars.” (4-4)

We do? Why? Not everyone will give up their cars, certainly, but isn’t it defeatist to start out with this attitude? There are many people who would happily give up their car if they had the opportunity, and there are people in CARAG who have already done just that. Part of the appeal of a dense, urban neighborhood is the ability to live without a car, and we should work to make that an option for as many people as possible.

And then there is this comment:

“One of the most significant issues in CARAG is the lack of parking that meets contemporary standards.” (4-7)

No, not really. The issue is that there are too many cars, not that there is too little parking. “Contemporary standards” means auto-centric standards, and it is these standards that pose the most threat to city neighborhoods. Luckily, the master plan offers a counterpoint:

“It should be noted that in CARAG, contemporary requirements for parking may not be appropriate. In a neighborhood where transit, bicycling, and walking are common, parking standards may be significantly reduced.” (4-7)

Now this, I agree with. Too bad the rest of the plan doesn’t agree…

“For site development in the CARAG residential district it is the intention of the master plan that parking is provided at the rate of two spaces per unit, at least half of which must be in a garage.” (4-32)

This doesn’t sound “significantly reduced” in the least, and is in fact an increase over what the city itself allows. The master plan is particularly concerned about parking in their proposed “lifestyle housing,” potential new housing developments that were envisioned as providing a denser, possibly row house-style homes between 31st Street and Lake. This vision was specifically designed to provide higher density living within close walking distance to Hennepin, Lake, Lyndale, the Greenway and other top Uptown business and recreational destinations. It should go without saying that these “lifestyle” developments are intended to offer residents a very urban lifestyle, one in which a car is not necessary. That should translate to fewer required parking spots, right? Especially given the earlier comment about how “contemporary standards” may not be appropriate for an urban neighborhood like CARAG? Think again:

“The city’s zoning requirements allows only one off-street parking space per unit, while our plan indicates that two would be desired. While we certainly do not wish to over-build parking in CARAG, we recognize that this type of housing [“lifestyle housing” such as row houses, townhouses, etc.] will likely result in a new housing type in the neighborhood – one where a greater number of off-street parking spaces would be desired by the ultimate residents. We believe the master plan is being realistic about market demands, and also recognizes that most people who might occupy these units will have more than one vehicle (or even have other recreational vehicles that will require storage on the site). (5-3)

I have so many problems with this statement that I find it hard to know where to begin. First, how can anyone possibly argue that this expanded parking requirement in any way follows in line with the stated goals of the master plan? What happened to CARAG being an urban neighborhood, one in which urban lifestyles were to be embraced? And who are these car-dependent people expected to move into these new lifestyle units? Presumably the biggest draw about living in the heart of Uptown, especially in a higher density development, would be the ability to live life without a car. These people, even more so than most CARAG residents, would be the least likely to need space to park multiple cars.

I suppose the plan is assuming that the residents in any such new development would be wealthy, and would as a result be likely to have more cars. While it’s true that these developments probably would attract a more affluent crowd, there are many wealthy people who don’t need or want to stable a garage-full of cars. What’s more, the necessity to add additional parking spot adds to the cost – further driving up housing prices and making this housing type even more unaffordable to lower or middle-class people. All residents, even those who don’t drive, or who own only one car, would indirectly foot the bill for the construction and maintenance of these unnecessary parking spots. That land could be put to better use as additional housing, or even as increased garden or outdoor green space., all uses that would benefit both the residents as well as the neighborhood as a whole more than would a parking spot.

The crafters of the CARAG master plan thought it “realistic” in their call for additional parking spots. What they call realistic, I call enabling. While the concept of lifestyle housing itself isn’t bad, the proposed parking requirements makes it appear that CARAG is advocating "suburban lifestyle" housing, not "lifestyle housing" for an urban neighborhood. Rather than water down CARAG’s urban nature to suit the perceived tastes of a few potential new residents, the movers and shakers (not to mention the rest of us) of CARAG should be supporting the creation and enhancement of an exciting city neighborhood, one that is designed for the needs of people, not cars. If CARAG really wants an urban neighborhood then it's time to dump the suburban mentality once and for all.


  1. I couldn't agree more. Great post. In addition, whether or not additional parking is desired by future residents is an entirely different issue than whether or not additional parking should be required in future development.

  2. Let's not forget that the word "park" has two meanings. Maybe we could find a compromise between the two by requiring that every new car-parking space be matched by an equivalent patch of green space. (This could be accomplished through the use of green roofs, with rooftop recreational areas being available to the public.)

  3. Of course, not enough parking for potential residents from elsewhere might mean a bunch of vacant units. As to the requirement levels, though, any sophisticated developer is likely to know what types of people they're trying to attract and how much parking is likely to be needed. They have a stake in finding a good level of available parking. Too much means wasting space they could be profiting from; too little means unsold units. In sum, requiring developers to add more parking than they feel is necessary to attract residents seems rather silly.

  4. Here's a great article specifically related to this:


  5. CARAG spends an awful lot of time debating and passing resolutions that 1) complain that proposed developments are too tall; and 2) complain that proposed developments lack sufficient off-street parking. We want more neighborhood-serving retail in uptown, but we're not willing to allow the sort of dense development that would bring in more bodies to support it.