A Park-and-Ride Too Far

For many years, the City of Rochester operated a public transit park-and-ride located along 3rd Avenue SE across the street from Bethel Lutheran Church in Slatterly Park.  The agreement between the City of Rochester and Bethel either expired or was discontinued on January 2nd, 2014.  Fast forward to this past City Council agenda which included an item recommended by the Transit and Parking Division to enter into a new 15-month lease agreement with Bethel, except the proposed parking lot would instead be located on the east side of 3rd Avenue SE—directly south of the Church building.

Under the agreement, Bethel provides up to 100 spaces for persons to park and ride the City bus into the downtown. The Lease is based on set amount of $1,000.00 per month. The system revenues cover the cost of the parking lease. The spaces are available Monday through Friday, 6:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. Bethel provides for all lot maintenance including snow removal.

Bethel Lutheran Church located in the Slatterly Park Neighborhood is a strong institution with a large and growing congregation.  Approximately 10-15 years ago, a large addition to the church was built.  With growing demand for convenient access to the front door, the church acquired numerous adjacent residential properties to the south, demolished the structures, and paved a 274-stall surface parking lot. 

Proposed Bethel Park-and-Ride Location

Proposed Bethel Park-and-Ride Location

Parking Lot Today (View North from 9th St SE)

Parking Lot Today (View North from 9th St SE)

What was once a block of about a dozen single family homes—producing thousands of dollars of property tax revenue each year—is now a tax-exempt, impervious surface lot used sparingly each week.  According to the Olmsted County property tax records, the underlying land value of two parcels that make up the 2.72 acre parking lot is $772,000. This land value alone would typically produce in the range of $10,000-$20,000 in annual property tax revenue, notwithstanding its current tax-exempt status.  Add some buildings, whether residential or commercial, and the tax revenue generation would be far greater.  The tax exempt, non-revenue generating status of this parcel, combined with its unproductive land use as a parking lot, and further proposed subsidy of $12,000 per year as a park and ride, will cost the City of Rochester tens of thousands of dollars per year.

Now one cannot fault Bethel for looking for ways to create some source of revenue off a portion of their land which remains vacant each weekday, but since this issue was brought before City Council, and they are charged with setting public policy, should we (the city) be taking such actions to create (and subsidize) a downtown park-and-ride lot? 

Bethel Lutheran Church abuts the boundary of the Rochester Downtown Master Plan (RDMP) study area and is not technically inside the boundary.  That being said, the arbitrary demarcation of “downtown” is less as important as the recommendations that apply to the land areas consistent with the characteristics and context of downtown.  Thus Slatterly Park, Kutzky Park, Historic Southwest, and Eastside Pioneers Neighborhoods should take note of these recommendations even if they reside comfortably outside of “downtown.”

RDMP Study Area Shown Dashed

RDMP Study Area Shown Dashed

The RDMP specifically addresses the issue at hand.  Among other things, it provides a comprehensive assessment of transportation in Rochester.  Park-and-rides were specifically addressed in the chapter titled “Mobility.”  In no uncertain terms, the RDMP states:

Through the use of park and ride lots and remote parking, transit already plays an important role in reducing the amount of parking in downtown, especially parking devoted to the long-term storage of vehicles. It is recommended that the City…build on the success of the park and ride and remote parking programs by providing clearly marketed, high-frequency transit connections from these locations to downtown…
…parking in the downtown area, such as the Fullerton Lot, is encouraged to be accommodated remotely and replaced by higher and better land uses.

Have our civic leaders forgotten that the RDMP was adopted by the City Council in 2010 and cost more than a half million dollars to develop?  What would be their rationale for ignoring this recommendation?

As the plan states, park-and-ride lots represent a very important tool in solving a city’s transportation challenges.  Regional commuters are provided opportunities to drive to the edge of Rochester, park their car in some public or underutilized private parking lot, hop on a bus that provides direct transport (meaning none or very few other stops) to a downtown hub of workplaces.  The goal of a park-and-ride is to relieve congestion in the downtown area by reducing the volume of vehicles impacting the limited downtown facilities – the streets, lots, and ramps.

The Fullerton Lot, mentioned in the RDMP excerpt above and owned by Mayo Clinic, has both similarities and differences with the Bethel Lot. The Fullerton Lot is a privately owned and operated employee park-and-ride facility for a private business. The proposed Bethel park-and-ride is also a privately owned lot, but which the City is proposing to lease for use as a publicly owned and operated system.

There are also geographic similarities between both the Fullerton and Bethel Lots.  They are both considered downtown park-and-rides, as both are located within walking distance to downtown.  Some who park at Fullerton do walk; others hop on the privately operated shuttle.  The RDMP recognizes the nature of both lots as downtown locations and recommends replacement of downtown park-and-rides to a remote location.

Through development of remote park-and-rides, the downtown lots are incentivized to redevelop to a more financially productive land use (often referred to as highest and best use), or at least at a minimum not supported via a city subsidy to remain a parking lot for the foreseeable future.  Being a charitable organization, Bethel Lutheran Church and their parking lot currently benefit from tax-exempt status, reducing its likelihood of redeveloping.  A city park-and-ride contract will only serve to further disincentivize redevelopment of this potentially highly-productive land.

A final point that must be made is that Bethel Lutheran Church maintains property rights that currently allow them to lease out their parking lot privately at a market rate, something that many downtown businesses (and churches!) do to generate some revenue from underutilized parking spaces.  A bus stop and shelter already exist at the site – with or without the lot being established as a “official” city park and ride. The photo below shows the bus stop sign and shelter along 3rd Avenue SE.  Anyone today is free to park in a nearby on-street parking space, walk to this bus stop, and hop on for a quick jaunt to downtown.  A city subsidy is not needed for this already available transportation offering.

The Slatterly Park Neighborhood Association representatives were made aware of the proposal and asked for the agenda item to be continued to a future hearing to allow for discussion with staff and council on the proposal.  A wise decision since the Imagine Slatterly Vision Plan (adopted by City Council in 2012) is in concert with the recommendations of the RDMP and promotes a more walkable neighborhood.  That vision is incongruous with a park-and-ride concept in their neighborhood.

Design Rochester hopes that City Council will give this issue some serious thought.  Especially considering that numerous approved planning documents recommend against this practice.  Any of the points below can be used to reinforce this argument and we would advocate for their inclusion in the ensuing policy debate.

  1. A downtown park-and-ride is inconsistent with the adopted Downtown Master Plan.
  2. Use as a park-and-ride disincentives redevelopment to a more productive use.
  3. Creation of such a park-and-ride promotes additional traffic into downtown, increasing congestion along 3rd Avenue SE.
  4. A city bus stop already exists at Bethel Lutheran Church on 3rd Avenue SE, with plentiful nearby on-street parking to allow parking and riding to occur free of charge
  5. The land would become double-subsidized with both tax-exempt status and income from City budget