“Dinky” bus looks to help with parking

The shuttle should start in the fall and run from the 4th Street ramp through Dinkytown.

Senior Parking Attendant Michal Hawkins assists a customer with parking at the 4th Street Parking Ramp on Tuesday July 23rd, 2013.

Jaak Jensen

Senior Parking Attendant Michal Hawkins assists a customer with parking at the 4th Street Parking Ramp on Tuesday July 23rd, 2013.

Meghan Holden

Students and business owners agree parking in Dinkytown can be a nightmare.

To improve ongoing parking woes, Dinkytown businesses are working to provide a free shuttle bus for commuting customers.

A 1960s-era short school bus called “The Dinky” will circulate every five minutes from the University of Minnesota’s 4th Street Ramp  to the Dinkytown area.

Businesses partnering on the project hope to have the shuttle running by the start of the school year, but a date hasn’t been finalized, said Lynn Nyman, executive assistant at the Loring Pasta Bar  and Varsity Theater.

The shuttle will operate from late afternoon until about 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

Owners of Loring, Kafe 421, Burrito Loco Bar and Grill and Autographics Printing are the only businesses involved in the project so far, but Nyman said they’re looking for more sponsors in the neighborhood. The developers behind a proposed apartment complex in the area will also help fund the shuttle.

The initiative is still in its beginning stages, and the partners are currently working with the University to utilize the ramp.

Nyman said the University has been very receptive in what could be a “win-win” situation for both the school and the shuttle.

Loring Pasta Bar and Varsity Theater owner Jason McLean is designing the bus to make the five-minute ride an “experience” for destination customers, Nyman said.

“We want it to make parking fun,” she said.

Finding a solution

Parking problems intensified in December when businesses lost 178 spaces  after the University Technology Enterprise Center  was demolished to make way for a new apartment complex.

The new building, which is being developed by GEM Realty Capital, Inc., will be completed next July and provide 41 public parking spaces.

“As of December, we all started feeling the problem,” Nyman said.

Gretchen Camp,  associate partner at the architecture firm that designed the complex, said they didn’t originally plan to have public parking, instead offering more spaces to residents. She said the design changed after discussions with businesses and neighborhoods in the area.

The Opus Group also added public parking spaces to their plans for a new apartment complex on Fifth Street Southeast after listening to businesses’ concerns. The proposed site will provide at least 68 paid stalls, nearly as many spaces as the project is displacing, said Matt Rauenhorst, senior director of real estate development at Opus.

“We tried to meet as many requests as we could,” he said.

Opus will also help finance the shuttle during the apartment’s construction to help out area businesses, Rauenhorst said.

Even with the parking spaces from the new developments, many community members say the issue won’t be solved.

City Councilwoman Diane Hofstede, who represents Ward 3, said she’s been working with the Dinkytown Business Association and area neighborhoods to fix the problem.

Hofstede said the city evaluated parking options “block-by-block” around Dinkytown to see what spaces weren’t being utilized.

“We’ve covered a lot of ground,” Hofstede said. “But we’re not finished.”

Kafe 421 owner Georgia Sander said she’s optimistic about the shuttle solving some of the parking problems and hopes it can keep Dinkytown on the map.

Educating customers on where to park is a large part of the shuttle’s mission, said Burrito Loco owner Greg Pillsbury.

“There’s plenty of parking,” Pillsbury said. “People just need to know where to park.”

Driving around the block a few times is a typical parking experience in the area, said Josh Thorson, graphic design sophomore.

“I feel like I just drive in circles until I find a place,” he said.

Skott Johnson, DBA president and Autographics owner, said the shuttle will help businesses during construction, but the area needs a more permanent solution.

“This is just a short-term solution,” he said.