When people drive to the iconic comedy venue, Acme Comedy Co., in the North Loop they have the option to park in one of two surface parking lots across the street. This may look like one giant block-wide surface lot, but it’s actually two. One 156-stall lot is owned by Acme’s landlord, Schafer Richardson, and the other 120-stall lot is owned by developer Curt Gunsbury and is dedicated to be used for tenants of his Itasca V building across the street and nearby office workers. Gunsbury is planning to develop his portion of the lot, located at 721 N 1st Street, into an apartment complex, and now Acme is threatening to relocate to the suburbs.
Acme has been located in the North Loop for 25 years. When the warehouse district was mostly warehouses, there was no shortage of parking. But now the North Loop is one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the city which means there’s more vitality and interest–but less parking. There are plenty of theaters and venues in downtown Minneapolis that manage to thrive despite the difficulty finding cheap parking nearby. Acme’s hyperbolic response to this minor change in the status quo may reflect more on proprietor Louis Lee’s existing feelings about parking rather the specific impacts of this new development project.
The Lot and Development
Gunsbury’s lot–the lot that’s being developed–includes fewer than half of all the parking spaces that currently exist across the street from Acme. This lot is leased on a contract basis to tenants and nearby office workers, including one overnight legal business that may have up to 200 contract workers at a time. While Acme customers can use this lot for hourly event parking in the evening, there is no guarantee of regular access to these spaces. It is unclear how much actual parking Acme customers would be losing under this plan. The adjacent parking lot, owned by Acme’s landlord, is not being developed.
The new apartments being built at 721 N 1st Street would have dedicated parking. Gunsbury asked for a variance for this new building to exceed the city’s parking maximum. Due to the fact that Bassett Creek runs underneath this area of the North Loop, parking cannot be built underground. The complex at 721 would have 222 parking spaces on the first level. Of these, 152 spaces would be for residents of the 124-unit apartment building and their guests, and 70 spaces would be available for the current office tenant contracts. As the developer’s representative stated at the City Planning Commission, the fact that there may be extra spaces available in the evening would be a “great opportunity” for Acme customers to access the lot. An agreement like this would be similar to Acme’s existing informal arrangement with Gunsbury’s parking lot, though with fewer spaces available.
Some of the argument against this development from Lee states that his landlord, Schafer Richardson, has not “set aside” any parking spaces in the lot that’s not being developed for Acme to use during the duration of construction. This makes sense to me. Why should that lot set aside spots for Acme’s use only, when there are other reasons people in the area would want access to a surface lot? That lot is still going to be there, but Acme patrons will access it on a first-come first-served basis, just like everyone else.
City Planning Commission
Acme created an event to encourage supporters to turn up at the Minneapolis City Planning Commission (CPC) on June 27th. The room was packed with comedians and lovers of comedy. There wasn’t, however, a representative from Acme itself to give background or data or to be held responsible for some of the claims they’re disseminating to loyal supporters through high-profile comedians on social media. It was also clear that the folks in the room did not understand the full scope of the project, the role of the CPC, or what a parking variance is. That’s okay, I didn’t know many of those things when I showed up.
It was strange to hear impassioned pleas from comedy-lovers about the lack of parking, only to have them ask the commission to deny a variance to add more parking. Their strategy was to ask the CPC to deny all variances in the hope that this would prevent the development project from moving forward. The CPC could not legally do what the speakers wanted. As Commissioner Luepke-Pier stated, the variances being asked for were fairly minor and even if the commission opposed them, the development project could still move forward with minor variations. The CPC does not have the power to stop a development project for the reasons brought up at the CPC meeting without risking being sued by the developer.
Parking vs. Density
When I showed up at the CPC meeting, I spoke to a few people milling around outside the room. I asked them why they were there and we started chatting about Acme. They accused me of supporting a ‘rich developer’ over a local comedy club. I said that I was there to support density and building housing in a city with a housing shortage. Both online and in person, people have asked how the building of luxury apartments will address the housing shortage. Today’s luxury apartments are 2040’s middle-class housing. We need to have housing stock for people to live in, and as this housing stock ages it will become less luxurious and therefore more affordable. Additionally, when higher end apartments are available, this prevents rich people from renting, buying, and renovating cheaper housing which keeps those units available for the people who need them.
At the CPC meeting, speakers said that parking needs to be prioritized otherwise businesses will die. Speakers talked about how people from the suburbs will stop coming to the city if there isn’t abundant parking, and without these patrons businesses will close. They said that without parking, eventually the city will be full of apartments for people to live and nowhere for them to eat or be entertained. This is just wrong. As more people live in Minneapolis, there becomes more demand for restaurants, entertainment, and stores. We don’t have the speculate, these things are already happening. The people who live here support the businesses they need. Mixed density areas, like the North Loop, are particularly healthy and good for residents and business owners alike. We should build neighborhoods for the people who live in them, and not just to prioritize easy access for people who don’t live there. If the resulting vitality of the neighborhood attracts people from other neighborhoods and suburbs, that is a benefit and not the primary purpose.
It is true that the North Loop is dense and parking can be hard to find sometimes. I believe that the additional people and activity that come with being located in a dense and lively environment more than make up for the downside. There are more places to eat and better access to public transit at this location than others. It’s easily walkable for folks who live nearby and it’s ideally located for arriving by bike, being central in the city and near the river trail and Cedar Lake Trail. There are other options for arriving at this location besides driving.
It’s clear many people care deeply about Acme. The outpouring of support through the petition, on social media, and at the CPC meeting showed how much this venue means to the neighborhood and the city. The actual impact of the 721 N 1st Street development project is likely to have a minor, if any, impact on parking availability at Acme. If Acme wants easy and abundant parking, they can choose to move to the suburbs or make an arrangement with another parking provider.
No one is forcing Acme to leave Minneapolis. They have a choice to make. They can choose to stay in their historic venue in an urban, evolving, North Loop and risk losing certain customers who are swayed by the parking argument. Or they can uproot themselves at high cost, move to a more parking-friendly area, and risk losing folks who live and work in Minneapolis, and those who enjoy visiting the city for its culture and vitality. Acme has been framing this argument as if the developer and city government are forcing them to leave. This is not true. It’s Acme’s right to make whatever choice they make, but they need to take responsibility for the fact that this is their choice, and their choice alone.