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Brainerd City Council: City may ax school off-street parking requirements

Lowell Elementary School. BrainerdDispatch.com / Google maps1 / 2
Riverside Elementary School. BrainerdDispatch.com / Google maps2 / 2

The Brainerd City Council will take a hard look at changing its minimum off-street parking ordinances pertaining to its area schools—a point of contention between city officials that bears long-term ramifications either way.

The zoning text in question stipulates grade schools and high schools are required to have a set number of off-street parking spaces available—mostly in parking lots—based on factors such as building capacity, number of classrooms and the number of students and employees regularly using the facility. This language is tied in with conditional use permits required for public and private schools.

However, this set-up presents a two-fold problem for the city, said Chuck Marohn, a planning commission member and engineer. Marohn characterized the traditional rationale for parking legislation as "bad science" during Tuesday's council meeting.

Marohn said parking lots are costly to build and take up large swaths of space, yet yield comparatively little tax revenue. On the other hand, engineers are required to build streets in a way that provides curbside parking, yet the majority of this parking space is underused. It represents a loss for the city in both equations, he said.

"That is an enormous investment, literally tens of millions across the city, that we have spent building capacity to store vehicles. When we go out to see how that capacity is used, it's hardly used at all," Marohn said. "We kind of have a national standard we've adopted here where we try to get free parking for everybody, but we end up paying a ton for free parking that is unutilized."

Brainerd City Planner Mark Ostgarden said while amending the ordinance to remove the minimum off-street parking requirement may seem to eliminate set standards for parking, the city will still retain a position of oversight through the conditional use permits. He noted there were special cases for certain business districts that also benefited from removing minimum off-street parking requirements.

Proponents noted Brainerd facilities are situated within residential neighborhoods, compared to placing larger facilities at the outskirts of the city—a common feature for city layouts across the country—where more space is available for features like playgrounds and parking lots. Space needs loom as a problem, with projected enrollment increases and potential renovation projects for the city's aging school buildings.

The city's layout in terms of its schools—a throwback to earlier decades when more schools were situated intimately in the community, just a stone's throw from children's homes—is an integral part of Brainerd and worth protecting, said council member Dave Badeaux.

"Our schools are impressive, and they're impressive because they're different, and they're different because they still follow a model that is not what the education system has turned into," he said. "We have to support that, we have to support that idea. And to have ordinances that say you have to have x-number of parking spaces, it's going to remove green spaces from these kids, it's going to remove playgrounds from these kids."

Points of concern expressed by city officials and members of the council pertained to how this amendment would affect neighborhoods in the vicinities of these schools. Ensuring children's safety in streets that also see commercial and residential traffic presents a problem. There are also concerns for Brainerd residents, who would have to deal with streets congested by parents and teenage drivers.

City Attorney Joe Langel questioned why the city would remove concrete standards from already "arbitrary" language in the ordinance and create murky legal grounds for potential conflicts in the future.

"This costs money to put in parking places," Langel said. "There are schools, I can tell you without hesitation, that will absolutely cut down (their own) off-street parking to save money. If that means shrinking a parking lot and forcing the traffic onto neighboring streets, they'll do it."

During a phone interview, Laine Larson, the Brainerd School District superintendent, said the central issue from the district's perspective is the safety of children during their commutes, whether that's walking or drive to and from area schools.

"Many of the elementary schools in particular that we have in the city of Brainerd do not have parking lots attached to them or the ones they have are minimal. We currently count on the parking along the streets," said Larson, who added part of the referendum process underway is to ensure children's protection with designated drop-off/pick-up spots and increased parking.

The council passed a first reading of the ordinance with a 5-2 vote, which will instigate a second reading at the next meeting scheduled for Jan. 15. Brainerd residents are invited to attend a public hearing on that matter at that time.

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