Proposed Huron arena site raises parking concerns

by Brad Unangst

University students Sandy Johnson and Melissa Berg park in the Huron Boulevard lot every day. They say it’s the only affordable place to park on campus.

“It’s cheaper than parking in the ramps all day,” Johnson said.

Annie Belka, a University sophomore, said the lot is important to commuters who need convenient on-campus parking.

“I live off campus, and I have to park in the lot,” Belka said. “I don’t know what would happen to my car if I couldn’t park over here.”

But if the state Legislature approves construction of a proposed $500 million Gophers/Vikings stadium, University commuters like Johnson, Berg and Belka could see the 2,000-space parking lot replaced by a 68,500-seat arena.

“I have two years left to park here, and that would not be good, because we’re already losing parking as it is,” Berg said.

Over the last five years, the University has lost more than 2,700 campus parking spaces to construction projects, including 900 spaces to the Gateway alumni center, 420 to the Ridder Arena and tennis facility and more than 300 to the Carlson School of Management building.

Bob Baker, director of University Parking and Transportation Services, said the Huron lot is the largest daily-rate lot remaining on the East Bank. At $3 per day, Baker said, the lot is nearly full every day.

After examining several locations, the University selected the Huron lot as the prospective stadium site because of its size.

“Obviously this current lot is an important lot,” said Richard Pfutzenreuter, chief financial officer for the University. “It’s the only big piece of land we have that could fit (the stadium).”

Pfutzenreuter estimated the value of the Huron lot property at approximately $2 million.

Because the University was established before the state of Minnesota, all property on the institution’s land is exempt from property taxes.

Stadium design plans show the entire complex, including a pre-game/tailgating plaza and two parking ramps, covering six city blocks, said Stephen Weeks, University architecture professor.

Not including the parking ramps, the stadium would cover roughly 600,000 feet – a size comparable to the Metrodome, Weeks said.

Over two years, the University would spend $60 million on the construction of two parking ramps, providing weekday commuters with 4,000 new spaces.

“We would certainly apply due sensitivity to maintaining student parking if this plan proceeds,” Baker said.

To avoid a potential parking disaster, Baker said the new parking ramps could be completed in two phases.

During phase I, the University would construct one ramp, while maintaining some of the existing Huron lot.

The stadium and second parking ramp would be completed in phase II.

Baker said the construction would not disrupt bus services on the transit way, which runs through the Huron lot.

“The transit way is vital for the University to get students back and forth between St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses,” Baker said. “Part of the planning challenge would need to incorporate a solution to maintaining that.”

Students could expect an increase in bus services during and after construction of the stadium – an expense already included in the $60 million ramp cost, Pfutzenreuter said.

But Weeks said the current design does not adequately address game-day traffic flow from the ramps into Stadium Village and Dinkytown.

“(The design) doesn’t even show how to handle 4,000 cars coming out of those ramps and loading onto Oak Street, trying to get to the freeway or coming back onto Huron. It’s very naive,” Weeks said.

The Vikings had an average attendance of more than 64,000 people during their eight home games last season.

Current stadium design plans reroute the thousands of expected vehicles through a labyrinth of roads.

According to plans, traffic on University Avenue would be one-way until 23rd Avenue. Huron Boulevard would end at University, and Fifth Street would connect with 23rd Avenue behind the stadium.

Incorporating light rail or new freeway connections from Huron Boulevard are possible solutions to increase stadium access and must be discussed further, Baker said.

Stadium or not, parking services officials anticipate parking rate increases campus-wide to address approximately $95 million of University capital debt from previous construction projects.

University officials don’t yet know how much rates will increase due to the two new parking ramps.

“By the time this thing is built, (students) may pay $4, but they’re not going to be paying six, eight, 10 bucks to try and cash flow this thing,” Pfutzenreuter said.

Annetta Pohl, a University junior who also uses the Huron lot, said the escalating costs of parking on campus concern her.

“Parking is already so expensive, and a lot of universities have free parking,” Pohl said. “I understand they can’t have (free parking) here, but if they keep raising rates, it’s hard for people to afford.”

Under the tentative joint stadium agreement, the University would keep all revenue generated from Gophers event and weekday parking.

Brian Swanson, a University capital budget planner, said the amount of revenue generated by the new parking ramps cannot be determined until a proposal is finalized.

Ramp revenue would flow into a parking services account, which the department would use to pay back the debt for the ramps over 30 years.

Brad Unangst welcomes comments at [email protected]