Thune and the Port Authority Quietly Neuter Walkability on Saint Paul’s West Side

west-side-flats-area

The West Side Flats Master Plan area

Line-item amendments to small area master plans are not the kinds of things that make the news. But if you live next to the area being planned, as I do, you might notice what’s going on.

The West Side Flats is a central part of Saint Paul right next to downtown and the Mississippi River, and it has an interesting history of needless destruction, racist displacement, and decades of economic stagnation. I’ve written about it before, but basically, it’s an old urban working-class neighborhood that was bulldozed in the 1950s and replaced by light-industrial office parks and vacant lots. Apart from two or three river-side buildings, not much has changed during the last 50 years on this large piece of central land.

Recently, though, things have started to slowly change, as downtown Saint Paul starts to “boom” (albeit in a quiet Saint Paul way).

For the last two years, a neighborhood task force has been meeting to discuss the future of the Flats. The group hoped to improve on an earlier attempt to shape development that was seen as too restrictive, and finally earlier this year, the official West Side Flats Master Plan was released to the public. It’s scheduled to be adopted in the next few weeks by the City Council.

The plan does a lot of what I would consider really good stuff, framing the flats area well for a mixed-use walkable future. It proposes green spaces, groundwater, bike paths, connections to the river, and lays out a rather innovate and flexible mixed-use development framework that aims to accommodate residential, commercial, and industrial land use patterns in a way that will hopefully make them compatible with each other. (No easy feat, this!)

Misguided controversy and last-minute changes

To make a long story a bit shorter, the plan proved to be controversial at public hearings at the planning commission. The big problem was that a purely conceptual diagram showing a future park and a map of future streets happened to fall on the site of an existing can factory.

west-side-flats-map

The unfortunately located conceptual park.

Despite the city’s (and the task force members’) pleas that the illustration was purely conceptual, the plant’s employees turned out in force during the public hearing decrying that the city was going to destroy the plant.

The Planning Commission approved the plan after adopting an amendment aimed at making it clear that it was not intended to displace existing businesses, and that things like the restored street grid and future green spaces would only be built if land was redeveloped. We took great pains to clarify the language and address the concerns of the plant’s workers. (Note: I’m a member of the Commission, and participated in the discussion.)

But apparently that wasn’t enough. Once the plan reached the City Council, soon-to-be-retiring Council Member Dave Thune (who represents the area) introduced an amendment that strips all the walkability and parkland out of the Eastern half of the flats plan.

Here some of the details of the last minute changes; most of them are centered around stripping the restored street grid, reducing parks, and eliminating calls for less surface parking from the Eastern half of the  project area.

What the plan says about vision:

w-side-flats-1

What the Thune amendment does:

west-side-flats-changes-1

What the plan says about growing jobs:w-side-flats-2

What the Thune amendment does:

west-side-flats-changes-2

What the plan says about green space:

w-side-flats-3

What the Thune amendment does:

west-side-flats-changes-3

What the plan says about attracting new businesses:

w-side-flats-10

What the Thune amendment does:

west-side-flats-changes-4


What the plan says about mixed-use:w-side-flats-5
What the Thune amendment does:

west-side-flats-changes-5



What the plan says about automobility:w-side-flats-6

What the Thune amendment does:

west-side-flats-changes-6

What the plan says about street design:w-side-flats-7

What the Thune amendment does:

west-side-flats-changes-7

What the plan says about zoning:

w-side-flats-8

What the Thune amendment does:

west-side-flats-changes-8

What the plan says about implementation:w-side-flats-9

What the Thune amendment does:

west-side-flats-changes-9

There is more. You can read it for yourself: Thune amendments to Master Plan 5.6.15.

Regardless of what you think of these changes, at the very least, after years of meetings where seemingly all parties (residents, neighbors, planners, city staff, and the Port Authority) were gathered around the table and working through their differences, coming in at the last minute and re-writing a huge section of a plan like this seems like bad form. After this precedent, why would any Saint Paul task force trust the city (or the Port Authority) again?

The past and future importance of walkability

West Side Flats_thumb

The historic street grid, in place until the 1960s.

I’ve written about this elsewhere, but there are two very good reasons to keep a walkable street grid, minimal surface parking, and green space in the plan. The first is what I explained in my 2013 post, that the old neighborhood was needlessly bulldozed in the 1960s, with whole working-class neighborhoods uprooted and displaced.

For the last fifty years, the tens of thousands of people who live on the West Side have been separated from the rest of the city by large blocks of underused industrial property, surface parking, and neglected vacant lots. The thousands of us that live on the neglected West Side deserve to have the heart of the neighborhood restored, and deserve to be re-connected to  the river. (For the record: I live on the West Side and walk, bike, and bus through the plan area almost every day.)

The second big reason is that, whether or not groups like the Saint Paul Port Authority admit it, industrial demands are changing. Designing mixed-use, smaller-scale, amenity-rich industrial  neighborhoods is no longer a pipe dream. The West Side Flats could become a model for the nation, and the plan as written offers a flexible, non-invasive framework that aims at that goal.

Saint Paul’s lost potential

stp-west-side-flats-vacant-lotsValuing industrial land is difficult, but it doesn’t take a PhD or a real-estate expert to know that low-value land, right next to downtown, sitting between the country’s most famous river and majestic wooded bluffs, is very valuable. For the last fifty years, Saint Paul has gotten minimal return on that land. If they adopt the Thune amendments, it’s likely to stay that way for the next fifty years as well.

There’s been a quiet debate over the last few years between city staff, neighborhoods, and the Saint Paul Port Authority over how best to design and develop industrial property in Saint Paul. In general, the Port Authority seems to insist that standard “parking-first” designs are necessary, and resists what they see as the “loss” of light industrial land to more dense development patterns.

Meanwhile, others in city planning departments or neighborhood groups look for more walkable and dense development approaches to industrial land, and don’t see re-use of land for mixed-use purposes as a zero-sum “loss” to the city. On the contrary, many people are looking for industrial designs and land uses that fit better next to residential and commercial neighborhoods. Because of its proximity and potential, the West Side Flats seems like an ideal place to demonstrate some of those forward thinking ideas.   

For all the talk about the possibilities at the Ford Plant site, the Flats is larger and arguably more important to the future of the city. It would be a missed opportunity if Dave Thune, carrying water for the Port Authority on his way out of office, left a legacy that leaves the West Side behind for the next generation.

The final public hearing on the proposed changes to the plan is at 3:30 this afternoon at City Council Chambers, at Saint Paul City Hall.

This is the kind of thing that normally flies under the radar, but if you care about the future of the Flats, feel free to email your City Councilmember. A vote is expected next week.

st-paul-west-side-flats

Update:

The amendments passed City Council unanimously. Here’s the Pioneer Press story, which incorrectly states that roads and parks were planned “through” existing businesses. Rather, roads and parks were planned should future development take place. Is this distinction too complicated?

CM Thune seemed rather gleeful about progress on Twitter: thune-tweet


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19 Responses to Thune and the Port Authority Quietly Neuter Walkability on Saint Paul’s West Side

  1. Mike Sonn
    Mike Sonn June 3, 2015 at 1:26 pm #

    This is beyond disappointing. Why can’t he just allow the next CM to make the call. Why toss all that work into the trash just before leaving office?

  2. Matt Steele June 3, 2015 at 1:36 pm #

    The SPPA has a long history of building low value sub-urbanism, and claiming the high-infrastructure low-value land uses produced are somehow a benefit to the city. To see this, just check out the “completed projects” on the left side of their webpage: http://sppa.com/business-sites/ I can understand if many of these land use mistakes were made in the 60s or 70s. But many of them are much more recent.

    Does St. Paul see itself as a suburb the way the Port Authority does through their actions? Or does St. Paul see itself as a city?

    • Wayne June 3, 2015 at 3:46 pm #

      Well, I know the rest of us see it as a suburb, so …

  3. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller June 3, 2015 at 1:42 pm #

    This land along the river could be really valuable, and thus really valuable to the city, if those who controlled it would it be.

  4. Matty Lang
    Matty Lang June 3, 2015 at 1:44 pm #

    #BoomertownUSA

  5. Rebecca Airmet
    Rebecca June 3, 2015 at 1:44 pm #

    Here’s my letter to Councilmembers Thune and Thao (my Ward Councilmember). Consider this an open letter.

    Don’t Take the Walkability Out of the West Side Master Plan

    Dear Councilmember Thune and Councilmember Thao,

    I read today about the proposed amendments to the West Side Master Area Plan. While I recognize the need to reassure existing industrial businesses regarding their continued existence, the amendments seem to lean much to far in the direction of taking out any language around mixed-use development that might sound threatening to existing businesses.

    Over and over again, around the country and around St. Paul, we have seen mixed-use development thrive, retaining living-wage jobs while also driving commercial, retail, and residential vibrancy.

    The amendment to page 31, LU8 and LU10, in particular, striking language “preventing the creation of new large surface parking areas”, is uncalled for. Large surface parking lots hurt the city tax base, create heat islands, and make for areas where people do not want to live, shop, or recreate.

    Above and beyond the destruction the amendments do to the future walkability and development of the site, these changes take the vary hard work put in by task force members and throw it back in their faces. As I understand it, great effort was made to engage stakeholders, reach consensus, and ensure that language in the plan did not doom existing businesses to destruction.

    Councilmember Thune, please reconsider your amendments.

    Councilmember Thao, as my ward representative, representative of a vibrant mixed-use and dense ward that is improving through smart development, please vote No on these amendments.

    Thank you.

  6. acs June 3, 2015 at 1:53 pm #

    Don’t worry, Bill. It seems developers don’t give a crap what Thune wants.

    http://finance-commerce.com/2015/06/weidner-purchases-land-near-downtown-st-paul/

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke June 3, 2015 at 2:04 pm #

      Hadn’t seen that. Do you know the exact location?

      • acs June 3, 2015 at 2:41 pm #

        Sorry, F&C might as well be the great paywall of MSP.

  7. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel June 3, 2015 at 3:39 pm #

    Thank you Bill. I’m e-mailing my Council Member today.

  8. Andy Singer
    Andy Singer June 4, 2015 at 3:49 am #

    “After this precedent, why would any Saint Paul task force trust the city (or the Port Authority) again?”

    This piece describes what I’ve seen with so many planning processes in this city– from city agencies, council members, MnDOT (Snelling Multi-modal study), district councils, on and on. I guess it’s the same on the state and federal level– a governor or president appoints some blue ribbon panel or committee to examine an issue. They bust their butts for months or years coming up with recommendations …and these get privately thrown out by an individual or tiny cabal of people. We must be insane to keep coming back for more of this!?! …but then I guess we have no choice other than dropping out completely.

  9. Erik Hare June 4, 2015 at 8:55 am #

    I can’t entirely speak for Thune on this, but the elimination of the river space definitely seems to be an attempt to protect Upper Harbor Services, a barge maintenance company. They have been there essentially forever and are the only service of their kind in the area.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke June 4, 2015 at 8:56 am #

      Thanks Erik. Can you explain what “elimination of the river space” means?

  10. Nick June 5, 2015 at 11:40 pm #

    I used to work at an office in the west side flats as a temp. I was offered to transition to a full time position–one that I mostly liked especially considering it was still the deep recession and I was a recent college grad, but I declined the offer. I didnt want to have to go there every day for the foreseeable future because it sucks for those who got there via the 94 bus/bike. I held out and eventually got a job in downtown Minneapolis.

    It is generally a miserable area to work other than the beautiful river view. There’s just nothing there and its not worth it to trek over the Robert st bridge into downtown StP unless you want to take an hour plus lunch.

    I was going to make other points bemoaning the areas untapped potentional but just realized the tragic irony of the “miserable area with a beautiful view” is basically 101 on the west side flats.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke June 6, 2015 at 10:42 am #

      I tempted at both of those buildings (US BAnk and Comcast).

      Meanwhile, East of Robert, it’s even worse. I’d say that the vast majority of the employees whose jobs Thune pretended to be saving would agree with you, at least based on the questions that we asked them during the Commission meeting. None of the workers at the can factory lived in Saint Paul (not one of the dozen testifiers, and none that they could point to), and when asked if they ever spent money in Saint Paul (on lunch breaks or whatever), the only reply was that occasionally they ordered pizza. Thus, it becomes a place to park your car, and the best thing about Saint Paul is that you can drive into and out of it quickly on your way back to Ham Lake.

      For anyone that actually spends time there, the “miserable” state of the Flats is readily apparent and increasingly depressing. The City, County, and Port Authority should be ashamed of Robert Street, and thanks to this decision, there’s no momentum to change it anytime soon.

  11. Emma June 6, 2015 at 10:14 pm #

    Anyone who has ever had to rely on the 68 or 71 could’ve knows the problems that excessive surface lots and lack of mixed use development cause. If you need to go down Robert, at night and on weekends, it’s not unusual to have to wait an hour for a bus. I have opted for a 45 minute walk rather then hang out at a bus stop on several occasions.

    The dead zone of the flats is a scary walk at night, and it feels unsafe if you are alone. There is no one to hear a scream and it’s dark. In the summer it’s a miserably hot concrete desert, and you are smacked by sand blowing in your face if it’s windy. And what’s that plastic smell?

    Or has anyone else accidentally taken the 71 that meanders all through the empty lots parking lots? Usually 1 dude gets off…. But the rest if the bus wonders what the hell just happened and will we ever see our families again. Sigh. Something tells me that , no, my council member has NOT ever done that.

    But thank you planning commission. It was a good plan.

  12. Jeff McMenimen June 8, 2015 at 8:54 am #

    Excellent points in your letter, Bill. I’m both, a resident of Saint Paul, and an urban designer and care greatly about the future of our city. I agree with your statement that the West Side Flats may be a more significant site than the Ford Plant site to Saint Paul. And I’m dismayed at the lack of vision displayed by the Saint Paul Port Authority and by Councilmember Thune for this important piece of land. They fail to see the great value in property just across the river from downtown Saint Paul, and instead, choose to suppress the potential for the West Side Flats to reestablish itself and provide a model for 21st century urban neighborhoods.

  13. Roxanne Kimball June 8, 2015 at 1:42 pm #

    Everyone who’s upset about this – I encourage you to contact Mayor Coleman and ask him to reject the amendments, or at the very least to send them back to the West Side Flats Task Force so that a compromise can be achieved that engages the community members that spent over 2 years crafting the plan and its vision. Cc your council member and Councilmember Thune.

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