Minneapolis residents and businesses at the popular Somali mall want parking meters removed

Bashir Garad Dahir misses the old days when his one-room office in Minneapolis’ Karmel Mall would burst with customers filing taxes, booking airline tickets and wiring money to their families overseas.

But in recent years, Dahir said, he has watched his clients, mostly Somali immigrants, dwindle.

He blames parking meters.

Dahir’s name is on a petition that he says has nearly 800 signatures accusing the city of a “disparate and unfair bias” against the mostly ethnic community with inequitable placement of parking meters. Organized by the Karmel Plaza Business Association and the mall’s owner, Basim Sabri, the petition demands immediate removal of the meters from Pleasant and Pillsbury avenues near the mall.

“We have lost customers because of these meters,” said Dahir, owner of Safari Travel and Accounting, who also chairs the association. “This is discrimination. These parking areas should be free because they are both commercial and residential streets, and they are supposed to have the same privilege as the nonethnic communities around us.”

Dahir and Sabri point to side streets in similar bustling areas between Hennepin and Lyndale avenues north of W. 28th Street and wonder why there’s no meters in many of those places.

Tim Drew, the city’s parking systems manager, said Minneapolis began installing parking meters near the Karmel Mall eight years ago at the request of business owners and a former council member. Before meters were there, he said, drivers left cars parked on those streets all day, sometimes double or triple parking. That made it difficult for emergency vehicles and other traffic to get through, Drew said. The meters limit parking to two hours for $1 an hour, preventing drivers from taking parking spaces for long periods, he said.

“We wanted to encourage turnaround and turn those spaces over,” said Drew, who was the on-street parking engineer when the meter installation began. “We did notice an improvement.”

But Sabri, Dahir and other business owners who have been in the neighborhood since before the first meters appeared said paid parking has discouraged customers from coming to the mall and worsened parking problems.

Without community engagement, Sabri and Dahir said, the city began placing parking meters along Blaisdell Avenue near the former Kmart after finding out that drivers were parking there and walking to Karmel Mall.

Dahir and other members of the group hand-delivered the petition to Mayor Jacob Frey’s office last week, threatening to protest if city officials don’t take immediate action.

The mayor’s office said in a statement: “Frey and his staff are actively working with the Public Works Department, residents, and all stakeholders at Karmel Mall to continue improving pedestrian safety and help decrease traffic congestion for an area that welcomes thousands of visitors weekly.”

Minneapolis operates about 8,500 metered spaces across the city with varying restrictions, collecting about $21 million annually before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the city. About 72 of those spaces — 28 on Pleasant Avenue and 44 on Pillsbury Avenue — are around the Karmel Mall. A major Somali community hub for decades, the mall includes stores, restaurants and a mosque.

The decision to install meters, Drew said, is generally based on requests from city staff and businesses who want to eliminate congestion and make parking accessible.

In St. Paul, which has 2,000 meters, parking restrictions have long been a topic of contention. There, city staff can install and remove meters downtown, but City Council action is needed to do it elsewhere, said assistant St. Paul city traffic engineer Mike Klobucar.

“Typically, we put them in where parking demand is extremely high … with the intention of encouraging short-term use to make sure that there’s spaces available when people come to visit downtown,” Klobucar said.

Meters went up along the Metro Green Line, for example, when parking was reduced because of the light rail’s construction. But they were removed from University Avenue a few years ago where parking demand was low, he said.

At the Karmel Mall in Minneapolis, owner Sabri has threatened to withhold improvements that are part of a mall redevelopment and expansion plan if the meters issue isn’t addressed.

The city recently approved a more than $50 million plan that includes expanding the sidewalk for pedestrians and adjacent businesses along the 2900 block of Pillsbury Avenue.

City officials said they will return meters after construction ends early next year because they expect parking demand will increase and Pillsbury Avenue must be wide enough to allow a parking lane and a travel lane in each direction, Drew said.

But Sabri said that if the meters aren’t removed, he may not follow through with widening sidewalks. Meters, he said, “will kill businesses.”

“They are targeting our community, and this is clearly a discrimination,” Sabri said. “Social justice and unfair treatment to people of color and immigrants doesn’t stop at the police department, It extends beyond that in Minneapolis.”

Haboon Aboubaker, who lives in Sabri-owned apartments across the street from the mall, said she signed the petition because she doesn’t want her visitors paying for parking. Noting that most of the spaces are filled by visitors to Karmel Mall, she said the city and Sabri should work together to make street and mall parking free and accessible for everyone.

While Sabri is helping to lead the campaign for free parking for Karmel Mall visitors, he defended the $1 an hour he charges at its garage. He said the mall facility is covered and safer and more convenient than street parking.

Sabri added that his redevelopment and expansion plan — with a 100-unit apartment building, offices and retail — includes an additional 370 parking spaces.

“I’m creating a place where people can work and live in the same building,” Sabri said. “The city should be thankful because this will reduce traffic and many other problems.”

Staff writer Zoë Jackson contributed to this report.

Faiza Mahamud • 612-673-4203

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