Who gets to park in St. Paul's Little Bohemia? Residents, small business duke it out

Day by Day Cafe owner Greg Ekbom is fighting for to keep his parking space. Residents want it to be permit only.

Day by Day Cafe owner Greg Ekbom is fighting for to keep his parking space. Residents want it to be permit only. Hannah Jones

Past the crush of downtown St. Paul -- just out of reach of the Xcel Energy Center and St. Joseph’s Hospital -- you’ll find the neighborhood of Little Bohemia.

It’s the place where downtown hubbub dies down into a residential murmur. The trees are tall and many. The houses are also tall, even romantic, with their steep gables and splashes of yellow or turquoise paint, but grown frayed and faded with the passage of time -- unkempt, if not unloved.

A few small businesses burrow into the side of West Seventh Street, a straight shot from St. Paul’s cosmopolitan center to the more modest offerings of Little Bohemia. There you’ll find Day by Day Cafe, an all-American breakfast joint -- the kind that will give you a carafe if you ask for a cup of coffee. You’ll also find the owner -- Greg Ekbom.

Ekbom opened Day by Day after a long fight with drug and alcohol addiction. He’d been in chef training at what is now Century College when his counselor had asked him if he wanted to open a restaurant and cater for the treatment center. That’s exactly what he did. It's been in Little Bohemia since 1980. 

Ekbom makes a point of hiring people who are also in recovery, but he doesn’t claim to be any kind of “social entity.” He does what he can while trying to turn a profit. Whenever possible, he likes to side with his neighbors, the residents of Little Bohemia.

Which is what makes the situation he’s in now uncomfortable. Little Bohemia and Day by Day are caught up in a battle over parking. Events downtown, employees at the nearby hospital, and the rising popularity of the neighborhood have been putting the squeeze on parking spots. This year, the residents on the southeast side of West Seventh Street -- right by Ekbom’s cafe -- petitioned to designate their side streets as resident permit only parking.

Ekbom only found out about this about three weeks ago, he says. Since then, he’s been trying to ask people to revoke their signatures. His customers need access to that parking. He’s also worried that if the south side of West Seventh pulls this off, nothing would stop the north side from doing the same when all the customers are suddenly siphoned there.

“It’s up in the air who would be able to survive without parking,” he says. “If I don’t stop it here, we might have to relocate or close.”

Ekbom is asking for a compromise. Instead of exclusively permit parking, he wants folks without a permit to be able to park for two hours. He’s been in communication with the city’s public works department, and they’ve offered a compromise of their own: One block can be two-hour parking, while three or four become permit-only.

“I’ll take what I can get, but nevertheless, we’re losing a huge chunk of parking,” Ekbom says. “That little spot is not going to be enough for four or five businesses.”

Responses from the neighborhood have ranged from supporting Ekbom to dismissiveness. Forget being able to park close to your favorite pancake spot -- they can’t park where they live.

The deciding factor in this fight will be a hearing scheduled for today. The petition has been lumped in with a city-wide effort to simplify permit parking, and the City Council will have the final say. Both Ekbom and the concerned citizens of Little Bohemia will be there, ready to make their cases. But he sees it as unfortunate that the residents of an up-and-coming neighborhood and its longtime small businesses are competing with each other, especially over such a paltry resource.

“The bottom line is we didn’t have enough parking to start with,” he says. If no one has a place to put their car, odds are he’ll leave Little Bohemia in the rearview mirror.