Businesses warned, fined for illegal parking operations

City ordinance restricts many from obtaining license to charge for parking in lots.

by Tara Bannow

Standing before his parking lot in the midst of the first Gopher football game of the season âÄî a frenzied event that quickly turned to a parking famine âÄî was more than Huy Ung could stand. So for the second game, the owner of U Garden Restaurant opened his lot to game-goers âÄî charging a fee in exchange for a spot and a coupon. âÄúYou have an empty parking lot and itâÄôs game day,âÄù he said. âÄúWhy waste space without letting people park?âÄù Four days later, he got a letter stating he had violated city code and would be fined if he did it again. Ung wasnâÄôt alone. All told, 11 businesses got the letter and five were fined $250 for illegally collecting money to let people park in their lots during the scrimmage and two home games in the TCF Bank Stadium. To legally sell parking spots, business owners must have a Class A commercial parking lot license. Most near the University, however, are restricted from doing so because of their location within the Pedestrian Oriented Overlay District, an area surrounding future Hiawatha Light-Rail stations in which commercial parking lots are prohibited. Ung claims there were only customer and employee cars in his lot. But license inspector Craig Eliason , who said he saw Ung waving drivers in at 9 a.m. with a sign that read âÄò$25,âÄô insists otherwise. âÄúHe had signs, he was out in the street flagging,âÄù he said. âÄúSomeone who was a customer would not have been able to eat there.âÄù Darrin Mercil , manager of MercilâÄôs Campus Auto Repair on Washington Avenue, received a fine for charging people $10 to park in his 40-spot lot during the Aug. 22 scrimmage. Since his 70-year-old business has been around long before the new zoning law, heâÄôs talking with his lawyer to see if he can be grandfathered in. âÄúI donâÄôt think the cityâÄôs working with the merchants too well,âÄù he said. Businesses should be able to get temporary licenses for the games, he said. âÄúThis areaâÄôs been here for 100 years, the whole Stadium Village has,âÄù he said. âÄúI think the city should just come out and ask us how to work best with the community.âÄù All property owners within 3,000 feet of the stadium received a letter on Aug. 15 notifying them that they need a Class A license to charge for parking during events. Those located in the Overlay District zone, however, werenâÄôt told they couldnâÄôt get one. At the public meetings that followed, no one raised objections, Ricardo Cervantes, the cityâÄôs Deputy Director of Licenses and Consumer Services, said. âÄúBut weâÄôre hearing them now,âÄù he said. Ward 2 Councilmember Cam Gordon said while it makes sense to gear the area toward pedestrian traffic, he understands the difficulties business owners face. âÄúWhen we approved that, I donâÄôt think anybody was carefully thinking about game days, business opportunities or parking issues for the stadium,âÄù Gordon said. âÄúItâÄôs an issue and a problem we definitely want to work on.âÄù The first time businesses are caught, theyâÄôre issued a violation letter; the second time, a warning. Finally, they get a citation carrying a $250 fine. For each subsequent violation, the fine doubles, reaching a maximum of $2,000. For MercilâÄôs, ArbyâÄôs and an unlicensed parking lot, all of which charged for parking the day of the scrimmage, there was no warning âÄî just a fine. âÄúI think they shouldâÄôve worked with us better or handed out a warning,âÄù Mercil said. In these cases, the city went straight to citations because the parking spot sales were more obvious, Eliason said. Adopted back in 2007, the Overlay District is designed to better accommodate walking, biking and mass transit in the area and discourage auto-oriented activities. The zoning is being enforced before the light rail is here to transition toward pedestrian and transit-oriented traffic, Haila Maze, principal planner for the cityâÄôs Department of Community Planning and Economic DevelopmentâÄôs Planning Division, said. âÄúWeâÄôre trying to be more proactive than reactive,âÄù she said. On top of a staggering 50-percent compliance rate, the number of businesses illegally charging for parking is on the rise, Cervantes said. âÄúEven after the education and after our meetings, some folks are now choosing to try their hat at it,âÄù he said. Hossein Azhakh, owner of Caspian Bistro and Marketplace, said charging for parking in his 110-space lot would be his only chance of profiting from football games. Located a few blocks from the stadium, he said heâÄôs had regulars cancel reservations because they didnâÄôt want to drive in game day traffic. While CaspianâÄôs location within the Overlay District restricts it from obtaining a Class A license, Azhakh said city officials should be more lenient. âÄúIâÄôm very happy to have the stadium because IâÄôm a Gopher fan,âÄù he said, âÄúbut the city can make it easier for people who are paying a very high property tax.âÄù If people illegally tailgate in businessâÄô lots, business owners can be cited âÄî even if theyâÄôre not around. For this reason, many are burdened with guarding their property on game days. Nancy Rose Pribyl, president of the Stadium Village Commercial Association and manager of Dinnaken Properties, said she had to hire police officers to make sure no one parked in her lot. ItâÄôs costing businesses money to protect their lots, she said. Although kickoff wasnâÄôt until 6 p.m. on the first game, Azhakh said, people were trying to park in his lot as early as 9 a.m. Most Class A license holders are parking companies that own large ramps and lots. ArbyâÄôs , MercilâÄôs, Tarraf Construction and two improperly licensed lots received fines. Given the leap in property taxes when the stadium was built, Ung said the city should do more to help local businesses. âÄúBusiness is slow, the economyâÄôs not good,âÄù he said, âÄúthis is a chance for people to make money and help with their property tax.âÄù