Nathaniel Hood

A photographic tour of spots and lots in St. Paul’s booming Lowertown district.

To hear USA Today describe it, the Lowertown district in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, is officially “up and coming.” In addition to some great restaurants and a year-round Farmers’ Market, the neighborhood is now home to Nice Ride bike-share stations and the new Green Line light rail. The St. Paul Saints, the city’s indy pro baseball club, started playing at the new CHS Field in Lowertown this spring.

But to hear the local papers describe Lowertown, the area’s emergence at a downtown destination has come with a severe parking shortage. Here are two city officials speaking to the Pioneer Press this spring:

Jack Gerten, who manages the Farmers' Market for the city, said he was trying to balance the needs of residents, potential area business patrons and the Saints.

"Lowertown's coming alive, but unfortunately, there's consequences," Gerten said.

City parking manager Gary Grabko added: "The development happening, private and public, has totally changed the parking situation ... especially in Lowertown. That's the reality of the problem.

Local transportation planner and blogger Nathaniel Hood sees things a bit differently. In several recent posts he’s pointed out that there is a parking problem in Lowertown—there’s too much of it. To help make his case, Hood took his camera to Lowertown on a recent “bustling Saturday afternoon” and photographed the shortage. Behold:

Nathaniel Hood
Nathaniel Hood
Nathaniel Hood
Nathaniel Hood

A couple years ago, during a period of heated local debates about Lowertown parking, he mapped the abundance of off-street lots and parking garages (below, in blue) to further spotlight the “problem”:

Nathaniel Hood

It’s not unusual for people to worry about parking in places where they totally don’t need to worry about parking. The consultancy Nelson\Nygaard recently surveyed parking availability in 27 mixed-use districts across the U.S. and found that parking supply exceeded demand by an average of 65 percent. In nine areas where parking was thought to be scarce, the oversupply ranged from 6 to 82 percent.

That misperception seems to apply to Lowertown, too. If Hood’s visual evidence doesn’t convince you, take the results of a recent parking study commissioned by the city. Turns out there are nearly 29,000 spots in downtown St. Paul, with a daytime occupancy rate of 73 percent and an evening occupancy rate of 30 percent. The lots are “a bit fuller—but still well below capacity” on weekends, too, according to the Pioneer Press.

The reasons for the gap between parking reality and parking perception can vary. As Hood points out in another piece, some locals likely base their judgment of the Lowertown parking situation on peak periods, like dinner on Saturday night, or special events, like the 50-some Saints home games. “They are not present when spaces sit vacant 90 percent of the time,” he writes.

If quotes given to local papers are any indication, walking habits (or a lack thereof) also play a role. One Lowertown resident spoke of a “suburban expectation” of the home run parking spot right in front. Another resident, who spoke to a reporter while walking her dog, complained of walking “two extra blocks” for parking. One developer said: “Nobody in St. Paul likes to walk.” Writing at Streets.mn, Bill Lindeke says Lowertown’s “parking problem” is really the area’s “walking opportunity.”

Residents and visitors might embrace that opportunity yet. The new Green Line offers free rides for fans to CHS Field and lets off just a few blocks from the stadium. The city parking study also recommended several ways to make drivers more aware of existing spots, including better signage and central management of area lots. And Hood recently offered a four-step guide to combating the perception of a parking problem—in Lowertown and beyond.

Spoiler alert: it involves taking pictures.

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