When a parking lot’s not just a parking lot; Transportation drama rankles Rochester

Published 5:49 am Friday, October 18, 2019

By Cody Nelson

MPR News/90.1

Earlier this week, dozens of Rochester residents gathered in the conference room of a nondescript office building to vent — about a parking lot.

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The lot in question: A 1,400-stall surface lot near downtown that Mayo Clinic would like to build for employees.

But the lot, which would be built on the site of an old Kmart store, has become a flashpoint in the city, drawing ire from people living in nearby neighborhoods and beyond. It’s also emblematic of the tensions that come from a city focused on growth and a single industry: health care.

Among those frustrated neighbors is Kelly Dunagan, who attended the meeting, which also included Mayo Clinic officials and a real estate developer representing the site’s owner. Dunagan said she’s worried about traffic.

“It’s congested now, and you’re talking about adding another 1,400 cars in there? That’s ridiculous,” she said.

But she’s also worried that the lot doesn’t match Rochester’s recently approved comprehensive plan, which suggests revitalizing the massive plot with denser development.

“Making it a parking lot? You call that revitalization?” she said. “That’s not what the city touted to us.”

At first blush, the debate appears to be a classic “not-in-my-backyard” situation.

But the debate over a single parking lot underscores long-standing tensions that have been bubbling to the surface over and over since Rochester embarked on the ambitious Destination Medical Center economic development project a few years ago.

Along the way, Rochester residents are demanding more transparency from local officials around development decisions. And some here question whether Mayo, the city, Olmsted County and DMC officials are always on the same page about the city’s transformation.

Among the goals of the Destination Medical Center project is a reduction of vehicle traffic in downtown Rochester. The DMC Economic Development Agency — the nonprofit agency leading development of the area, along with local and regional stakeholders — is hoping to accomplish that by capping parking downtown and enhancing public transportation options.

The city and DMC officials are in the process of finalizing a plan that includes two new transit hubs at opposite ends of town where people can park and take public transportation to get to downtown.

So it was a surprise to some city officials when Mayo recently announced on its internal website that it wanted to add more parking spots for employees on the site of the old Kmart, a spot that’s just a few blocks from one of the proposed transit hubs — and about a mile from the center of downtown. Once the old retail space is torn down, there would be space for 1,400 stalls.

Among those blindsided by the decision was City Council member Mark Bilderback. He’s a Mayo Clinic employee who also represents neighborhoods near the proposed lot.

“Am I disappointed? Am I unhappy with how this came out? Totally,” he told meeting attendees.

Bilderback and other City Council members say Mayo’s decision appears to conflict directly with its own goals in the DMC plan to keep cars out of downtown. In conjunction with DMC staff, city officials say they’ve been doing a lot of work to get the public transportation plans off the ground.

Mayo spokesperson John Murphy said Mayo needs to accommodate a growing workforce, and noted that the lot sits on the future circulator route.

“It’s just looking for solutions of how do we get people to work,” he said.

Murphy said that the lot — if it’s approved — would likely be a temporary solution until the proposed transit hubs and circulator are up and running in a few years. Mayo said it is considering a 10-year lease of the lot.

Most of the people at the community meeting this week spoke out against the parking lot proposal.

Megan Miller is a Mayo employee who lives nearby. She said a surface lot on valuable downtown real estate is a “terrible idea.”

“What I want is for this city to come up with better ideas of how to get people to work,” she said.

But moreover, she said the situation just bolsters long-standing perceptions in the community that Mayo can do what it wants, and the city will approve it without taking into account community concerns.

She pointed to the fact that the lot has already been resurfaced, repainted and even includes two shelters where people can wait for future public transportation.

“I have zero trust that this is not going to happen because it feels to me the deal has already been done,” she said, addressing the developer, Mayo and city officials.

“And I really want you guys to take that seriously because the community, as someone who is employed by this place, does not trust the relationship between the institution and our city council.”

Murphy said Mayo is committed to transparency as its proposal moves to the city council for approval.

“Mayo is committed to following the process … to being open and honest, and going through the whole process,” he said.

Mayo’s proposal will likely be heard by the city council before the end of the year. Meanwhile, council members say they want to see how the lot will affect traffic in the area.