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How to keep downtown from becoming 'canyon of ramps'

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The Damon Parking Ramp just west of the Gonda Building and the Mayo Clinic in downtown Rochester, Minn.

One of DMC's three primary priorities is transportation.

The predicted influx of new visitors and residents will add stress on the city's traffic infrastructure, something that, if left unaddressed, could diminish the city's appeal.

The DMC plan's emphasis on walkability and alternative modes of transportation means a shift away from single-occupant vehicles downtown is a necessity.

"Unless we do something transformational with transit, the growth is going to turn downtown into a canyon of ramps," said RT Rybak, vice chair of the DMC board and former mayor of Minneapolis.

"From my perspective, one of the most critical elements associated with transportation in the DMC plan is the modal shift that's reemphasized in the DMC plan and that was first stated in the downtown master plan," said Richard Freese, Rochester's director of public works. That modal shift is critical to achieve success in either one of those plans."


The plan calls for a reduction of the number of single occupant vehicles downtown from 70 percent to 50 percent. As other aspects of the downtown plans depend on the ability to reuse space in the existing right of way, that shift is important. It will also free up valuable space that might otherwise be devoted to parking spaces that see use for only nine or 10 hours of the day.

The city has brought on engineering consultancy firm SRF to oversee studies in five areas: street use and operations assessment, downtown transit circulation and operation study, city loop, downtown parking management and transportation management authority.

Earlier this month, a group of around 45 individuals, comprised of city staff, county staff, DMC EDA staff, SRF staff, and other consultants met in the Twin Cities to identify strategic and efficient ways to go about finding solutions to the five key items identified. No solutions or specific decisions were arrived at, but Freese said they reached an understanding that these five items are interrelated, primarily because they need to share the public right of way, or the space between the fronts of the buildings.

In downtown Rochester, street right of ways are, on average, about 75 feet in width, according to Freese. Larger cities have right of ways 100 to 150 feet wide. Widening the roads, a solution used in other communities to combat congestion, is not an option in the DMC plan or downtown master plan, so the width of the roads and number of lanes will remain the same.

"One thing I emphasized at the beginning of the study, was, paraphrasing from some other people who have spoken in the community recently, that we don't want to look like every other city," Freese said.

He says that getting employees, visitors, shoppers, residents, and others in and out of downtown in an efficient manner requires that the city provide more opportunities for walking, biking, and carpooling.

Freese hopes that by July 1, they will have assembled a team of experts who will work under the direction of SRF to start tackling the five areas of study. Once that happens, they will require time to test new ideas on a small scale to determine how viable they are. They plan to have a lot of community involvement, and Freese said people should expect a phased approach.

One early suggestion is an increase of park and ride lots for downtown workers. To that end, Freese said the issue of a transportation management authority is the foundation on which the other aspects of the plan will be built on. He said that Mayo has a successful version of a transportation authority in place, providing bus service opportunities for people in the city and workers coming from surrounding communities.


"Mayo Clinic's transportation program is critical to the success of the DMC project," said Michelle McDermot, a manager at general services and supervisor of the staff support unit at Mayo Clinic.

According to her, from 2009 through 2015, Mayo Clinic has been recognized by the National Center for Transit Research as being one of the best workplaces for commuters, thanks in part to a program that offers benefits to employees, including a bus subsidy of up to $80 a month. McDermott says that 80 percent to 90 percent of the riders on many city transit routes are Mayo Clinic employees.

"Mayo provides parking for less than 50 percent of its employees," Freese said. "They provide these other mode opportunities, primarily transit, public and private transit, to their employees, because Mayo realizes you can't afford to build a $25,000 per space parking ramp for every single employee and for every single visitor that comes to the community."

"Mayo Clinic's transportation strategy is to continue to look for opportunities that support mass transit to reduce single car commuting and to enhance the overall patient parking experience," McDermot said.

In the DMC plan, the area surrounding Central Park downtown is designated as Central Station, where the plan envisions a transport hub and circulator.

One development near Central Station is an affordable housing project, referred to as First Avenue Flats, located on the south side of Fifth street Northwest and along the East side of First Avenue Northwest. The project will be a 68-unit workforce housing apartment building. It received approval from the city council last year.

There is a potential for other aspects of DMC to outpace the development of transportation, but Freese said his team will work with the EDA and developers to stay abreast of any impactful projects.

"I think we can keep pace with them," Freese said. "Schedule management is one of the key challenges in this whole thing. They say 'build it and they will come,'…. but, in some respects there's going to be some cautious optimism about how quickly we can go."


The Graham Parking Ramp.

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