What happens when a street is just no good?

Having a quality streetscape is beyond important, and one essential elements of this is having buildings that address the street. But, what if the street isn’t any good? Should buildings still address it? What happens when a street is just no good?

The River Crossing Apartments in St. Paul are pretty good. It’s St. Paul’s largest project in recent memory; and it’s an infill project, dense, nicely landscaped, moderately well designed, connected to transit and near the great biking and walking paths along the Mississippi River. It can be a little bland, but all-in-all, it ain’t bad.

The problem I once had was that it did a poor job of connecting people to the street. It mostly ignores the street, although the landscaping and tree plantings look genuinely good. If you walk around the development, you’ll notice that most of the 1st floor apartments are elevated a good distance from street level (here’s an example of where the entrance to the building is elevated much higher than street-grade). This gives the complex an uncomfortable, disconnected feel.

New buildings that are forced to accommodate a bad street, or to create a good street that’s worth accommodating? Before criticizing the development for doing this, I wanted to put myself in the shoes of the developer. I asked myself, “what benefit does this development gain from accommodating the street? None. Nothing. No benefit whatsoever.

West 7th Street and South Davern make up a very unattractive section of town. What was once a stop on the extensive Twin Cities Rapid Transit streetcar system turned into a series of strip malls, parking lots, gas stations and fast food restaurants.

The apartment building abuts a drive-thru Taco Bell, BP gas station, an abandoned gas station, a strip mall and a large “park-n-ride” for the airport. The complex is an island, and I can’t blame the developers for taking that route. Would you want to open your front door and walk out towards a ‘park-n-ride’?

Like downtown’s 7 corners, this is certainly another corner that has devolved. There are certainly more influential factors at play here, such as additional cost of digging the underground parking, elevated floors for better views of the river and the perception of increased safety, etc. Long articles could be written about each of these examples. The point here is: why accommodate the street when there is nothing to engage?

This is where I get stuck: from a policy stand-point, what direction do you take this? Force developers to accommodate the street – even when it’s a really bad street? Or, allow infill developers some leniency at first, then buckle down once the urban fabric starts to eventually recover?

One remedy would be to immediately stop devolving our streets and roadways. The Nokohaha Blog occasionally runs a feature called “Then and Now“. It takes a photograph of a building in the Twin Cities  from sometime in the past 100 years, and compares it to how it looks today. The most noticeable feature of the “Now” is how we’ve so aggressively degraded our urban environment to accommodate the automobile.

A few months ago, they ran a “Then and Now” at the intersection of Franklin and Lyndale Avenues.

This is 1920.

This is now.

This is a perfect example of how streetscapes in the Twin Cities have devolved. But, let’s use this historic photograph as a quick learning tool and analyze what exactly went wrong here.

For starters, the building is the most noticeably uglier. A majority of the large windows facing the street have been covered; and sometime in the last 90 years, someone thought it was a good idea to put some wood paneling over the original brick facade. This building no longer accommodates the street. Instead, it tries to pretend it isn’t there.

To accommodate the automobile, the sidewalks were downgraded from pleasant to unsightly. The road got wider and the sidewalks got smaller. The green buffer of grass and trees that once lined street were replaced with pavement that serves on-street parking. And, as the road widened to accommodate the need for more traffic, the once-bricked street got covered in blacktop and the streetcar tracks were removed.

One might think that car-oriented urban transformations, like Franklin and Lyndale Avenues, would halt most pedestrian activity. This hasn’t been the case. In fact, this might be one of the busiest intersections in all of Minneapolis – and that is why it’s so hard to believe this corner looks like this.

The surrounding neighborhood is dense and walkable (walk score: 82) and countless small businesses, such as cafes, pubs and retail shops, line the streets. So, it’s surprising more care hasn’t gone into transforming this intersection into something other than a means of moving automobiles as quickly and conveniently as possible.

This leads me back to my original question: What happens when a street is just no good? Well, it looks like we’ll have to start with streets (possibly some road-diets) and go from there.