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Will St. Paul finally end the acrimony over parking meters on Grand Avenue?

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
St. Paul’s Grand Ave. offers an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants and apartments… and perpetual battles over parking.

“The great Cupcake debacle,” people still murmur at City Hall. It was four years ago, and an up-and-coming cupcake shop wanted to open a Grand Avenue storefront. It was the kind of thing that the mayor’s office and the Chamber of Commerce dream about — St. Paul on the cutting edge of cultural tastes.

But it never happened. The proposed store fell two parking spaces short of the street's zoning requirements, and granting an exception proved so contentious with the neighborhood that the City Council rejected Cupcake. After months of publicly fruitless negotiation with City Hall, the bakery opened at the Mall of America instead.

Grand Avenue parking rules are something of a bloodsport, with no quarter given. Regulations are fiercely contested between the dozens of apartment buildings, small businesses, restaurants and large retail chains that do business on the quaint street. And every few years the city tries to simplify matters by proposing parking meters or other changes. And time and again, plans for new rules meet their Sisyphean end, failing to find consensus. 

And this year it’s happening again. The mayor's proposed tax levy, which relies on new parking revenue on Grand and downtown, was adopted unanimously Wednesday by the City Council. Exact details will be worked out before the end of the year, but the Grand Avenue meters are sure to become a hot button. 

Visible anti-meter sentiment

If you go to Grand Avenue today, you’ll already see signs up in the doorways of businesses saying “Tell Mayor Coleman, NO PARKING METERS ON GRAND.”

“Our businesses are very very much against it,” Jon Perrone, head of the Grand Avenue Business Association, told me this week. “It’s another tax to their customers and inconvenient for the residents. It’s a headache for customers try to find parking podiums. A lot of our businesses are in-and-out businesses; you come in to buy ice cream and a cup of coffee. You might stay longer at businesses, you may stay an hour and have dessert and a drink.”

MinnPost photos by Bill Lindeke
If you go to Grand Avenue today, you’ll already see signs up in the doorways of businesses, saying “Tell Mayor Coleman, NO PARKING METERS ON GRAND.”

Grand Avenue is a civic success story and a stop on any St. Paul tour. It’s an old streetcar street, with great contiguous stretches of 1920s apartments next to a mix of single family homes and two-story shops. During the 1950s it evolved into an urban hub for auto dealerships, car-repair places and their accompanying parking lots — before evolving again during the '80s and '90s into an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants and apartments.

But the diverse legacy of Grand Avenue leaves a lot of questions, particularly about parking. Residents in old apartments need somewhere to keep their cars, while shoppers want to pop in and out through the front door. Meanwhile, restaurant-goers are looking for a spot for a few hours, while hundreds of the street’s employees need somewhere to store their cars while on the clock.

So what’s the best way to meet all these different demands?

The everyday chaos of Grand Avenue street signs

At first glance, parking on Grand might seem simple, a tabula rasa free-for-all. You get lucky or you don’t, and you keep driving until you find your chosen spot. But if you walk or drive down the street today, you find just about every kind of parking sign there is. Depending on where you are, you might be allowed to park for 15 minutes from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., or for one hour or two hours from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Or sometimes you can park for two hours any time of the day, unless you’re a resident with a permit, in which case you have two or three blocks where it’s OK to put your car.

Some of the side streets have resident parking districts, but most don’t. And many businesses have their own parking lots, which are often full. There’s one large ramp at Grand and Victoria that sits empty most of the time.

MinnPost photos by Bill Lindeke
Depending on where you are on Grand, you might be allowed to park for 15 minutes from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., or for one hour or two hours from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

To an outsider, it seems confusing. But for the Business Association, meters are a solution in search of a problem.

“We’ve heard people who grumble that they can’t park in front of their business, but meters aren’t going to solve that problem,” Perrone told me. “We’ve never once been approached about what we’d like to see. Let’s do an active parking study in the entire city, and look at these mixed-use areas like Grand Avenue, Selby, Arcade. Let’s look at a good solution as opposed to a bad solution.”

The secret science of parking

The parking meter was invented in the 1930s in Oklahoma City to manage a huge demand for car storage in its congested downtown. In those days, downtowns were the big destination, with the majority of businesses, offices and shopping destinations crowding for space amongst the streetcars, trucks and ever more drivers. Parking meters, along with the rapid rise of pay-for-parking ramps, were a huge relief.

Today, for something that occupies so much civic attention, parking receives little scrutiny. The science of setting ubiquitous “off-street parking minimums” is very sloppy, and most cities simply copy what everyone else is doing without giving it much thought. This is one big reason the American landscape is dominated by parking lots. 

But over the last decade, a quiet revolution has developed over how cities approach parking policies. As it turns out, parking in any popular area always involves a tradeoff between cost and convenience. (Parking in unpopular areas is a breeze.)

Here’s the Catch-22: if you make parking free, then it’ll be very difficult to find. Drivers will end up circling the block in search of a rare spot, and as anyone who’s ever done a tight three-point turn in a full lot, or a spontaneous U-turn to “grab” a just-opened spot knows, these experiences can be frustrating for drivers and dangerous for everyone else. You end up with situations where a high percentage of traffic is simply “cruising” for a spot, and chaos ensues.

On the other hand, the only way to make parking convenient, apart from paving the city, is to add a price tag to it. Parking meters, especially the new programmable ones used by both Minneapolis and St. Paul, end up sorting out the cheap from the needy.

At least, that’s the theory.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Parking ramps were a huge relief during the era when downtowns were the big destination.

 

The eternal return of the Grand Avenue meter

St. Paul has done eight major studies of Grand Avenue parking over the last 30 years. The last time was about 10 years ago, when a task force met for over a year and produced a host of suggestions for how to improve parking tensions on the street. In the end, nothing was done, and not much has changed.

Kathy Lantry

“It’s sort of incredible the amount of time we have spent on this,” Kathy Lantry told me. “It’s been a conundrum that the city has been struggling with for decades.”

Lantry is the head of St. Paul’s Public Works Department, which manages parking policy. And because she used to be the City Council president, Lantry has had a front-row seat to the city's parking debates through the years. (She and was one of the votes against the Cupcake proposal four years ago.)

City of St. Paul
A 2006 City of St. Paul report identified 8 different studies that had been done over the years about parking on Grand Ave.

If you page through at the City’s lengthy 2006 study, it explicitly cites the work of innovative parking planner Donald Shoup’s work (whose book, "The High Cost of Free Parking," was new at the time) and suggests that the best solution would be to re-balance pricing between on- and off-street options. On-street meters for shoppers would be tweaked to ensure turnover and convenience, and free ramps farther away would beckon employees or skinflints.

“Many of these are small businesses, and any sort of uncertainty causes anxiety for them,” Lantry told me. “I get that, but there’s this overwhelming thought that this will be the ruination of their businesses. I don't think that actually bears out. You just  have to cross the river, and Minneapolis has meters everywhere. Commercial districts have not been harmed, and I don't know that Uptown would be considered lousy."

'Failure to communicate'

The opening scene of the 1960s counterculture classic film "Cool Hand Luke" shows Paul Newman’s character drunk on a Southern small town main street, cutting the heads off of parking meters. What follows is an epic tale of stubborn defiance, with Newman’s character butting his head against the law time and again.

Judging by what the Grand Avenue Business Association has said so far, that “there is still time to roar” against meters, this time will be little different. Nobody wants to see change, particularly if it involves spare change.

Meanwhile Director Lantry says the matter is out of her hands. She believes parking meters are a good policy, and she’s going to put it on the table.

“My job is to make recommendations to the mayor about implementing changes we think will have a positive effect,” Lantry said. “It’s up to policymakers eventually to decide whether or not that makes sense. St. Paul isn't on the cutting edge here, putting meters in our commercial districts. I suspect, in some ways, we’re far behind. We are an actual big city.”

Given the history of this issue, and the sheer number of times that St. Paul has butted heads against Grand Avenue curbs, it's hard to predict change anytime soon. A local petition against the meters already has more than 1,000 signatures, and whether the city plows ahead or puts the plan on hold for another 10 years is up in the air.

As the lawman says to Cool Hand Luke after the latest escape attempt, “What we got here is failure to communicate.”

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Comments (29)

Cupcake

Cupcake actually opened their Selby Ave storefront after being shut out on Grand, not the MOA store.

Actually, the Selby location came later

It came through a negotiation with the existing cookie bakers, whose lack of parking was grandfathered in. The MOA store was the alternative to Grand: http://www.citypages.com/restaurants/cupcake-owner-reveals-more-about-ne...

And I should add that neither of these were the same kind of café proposal as the original one, that would have had a wine/beer license. That might have helped Cupcake weather the decline of the gourmet cupcake trend (http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324345804578425291917117814).

Or it might not have...

key point

The key point is that the Mayor and Council Member tried hard to figure out a way to make a then-popular business into the street, and that they failed because of parking. There are probably other examples one could cite. Here's the question: how much is the existing parking arrangement hurting the growth, vitality, or potential of the street? How about for Saint Paul as a whole?

Another example (http://www.stpaul.gov/DocumentCenter/View/79453) shot down partly because of height. and partly because of "traffic and parking," even though it had off-street below-ground parking spaces.

Parking requirements Q

Would meter parking change the parking requirements for new businesses? Would a request like Cupcake's be approved with meter parking in place? Such a bummer to think of businesses being driven out of the city because of parking requirements.

good question

It might help. It seems to me that existing situation has a lot of inertia, and that few proposals for the street will be possible if they "impact" existing tenuous parking arrangements in any way.

Parking meters drive business to the malls...

Why haven't the city "leaders" listened to the small business on Grand Avenue? Why don't these city "leaders" take a micro economics class to understand demand. Taxing parking reduces demand for parking but also demand for the small businesses on Grand Avenue. Customers will simply move more to the malls where there is free and convenient parking.

All one has to do is look at the downtown of St. Paul and compare today to 30-40 years ago. The only solution to the woes of downtown St. Paul is to compete with the malls and offer free parking...

Why would you not learn the lessons from downtown St. Paul?

downtown retail

I have to disagree. The movement of retail from downtowns to the suburbs began very long ago, and has only accelerated due to social and geographic reasons. That's why downtown retail has disappeared in every city that doesn't have a large downtown residential population, and it's not because of parking meters. Downtown Saint Paul is a great example, as they are regionally famous for giving away their parking for next to nothing during the day, and completely free after 4:30.

But that hasn't helped. Downtown Saint Paul has very little retail compared to its neighbor (or similar cities), and it's not because of the high cost of parking meters.

It's neighbor has shocking little retail too

For the same primary reason: not enough people

See also

This previous Cityscape column on parking in Downtown Saint Paul: http://www.minnpost.com/cityscape/2014/12/what-kind-parking-policy-good-...

"Downtown St. Paul is changing quickly, and that means many of the city’s downtown surface lots are slated for redevelopment. For example, there are plans to turn the surface parking lot across the street from the downtown hockey arena into a mixed-use hotel, which would mean the loss of a large parking lot. Similarly, the proposed downtown bike loop, a long-overdue bicycle connection through downtown, would remove on-street parking spaces along some of the city’s downtown streets."

Do I repeat myself? Very well then, I repeat myself.

Let Them Eat Free Parking!

Mike, maybe you could help me with something...

I moved over to Lowertown this past spring; its great, I love it, lot's of fun living here. All summer long I've seen activity all over our area, late into the evening. Even on nights when there is absolutely no big events (like Saints game of Music in Mears) one can observe a couple dozen people walking around Mears and nearby connected streets.

Conversely, when the better half and I stroll in a SW or NW direction, street activity significantly drops off at about Cedar or 8th (give or take a block).

What I don't get is that near Mears there are few ramps/lots, those ramps/lots that do exist are pricey, and the streets are filled with meters. Whereas out of Lowertown and into the more formal 'Downtown' there are tons of parking options that are much cheaper.

So my question is: Why are all of these people ignoring the clear economic advantage of cheaper parking in Downtown and hanging out in Low-tow? For that matter, why aren't they making the real economical choice and hang out in the free park zones of Rosedale of Maplewood malls?

Parking Meters on Grand Ave.

My wife and I have owned a furniture store (Traditions) on Grand Avenue for over 25 years. We've had lots of discussions with the neighborhood over the years about parking. For the last 10+ years, we have worked out an equilibrium that works for everyone. Yes, parking sometimes is a little difficult to find in some key areas, but that is a sign of success, not a problem.

The parking meter proposal has NOTHING to do with parking. It's purely another money grab by the city to try to plug it's budget deficit without make the difficult choices to cut spending, or taking the honest route and increasing taxes.

Anyone who thinks that this isn't going to impact business has their head in the sand. Grand Avenue competes directly with major shopping centers in the metro area which have unlimited free parking. Someone living in Highland Park, looking for kitchen utensils, is going to be sorely tempted to visit Williams Sonoma at the Mall of America rather than pay for parking at Cooks on Grand Ave. Customers living in Como Park or Falcon Heights are going to be very tempted to visit Pottery Barn at Rosedale, rather than the Grand Ave. store. The potential gain in parking meter revenue could easily be erased by a larger loss of sales tax revenue.

Twenty years ago, when City Center had just opened in Downtown St. Paul, Daytons used to have free parking after 4PM in their ramp. My wife and I frequently took advantage of this while shopping downtown. A year or so later, Daytons switched to a validated parking scheme. We never went back. This was the start of the collapse of the Downtown retail business community.

The same thing could easily happen on Grand Ave. It wasn't that long ago that Grand was a collection of vacant buildings and abandoned car dealerships. Don't try to fix what isn't broken or you may be very disappointed in the unintended consequences.

Is retail changing?

This is just my opinion, of course, and having the experience of running a small business trumps anything I've read about.

But I think retail is changing, and has always been fiercely competitive. Grand Avenue's big advantage is not parking, it's the quality of the environment. People come to Grand Avenue to stroll and wander, and to enjoy the "feel" of the street. If someone's shopping at Cooks it's because Cooks is next to the 10,000 Villages and the Yoga studio, and they want to have the "Grand Avenue experience." That's one of the frustrating things about the existing set-up, in my opinion. If you want to go out to eat, you have to try and park in one of the attached lots (for Dixie's) but if you want to go to Dixie's AND Penzey's, what are you supposed to do?

Another issue I didn't bring up is that enforcement of the existing hour limits is very lax, because it's so time intensive for the Police Department.

Anyway, some thoughts to consider. I'd be curious what you think about the Uptown example. Many people compare Grand Avenue to Uptown, because of the similar stores (e.g. North Face) and built environments (e.g. Hennepin Avenue converted homes). Do you think parking meters has helped or hurt retail in Uptown?

One other point

Online retail only makes this more of an issue. You can buy almost anything online now. I wonder how Grand Avenue fits in?

Wait a sec...

...You're arguing that a Highland Park resident will DOUBLE their trip length to go all the way to MoA, hack through all the traffic in between (not counting any seasonal construction) and navigate the never ending upward spiral of the parking ramp all while spending dollar after dollar in gas, rather than pay a buck to park on pleasant nearby Grand Ave?

I'm not even trying to be facetious here, but the suggestion of that many St Paulites intentionally ruining their own local economy out of misguided spite seems medium to far fetched to me.

Pottery Barn? Williams Sonoma?

Somehow I doubt the folks shopping at these establishments are gonna miss the couple of bucks for parking. When the people who would miss it go looking for cooking utensils, it's at Target or Wal-Mart. We're talking about speciality boutiques for luxury goods here, and destination retaurants and bars. The folks you claim would scatter for the malls are ALREADY going there anyway, a place like Grand Ave has little appeal for those types of folks. Nothing like a good ol' tempest in a teapot.

Parking On Grand or Downtown St Paul

I agree that parking on Grand, or in Uptown, or any of the other "in" areas is bad. I avoid Uptown because of it. Meters on Grand will make it easier to find parking because many people will stop shopping in the area, myself included. One example for me is that I will not pay parking to run into Sixth Chamber Books for five minutes to pick up the books I requested that they have saved for me. There are other places to get used books that do not charge for parking. Parking in downtown St Paul came up at dinner with friends last night and one couple's response was that they will stop going downtown if parking is metered at night. There are many other restaurants that have free parking. They estimated they eat downtown two to three times a month. Evening metered parking means no longer attending music in Mears Park, or other things downtown in the evening. Just when St. Paul seemed to be turning around downtown they want to stop the progress. Grand Avenue is successful but I guess success is not wanted by elected officials.

You realize that at $1/hour,

You realize that at $1/hour, stopping in for 5 minutes at Sixth Chamber will cost you 25 cents. One quarter. And you are going to stop patronizing this independent bookstore (which charges more than Amazon, so clearly money isn't the driving focus here) over one quarter? If you are that fickle, I would say relying on you to sustain a business would be nearly impossible.

Grand Avenue Meters

I have yet to hear anyone apart from city staff and city councilors endorse parking meters on Grand Avenue. For a city that prides itself on citizen input, it is both sad and telling that St. Paul is continuing on a path opposed by nearly everyone directly affected. This is about generating revenue - not improving the Grand Avenue parking conundrum.

It's not that it's not about revenue...

You're not off base here, Tom. Revenue enters into the picture. Both the Mayor and Lantry have said that generating revenue would be a benefit for the city. The mayor has explicitly said that he'd like to use parking revenue to offset any increase in the property tax levy, and given that choice, it seems pretty clear (to me anyway) that paying for parking is better than paying more on your property tax bills. From a public policy standpoint, it's wise to use incentives, no?

But I think this is about whether or not meters are a good policy for sorting out parking demands and tensions. It's basic economics. If parking is in limited supply, and in great demand, than what do you do? Using price is the only real way to sort that out. If it means paying 50 cents to park for a half hour to get an ice cream cone... well, that's the cost of parking. It's a trade-off between convenience and cost.

What else can you get for 50 cents these days?

I endorse meters on Grand

A giant parking ramp sits empty, and finding a space is a mess. So long as there are enough of the pay stations or you can slide your card right into the meter, a quarter or even a buck isn't going to deter me one bit (or two bits, pardon the pun).

I think it will be safer for pedestrians, too. People will be concentrating on where their car is actually going rather than looking for a parking spot instead of where they are going.

We're already paying to maintain a parking ramp that is unused. Make the free or almost free, charge for the on-street, simplify everybody's life, and make an extra half million dollars while we're at it.

At the same time, keep track of the sales tax receipts from the Grand Avenue stores. This is a great opportunity to run an experiment. If sales drop same store year over year, then send Cool Hand Luke in one night and restore the status quo ante. If they don't, then great, win-win.

Parking on Grand Av

There is a - well - schizophrenia that Saint Paul has, that my city, Minneapolis maybe had in the 1950s. The undeniable charm of Saint Paul is that it is a small town in spite of the fact that it is a big city - at least by upper midwest standards (or are there actually standards?)

That means no parking meters on Grand Avenue.

As a frame of reference, two years ago, on an interesting evening at the bar at WA Frost, someone was showing off a card that announced "St. Paul is the new Minneapolis."

That is the last time I ever saw that card.

That also means no meters on Grand Avenue.

Yeah

Saint Paul is changing, believe it. Come to Lowertown and I'll show you!

Parking turnover

I responded to a survey from the Grand Ave. Business Association. It asked about this issue. To be honest, as someone who travels in from the 'burbs to visit these businesses, I find the lack of parking frustrating. There is little turnover and if there's even a hint of a spot opening up, it can back up traffic for quite a ways as someone stops in the street to wait. I don't mind walking a bit from a more distant parking spot, though. But a modest parking fee would probably not be a hardship for most people shopping Grand--it's not like it's filled with pawn shops and payday loan businesses. Even if you paid 50 cents an hour, it's only $2 for 4 hours. If the meters were payable by card as well as cash, most people who would shop Grand would have little difficulty paying. And the tight pockets who want to shop at all the lovely (and not cheap) businesses and restaurants on Grand can park around a corner in the neighborhood. Seriously...a couple bucks to park isn't going to drive your best business away, and might actually increase customers because you encourage turnover. The amount spent by any one customer does not increase the longer they stay there, but if you can get 2 customers in the same amount of time, you're going to double your business.

Yes there is Public Transit on Grand

It is incredible that not a single person talking about parking seems to even be aware that the 63 bus runs three times an hour from downtown St Paul to Cleveland and Raymond Green Line, virtually down the entire length of Grand Avenue. Try a new experience: use the bus.

Meters mean tickets, costing way more than 2 dollars

The revenue generated from meters is not in the two dollars it takes to park, but in the mucho bucks paid when you don't get back in time. That's the hurdle that meters create. That's what chases people away--the notion that you're lovely dinner or peaceful shopping trip may end with a budget crunching slip on your windshield. It's why I don't often go downtown before nightfall and when I do, never really relax.

Tickets already a problem

OK but there are lots of tickets and rules on the street today, 15-minute, 30-minute, 1-hour and 2-hour limitations all up and down the street. If we had meters that you could pay and control (and say, pay for unlimited durations, so that you could go out to eat) I'd bet anything that compliance would go up, not down.

An app for that

So, link up the meters to an app. You can pay from the restaurant. Not a problem. Yep, they're doing it.

That being said, I'm a big fan of reasonable parking limits--4 hours is more than enough for pretty much any trip to a busy shopping area. If you're concerned you might stay the entire 4 hours, pay for it up front. So what if you leave a couple minutes on the meter for the next person. It's far cheaper than the stress of worrying whether you have enough in the meter...or the cost of a ticket. So, you can relax for the small price of just filling up the meter.

Parking on Grand

The article and comments seem to assume that Grand Avenue is not part of a residential neighborhood. Meter parking works downtown because there is no free parking downtown. Why would I pay to park on Grand when I could park for free on a cross street or on Summit or on Lincoln or on Goodrich. This plan will not only affect merchants but will without question increase congestion on residential streets.

Assumptions, and Corrections

From the article

About the parking studies "Nothing comprehensive was done" this assumes that something "comprehensive" is the right solution. Grand Avenue changes block by block. It is not remotely uniform. Why on earth would it have the same parking solution for different conditions? Since the Mayor and others don't seem to actually believe the people who know Grand best, I'll quote Mr. Shoup. In San Diego, and area called MidCity lacked the commercial density of other parts. They installed parking meters that were not used much (as they won't be in from of all 700 residences on Grand) "The underuse of parking meters in the Mid-City District shows that this citywide uniformity is not an appropriate way to manage curb parking demand." Mr Shoup would not approve of installing meters where there is insufficient demand.

Let's look at Grand: Some sections are upwards of 90% residential (Dale-St Albans, northside; Chatsworth-Oxford, both sides; near Dunlap), some are dominantly commercial (Oxford-to-Milton). Some sections have lots of bars and are open late (east), most do not. Some sections have businesses that open really early (bakeries, coffee, exercise), most do not. Meters from 8AM to 10PM on all 10-1/2 blocks, plus side streets, is absolutely inappropriate.

Oh, but there is one commonality for all of Grand Ave: Every single block has residential on it somewhere. The current proposal takes none of this into account.

Cherry-picking Donald Shoup's book, and then bringing up the '05-'06 Parking implies that this proposal actually aligns with either Shoup's theory or with one of the recommendations in that study is misleading at best. Shop's treatise is based on creating "parking improvement districts" and for the revenue to be used to benefit the neighborhood. His entire theory is based on using that revenue in the neighborhood by building ramps, or to install other amenities that otherwise would not be there. He calls people like me, the neighbors, "territorial claimants," and we need to see the benefit in order to sign on. And, yeah, the claimants need to sign on. Here's an actual quote from him: "If curb parking revenue disappears into the city’s general fund, parking meters will have few friends."

Corrections from the comments

RE: "we're paying for a parking garage" - wrong. Grand Place is privately owned and financed by Exeter Realty.

Summary

There are cases in which parking meters have benefited some communities. That does not mean they benefit all communities. That also does not mean that this is a good proposal. The specifics of this so-called pilot are terrible. Period.

On top of that, the manner in which this change is proposed is equally terrible. It's being being done TO Grand & community, definitely not FOR us, and certainly not WITH us. The meters will cost $750,000 in install and will never be removed, even if they're a bad fit. Public works has said that, in black and white, quoted in the Strib. Think about that: it doesn't matter how they perform. They will be permanent.

This whole process has left a terrible taste in my mouth that makes me extremely upset with St Paul. I have invested so much in my home, my business, the schools. If this is how we are treated as citizens, this is no longer just about this ill-reasoned proposal. This is also about government overreach. Upwards of 80% of the actual "territorial claimants" are vehemently opposed. That's a game changer, or it should be.