Newflash: St. Paul isn’t Minneapolis (and that’s a good thing)

If you were to read the City of St. Paul’s legislative wish list, you’d see a list of big projects such as:

  • $14 million to improve the Children’s Museum
  • $7 million for parking and transportation improvements at Como Park
  • $32 million loan forgiveness tied to the Xcel Energy Center (in an effort to not pay down debt, but still collect a special sales tax revenue increase to fund a professional hockey practice rink across the street)

Last year the City asked for $25 million for a new baseball stadium in Lowertown, and they got it.

The odd thing about these projects is that they aren’t what the average resident of St. Paul really cares about. It appears as if these funding requests are typically large ticket items aimed at attracting people from outside St. Paul to come visit.

Most of these projects are part of this senseless game of “let’s compete with Minneapolis.”

Newsflash: St. Paul isn’t Minneapolis, and the residents of St. Paul are content with that.

Too often I read a quote in a local newspaper that sounds something like, “Minneapolis got this, so it’s only fair that we get this too.” So, Minneapolis gets the Vikings Stadium. That means it’s only fair that St. Paul gets money for the Saints. Minneapolis gets Target Center renovation cash, so we have to improve the Xcel Center. The list could go on …

I don’t know if those asking for money know this, but the people of St. Paul don’t really care that it’s not Minneapolis. In fact, we wish that city leaders would stop trying to be the big city and just concentrate on the things that make St. Paul great.

I live in St. Paul because I like St. Paul.

I like the neighborhoods and the tree-lined streets. I like the Groveland Tap and Grand Avenue. I love the slower pace of life, the cheaper rents and about a thousand other things. I like that I have the keys to my neighbor’s house, you know, just in case. I like that when I leave my trash bin out that my neighbor will bring it back and place it in my backyard. Yes, these things occur in Minneapolis neighborhoods too, but I have experienced them in my neighborhood in St. Paul.

Sure, I’d like to buy cupcakes on Grand Avenue and have a few more bike lanes, but I can get by without them. No place is going to be perfect.

The easiest way to make life better in St. Paul would be to listen to its residents. The city would find that most suggestions are small, reasonable and affordable. I was having this conversation with my girlfriend and I asked her “What could be done to make St. Paul a better place?”

Right away, off the top of her head, she responded with two great suggestions:

  • The need for a mid-range grocery store in our neighborhood, and to
  • Connect the Sam Morgan Regional Bike Trail (that runs along the Mississippi) with the Bruce Vento Trail (that heads towards White Bear Lake and Stillwater).

Both of these ideas would benefit thousands of people and are really cheap (or, at least cheaper than a baseball stadium and the Children’s Museum expansion). The mid-range grocery store would certainly help me. In Highland Park, we’ve got high-end and low-end. Mississippi Market, Kowlaski’s and Lund’s are great, but they break the bank. Then we’ve got Cooper’s Super Value. It’s cheap, but good luck finding fresh fruit. And bridging the disconnect between the two bike trails would entail nothing more than adding a mile or two of bike lanes and some better wayfinding signage. Simple.

I asked myself the same question. I want a place within walking distance to grab a beer that isn’t Tiff’s and I think it’d be great if we could make West 7th Street into something other than a busy collector road. Also, it’d be nice if we got some protected bus shelters.

I asked my neighbor. His suggestion was even more basic: add sidewalks along Davern Street Hill and Edgecumbe Road so the kids who have to walk up the hill to high school don’t have to walk in the street.

That’s it! That’s what people actually want: a sidewalk, bike trail, neighborhood pub and an affordable grocery store.

Okay, before you write something in the comment section, I want to say: Yes, I’ve used a very small sample size. I recognize this. The St. Paul demographic that I know would be those living south of I-94 and those without children. I’m sure if I asked this question to some parents or anyone living anywhere in St. Paul, they’d tell me something about their neighborhood, their public school and possibly something about crime.

The point I want to get across is that people want things that are small and localized. They want the proverbial pothole fixed, and while they may enjoy the occasional visit to the Science Museum and possibly a Wild game or two, that’s not what they really care about. That’s not what makes them want to live in St. Paul.

If St. Paul does the small things right, then I think the big things, like sports stadiums and science museums will fall into place.


[Cover images citation: St. Paul scene from artist, CeCeile Hartleib; and Minneapolis Stone Arch Bridge from Wasco. Enjoy.]

24 thoughts on “Newflash: St. Paul isn’t Minneapolis (and that’s a good thing)

    1. Matty LangMatty Lang

      The Union Depot was funded with stimulus money so it will not be "haunting us for decades." And, it's a spectacular place that's more than worth saving and re-opening.

      You should check it out sometime.

      1. Nick

        It was paid for with Monopoly money, yes, but I mean that it will haunt us from a planning perspective. We built our central train station ten miles from the region's center of gravity. How many fewer business travelers from Chicago are going to take the future hypothetical HSR to St. Paul because they have to then sit on the Green Line for 45 minutes to get to Minneapolis? Will we be conned into building an underperforming East Metro commuter rail line just so we can put something in Union Depot? As it is, they have two (very inconveniently-timed) Amtrak trains a day and Jefferson Lines busses. Greyhound didn't even want to move from their Minneapolis depot. It's a pretty building, but $250 million could have been spent much more effectively.

        1. Matty LangMatty Lang

          Whether it's ideal or not, the MSP region has multiple job/activity centers and downtown Saint Paul is one of them. In order to obtain the urban density required to avoid an even more sprawling and auto-dependent region, we will need both downtowns as well as street car corridors in both cities.

          My supposition is that the future HSR from Chicago will stop at Union Depot, but terminate at the Interchange in the North Loop so ridership probably won't be effected by a transfer to the Green Line for those looking to reach downtown MPLS. It's silly to think of Saint Paul as somehow deficient, and therefore, irrelevant as one of two urban hubs in our region going forward. Downtown Saint Paul has plenty of advantages over downtown Minneapolis and it is not going away.

          1. Nick MagrinoNick

            It's not "going away." Economically, it already went away. There are more jobs on the 494 strip in Bloomington than in Downtown St. Paul, should we build a $250 million train station at American & 494? Without the state government, Downtown St. Paul would be irrelevant regionally. (Which kind of gets to the root of this issue–it's hard to talk logically about it without somebody having to be kind of mean at some point.)

            Also, for what it's worth–even with the billion dollar investment in the Green Line, almost all the planned development along the line so far is subsidized to some extent, including more than one instance of the City of St. Paul literally trying to play private developer.

            You mention wanting streetcars in St. Paul, and that's a great idea. They should have taken $250 million and built streetcars, because they serve a local purpose. Instead we took the $250 million and incorrectly sited a facility that serves a regional and even national purpose.

            1. Matty LangMatty Lang

              Look Nick, it seems like I'm looking to the future while you are focusing on the past with regard to Saint Paul. It's obviously on the other side of bottoming out economically and is on the way back up. Macy's closing down is another step in the correct direction of moving away from an outdated economic model downtown Saint Paul. There will always be state employees, but what will be the biggest factor in the near term for this piece of the local economy will be a growing mixed-use neighborhood spilling out of Lowertown. As transit connections (and hopefully bicycle connections) improve to downtown, there will be more incentive for jobs requiring young tallent to locate there, certainly more than along the 494 in Bloomington.

              I'll bet on downtown Saint Paul being a good place to invest in infrastructure and you can take the 494 strip. Let's check back in on the wager in 20 years or so.

          2. Matt SteeleMatt

            So we have Minneapolis, then many other secondary centers of activity. St. Paul happens to be one of them. But it's not Minneapolis. St. Paul continues to destroy itself and take on piles of debt to try and be Minneapolis. Yes, SPUD was fortunately saved and the GN depot was unfortunately razed. Yes, maybe SPUD can be a through stop from anywhere in Wisconsin or the East Metro on its way to Minneapolis. But there's no way SPUD should be the primary long distance surface transportation hub in the region when it's not located in the primary urban zone in the region. Nick has a good point.

            1. Matty LangMatty Lang

              "But there’s no way SPUD should be the primary long distance surface transportation hub in the region when it’s not located in the primary urban zone in the region."

              I'm pretty sure I agree and that I did not suggest that happening. I'm not trying to apologize for any questionable past moves by the city of Saint Paul. My point is that we have a metro area that has two downtowns along with at least a couple of other (unfortunately) activity/job centers. The fact that we have two downtowns that can become actual urban places (especially one that has retained most of its historic bones, regardless of the reasons why) is an asset and we should not engage in parochial competition in order to spite ourselves.

              Saint Paul is mostly at fault in continuing this, I will admit. I love how Mayor Rybak likes to refer to the two cities as "really one city." I totally agree. Personally, I don't care if Minneapolis comes first–it ought to be called Minneapolis Saint Paul from here on out.

          3. Nick MagrinoNick

            Matty: I think we pretty much agree with each other at this point.

            Bill: Well I'd said "almost everything", and there are definitely examples of non-subsidized development along the line. But like Matt aluded to above, St. Paul is really setting a bad precedent along the route by A) Directly acting as developer on the Penfield & Farmers Market Lofts project B) Giving out lots of grants and TIF to many, many of these projects before we've really assessed what the market can do along the route:

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            If you just skim that, there are very few projects without some sort of subsidy. I realize local governments do that all the time, including the gigantic subsidy to the proposed "A" mill project in Minneapolis, but St. Paul's projects seem to overwhelmingly be going up outside the normal market.

            Plus, C) Enacting zoning restrictions to decrease planned along large portions of the route.

          4. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

            I share your concerns about that, and your frustration with the "compromise" to decrease the zoned density along the line. My hope is that the market will thrive in the future, and that the subsidies are going mostly to affordable housing projects.

  1. Joe

    I totally agree. Its the diversity and differences between Minneapolis and St. Paul that make the region great. If st. paul keeps trying to be minneapolis then we lose the diversity of lifestyles that we currently have. Emphasizing the differences creates a stronger region because it broadens the appeal of the region as a whole in how it can cater to the masses.

  2. Matt SteeleMatt

    Agree as well. Also I think the answer to a thriving St. Paul is small-scale incremental development, not megaprojects like Macy's, Galtier, Town Square, Saints ballpark, etc. I hope St. Paul learns from these mistakes and creates a framework where the Macy's block and the surface lot across the street become high quality traditional developments with flexible private investment instead of block-scale projects.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      I agree with this whole heartedly. One of Jane Jacobs' ideas is that megaprojects and mega-block developments are often destructive of the things that actually make cities function well.

      OTOH, there is certainty lots of city support for smaller development projects at the local scale (see for example, the STAR program projects). LGA money in general goes to city coffers to support investments in (what you might call) everyday infrastructure. A better critique might be to look at the whole list of the city's Capital Improvement Budget rankings. I've seen these myself, but can't find them online easily. It's things like street reconstructions, traffic calming or streetscaping, and (typically way down on the list) bike infrastructure.

      When the city is lobbying the state for a specific project, though, it's often the big institutional projects that get pushed and noticed. That's an outcome of political realities, I fear.

      As for groceries, Julie I suppose you should be happy about the Mayor spending so much capital on the Penfield project, which will bring a decent grocery store to downtown St Paul.

      1. Nathaniel Hood

        I was initially skeptical of the Penfield development (mainly because I wasn't sure if the CIty should get into the business of building market-rate condos and apartments). It wasn't so much that I hated the project, but that I saw them passing over things that I thought should have received higher priority. And, while it isn't complete, I've come around mostly because of the grocery store issue (having a full-service grocery nearby is absolutely crucial to any neighborhood). Hopefully the places will sell and Whole Foods will be a good fit in the neighborhood.

  3. Julie Kosbab

    I find it amusing how frequently the issue with St. Paul is that for what amounts to a residential city, it has continual issues with neighborhood access to groceries.

    East Side, as I said on ze Twitter, is a fine example. For a time, you had a bunch of bodegas and small neighborhood stuff, you had the Byerly's at Suburban Heights, and you had the Rainbow of Horror and Decay on Arcade. (Before, during, and after the acquisition by Roundy's, the place has always been horrifying. Given the lack of nearby options, you'd think at least the canned goods wouldn't be out of date, but you'd be wrong.)

    When the Cub went in at Sun Ray (taking over an empty, obsolete big box in the somewhat oddly placed strip mall), it was a good thing. They made it sensitive to the area and have a pretty decent ethnic selection. Then, they also put in the small-footprint, LEED Cub at Phalen, near the Bureau of Criminal Whatever, behind the senior condos. It kind of took the place, with a significant gap, of an old SuperValu that had been in the wetland.

    These two installations were nice in that it showed a big retailer addressing food deserts with appropriate store types — one reused an available vacancy with good bus connections, the other is a bit of a new concept for them with a smaller urban footprint and the LEED stuff.

    Also as an aside, I find the terms the East Side Review use to discuss development versus those in the Highland Villager a hilarious contrast. The ESR calls spades spades: "Something is going in where the burned out Ground Round was! Yay!" The HV gets all "there will be a new object on the site of the other object." When they put in the DQ over the burned out Burger King, the HV pretty much stayed completely away from any terms that were truthy about the derelict nature of the closed BK. On the East Side, they'd have embraced those adjectives and treated the redevelopment as some sort of victory.

  4. Nathaniel Hood

    I believe that good grocery stores are crucial in neighborhoods. In fact, I can't think of a more important type of shop to be located within a reasonable walking, biking or driving distance. I am under the belief that St. Paul concentrates too much on big picture items to improve "quality of life" – and the real answer to a lot of these issues is right in front of us. I don't mean to say that you can't have a baseball stadium, but I do think we need to prioritize it accordingly.

    Thanks for all the comments everyone!

  5. minneapolisite

    I do like visiting St Paul and I don’t visit for stadiums or any other big expensive touristy gimmick. It’s for the unique neighborhood spots that aren’t in Mpls: Quixotic Coffee, Kopplin’s, and Nina’s for coffee shops, Groveland Tap is a nice neighborhhoody dive too. I totally agree that more neighborhood spots would result in me visiting more often. Making streets like 7th more conducive to pedestrians and bikes would go a long way in making the area more livable and more compelling to visit, not to mention open a business that caters to pedestrian and cyclist traffic. I was pretty disappointed with W 7th by how disconnected everything is, how ca-oriented it is, and how there’s too little for such a long commercial street.

    And since St Paul city leadership is so trying to keep up with the Jones’; get some damn downtown bike lanes already. Even Indianapolis, a joke of a city, has more than St Paul.

  6. minneapolisite

    Oh, and one more thing about St Paul is the clusterf#ck of “development” just across the river: . Yuck. I mean just look at what awaits you when you head south of Downtown along Wabasha, a major downtown street: lots of parking lots and little else. What should be here (and probably was before urban renewal) is development more akin to the St Anthony Main area with apartment buildings that take advantage of the downtown view across the river and creating a walkable pleasant area to be. This is something I think should be high on the list of St Paul locals: there should and could be a great little neighborhood here and really anchor this part of St Paul and make it more attractive.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      I have a post on that very spot (the West Side Flats) on my ‘to do’ list. It was a kind of run down immigrant neighborhood with a lot of old commercial buildings lining those main streets, but there was a huge flood in the 50s, and the city basically bulldozed the whole area, then built a flood wall, and then turning it into a horrid one-story setback parking lot laden industrial park (practically devoid of people). I live on the bluff looking down at that space now, and think often about what the old neighborhood must have been like.

  7. Pat Lindgren

    If you are hungry for cupcakes, ride your bike over to Piece of Cake on Selby for a fantastic cupcake

  8. Will Sawyer

    When you build infrastructure for transit, like a transit hub, you build it for the future. Not the existing needs but future needs. Ten years ago there we 3000 living in Downtown Saint Paul, today there are 8000, what other neighborhoods in the Twin Cities have grown like this.

    A careful look at last years St. Paul downtown residential growth needs to be considered. I live in Lowertown with my partner. We have one car, a hybrid, and we chose to live Downtown because it is getting cooler and cooler.

    Getting these people and the additional 50-75,000 Downtown Saint Paul day residents around the Twin Cities is paramount to regional growth.

    Saint Paul will never be Downtown Minneapolis, but it is heading towards being a world class residential city.

    We need access by light rail to the airport, to Mall of America, and to other population Centers. It’s not about where the jobs are but about getting people to the jobs and to their homes.

    Besides, these are our tax dollars being spent, why not spend them here?

    What we really need in Downtown Saint Paul is a Target!

    Try living down here with no access to anything.

    Click on link, like and share “Downtown Saint Paul Needs a Target” We have crossed 130 likes on Facebook

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