St. Paul is the place to be

“Minneapolis is booming. St. Paul is … growing.”

Minneapolis is booming. Development is almost everywhere: Downtown. Loring Park. The University. Uptown.

Yes, Minneapolis is being Minneapolis. Check the UrbanMSP forum and you’ll notice that the Minneapolis thread is alive and well. It even breaks down Minneapolis into four distinct categories; all of which have more posts than the single “St. Paul” thread. Even the thread “Suburbs” has more comments.

St. Paul is … growing. To put this in perspective: I was having a conversation at a happy hour over development in both core cities. A friend mentioned that all the action was happening in Minneapolis. I disagreed. St. Paul is happening, just in a different way. It’s composed of smaller, less exciting projects: no skyscrapers, nothing much over 5 stories, lots of mid-sized projects along the Central Corridor and a handful of multifamily projects in neighborhoods.

St. Paul isn’t Minneapolis; and as a resident of St. Paul, I am content with that. You can read about that here.

This is keeping up with the development tradition of each city. Minneapolis goes big. And when St. Paul strikes out, it’s usually because they shortsightedly decided to follow in Minneapolis’ footsteps. 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.

What makes St. Paul great? And what can be done to aid downtown, if not for stadiums?

I think the answer lies within St. Paul’s strong and vibrant neighborhoods, where you’ll typically find a good mix of housing (both affordable and otherwise) coupled with solid neighborhood retail. When it comes to attracting people, the biggest catalyst is other people. The best way to do that is create a lively mix; that also means no entertainment or cultural districts. But, that’s not all. If St. Paul is looking to improve, I have a couple ideas:

Quick & Dirty Recommendations:

  • Expand housing options; aim for more mid-market housing, too.
  • Don’t be afraid to build small. We need buildings of all types in downtown St. Paul, not just Class A Office Towers.
  • Don’t be afraid of Corner Stores. They provide a great amenity to walkable, urban neighborhoods.
  • Require all new buildings to have an active street frontage. It’s better to have an empty storefront than a blank wall – at least the storefront has potential.
  • Kill the downtown one-ways and calm vehicle traffic.
  • Explore land bridges / highway caps over I-94 / I-35 connecting the Capitol and adjacent neighborhoods.
  • Moratorium on new skyways. We don’t need to tear down what we have, but let’s not expand it. We need people walking the streets of St. Paul.

Now, St. Paul needs to migrate the traits from other areas to form a successful to downtown neighborhood. It’s doing that with Lowertown (minus the housing mix). By the way, the trick is getting existing skyscrapers to behave properly in the pedestrian realm.

I’m basing these recommendations on one of my favorite areas of St. Paul: the stretch along Selby Avenue between Western and Dale Avenues. For starters, it has a surprisingly healthy mix of retail and a range of housing options.


I captured the surrounding blocks and did a search for all available single-family homes, condos and townhouses $600,000 and under. The cheapest being a 3 bedroom townhouse for $155,000. There’s a single family home for $160,000 and a 1 bedroom condo at $100,00. On the other end of the spectrum, you can spend $400,000 on a high-end condo. If you captured Summit Avenue on the map, it could get a lot higher.

The wide range of housing option is within a healthy walking distance to shops, restaurant, pubs, bike lanes, corner stores and transit. And it’s cheaper, but still urban and cool. That’s what Minneapolis doesn’t have for it’s urbanism: as much affordability.

Herein lies St. Paul’s major strength, and the City shouldn’t be afraid to flaunt it. St. Paul isn’t Minneapolis-Lite. Minneapolis is St. Paul-bloated. By the way – could you buy this for under $200k in Minneapolis? 

Minneapolis is booming, but St. Paul is growing the place to be.


40 thoughts on “St. Paul is the place to be

  1. R. John Anderson

    I encourage you to explore the Westside of Saint Paul, the commercial and increasingly mixed use district down in the Flats and the potential of Cherokee Heights and Smith Avenue which used to be the streetcar route across the Smith Avenue High Bridge.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I agree! I live there and will happily take you on a tour. I really wish there were more shops / restaurants / bars on the West Side though, and that the main streets weren’t dominated by cars.

  3. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

    Couple thoughts:

    1.) UrbanMSP Minneapolis sub-forums post count: 15,356. St. Paul sub-forum post count: 904. Whose fault is that? I can’t force people to post! I spent my 4th of July biking around St. Paul taking pictures for the site, and only a couple projects scored any replies…if there’s more stuff going on in St. Paul than is covered on the site (as is implied in a comment on the Strib copy of this article) we’d love to know about it.

    2.) Of what I do know is happening in St. Paul, I’ve gotta say that I really think the City of St. Paul is making some mistakes along the Green Line, with the downzoning business and how much subsidized development is currently going up along the route–in this case, almost all the new projects, right? Good intentions aside, spending a billion dollars of public money on a train largely under the guise that it’ll spur private investment and then lining it with subsidized housing isn’t good policy. We don’t need another public transit whipping boy for people in Delano to half-know about, and I’m worried that this will become one.

    1. Janne

      Specifically addressing subsidized housing along the Green Line, one of the major concerns was that the coming transit would price current residents out of the area. Affordable housing funders and neighborhood residents have been on top of that for years, and had the foresight to begin planning to create long-term affordability along the line. That doesn’t mean there isn’t market-rate development going on in the area, too — there is! But I don’t think that ensuring access to the area in the future for current residents is a mistake. Rather, it’s critical that those folks planned ahead and got there first to ensure equitable access to the new amenity, rather than allowing the market to exclude the folks who stuck around through the bad days of University once up-market folks wanted to come back.

      1. Matt Steele

        Reducing density means fewer units which means higher prices. Artificial suppression of density hurts affordable housing since it prevents the market from meeting demand and the equilibrium price is necessarily higher.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      that is true, the downzoning business was a bad move, a giveaway to local groups worried about all sorts of other things. (But in their defense, its not like Hiawatha LRT did this properly… on the contrary.)

      also, there will be plenty of market rate development along University. I have no fear of that. Having some affordable developments there too is only icing on the cake.

    3. Jim, aka spectre

      Hi Nick,

      As someone who posted a lot of updates on St. Paul projects I know the frustration of not elliciting any responses. It felt like no one was interested. And sometimes when people would reply, the discussion would steer negatively.

      Part of me misses showcasing all the many projects in St. Paul on your forum. A lot is happening that isn’t being mentioned there. I know there were a few (literally) genuinely interested. But for the most part there just wasn’t enough interest from the whole that made it worthwhile. And having to read the (forgive me) snobbish attitude about how so much of the development in St. Paul is publicly funded versus Minneapolis was too much for me to continue participating on the forum.

      1. Brent (bptenor)

        Thanks so much for your posts, “spectre.” I’ve become weary of the Mpls-centric comments on UrbanMSP as well. Not that all comments are snobbish, but virtually all in the St Paul forum tend that way. I wish there was more involvement among St Paulites, but maybe there just needs to be a separate forum for that, so that St Paulites actually recognize a forum about development that cares about them and their city.

        1. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

          It’s hard to say this without sounding snobbish, but you basically just said “People make fun of St. Paul for wanting the things that Minneapolis gets, so maybe we should have our own forum”. That’s kind of ironic, right?

          Like I said above, I really can’t control content that much! It’s a forum. If you want another view represented, you’ve got to represent it.

      2. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

        I mean, I think there are certainly legitimate concerns about the level of public financing going on in St. Paul–people have concerns about the way Minneapolis is run all the time, it’s not really unique to any one city.

        Otherwise, well, people make jokes. I’ve tried to steer the site in a more professional direction in the past six months or so, but it’s still good to know which posters to ignore and which ones to take seriously.

        1. Jim, aka spectre

          It’s certainly justifiable to raise issue with the level of subsidy going to projects. I don’t want to suggest it’s not. But for me that topic became tiresome and repetitive. And trying to defend my own opinion (or the city’s) takes a toll on a person. It just no longer became worth it.

        2. Brent (bptenor)

          I agree. And maybe that was a bit harsh.You can’t really say anything concerning Twin Cities rivalry without at least an undertone of “snobbishness.” Maybe it’s an underdog complex. Maybe St Paulites are sometimes jealous of Minneapolis (myself included). I really do like both cities, for different reasons, and I’m obviously not going to start a separate forum (that was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but didn’t come off that way). But I will undertake to photo-document (as time allows) progress in the city and share it, simply because I want to see it myself.

  4. Nathaniel

    1. Who is at fault? Inactive St. Paulites. I did see those photos from your ride. Thank you for that. Excellent work!

    2. I agree with your comments on the Green Line. It was really championed by St. Paul’s outgoing Council member. He claimed that he wanted to preserve affordability in the neighborhood by reducing height and density limits. I’m not sure his math, but I can assure you it needed some improvement.

  5. minneapolisite

    The one thing that really hurts St Paul for me is that it lacks a “quirky” area. Just a couple of corners of University and Snelling are about it: Turf Club and a bookstore. It reminds me very much of Old North in Columbus except it’s a dozen blocks shorter because instead of continuing all the way to the U of M it becomes too sparse from there. Places further out like The Townhouse would fit in, but it’s too cut off to add the necessary synergy. Aside from that it’s disparate singular businesses: Mojo Monkey Donuts on W 7th, Quixotic Coffee in Highland Park, Amsterdam, Black Dog, and Station 4 blocks away from each other Downtown, anything else? Mpls seems to have a lot for its size: Whittier, numerous NE hoods, Seward, and Lyn-Lake. In the rest of the mid-size Great Lakes cities that aren’t Chicago they have at least one such neighborhood/district: Milwaukee has Brady Street, Cincinnati has Northside, Columbus has Old North and the Short North, Cleveland has North Collinwood and Ohio City/Tremont, and even Indianapolis being the big suburb it is manages to at least have the Broad Ripple. I can’t think of anything close in St Paul that matches any of these places.

    So sure, I could go with the easy way out and say that Mpls is serving as a magnet that’s taking away potential for such an area, but St Paul is a big boy that can take care of himself at about 300,000 people. I don’t see why the city can’t support a few blocks worth of quirkiness by itself. Sure, Selby and Grand are nice in their own ways, but how about St Paul show us its unique alternative side?

      1. Matt Steele

        I’d love to see St. Paul encourage “quirk corridors” or places where people-scale storefronts are encouraged. It would be ideal to connect Rice Park and Mears Park along 5th or 6th Streets. Focus energy on making one corridor good. And not with giant block level projects, but with a framework for lots of micro-investments by entrepreneurs and neighborhood groups.

        1. Ken Jopp

          The Ford plant site would seem a natural for even several quirk zones.

          I live in Highland, a couple blocks from the plant. A few years ago there was a flurry of planning for the site, but lately not so much, at least not much that I’m aware of.

          Any of you St. Paul boosters have insight into current plans?

          What’s on your wish list, after quirk zones? Is there an online forum where St. Paulites are brainstorming life after Ford?

  6. Morgan

    One thing that I always notice about St. Paul is that the maintenance of the housing stock is more consistent than Minneapolis. The Union Park, to Highland Park, to Summit Hill core of residential St. Paul is much better maintained than Southwest Minneapolis.

    Also, when walking around, I always seem to stumble upon large single family renovation projects in this area and feel like I never see them in Minneapolis. Why is this?

    1. Nathaniel

      Basically everything south of I-94 is really nice and well-kept. North of I-94, that’s where you’ll hit pockets. There are AWESOME neighborhoods and great housing stocks and vibrant communities on that side of the interstate – which kind of makes me jealous as someone who lives in Highland – but it has it’s pockets.

  7. Janne

    As a Minneapolitan, I wish we’d stop being such idiots going after the big and just stick with the good. Maybe we can be more like St. Paul.

  8. Karl

    Much like the comments section in the St Paul UrbanMSP forums the city is sleepy. I lived in the Merriam Park neighborhood for a year and, Blue Door Pub withstanding, there was zero foot traffic. There are certain sections of St Paul that have a real ghost-town feel i don’t find in MPLS.

  9. Evan RobertsEvan

    It seems to still be true that Minneapolis’ off-street parking requirements for small businesses are way less onerous than in Saint Paul. I wonder if that could explain a lot of the difference in neighborhood retail. The Cupcake story was illustrative of the differences (they needed to provide more parking for a smaller store in St Paul than their existing one in Minneapolis)

  10. carolyn

    I think it’s misguided to prevent more skyway construction in downtown St. Paul–it’s one of its best features. I’d recommend living in downtown St. Paul to my parents or grandparents specifically because of how easy it is to get around without a car.

    I work in lowertown and have witnessed nearly half a dozen people peeing (and even pooping) on the sidewalks in the last couple years. And I wish I was joking. Yes, we need to address the dichotomy of street culture vs. skyway culture, and how it affects safety, cleanliness, and inclusiveness… but it’s ignorant to discourage investment in something that the majority of downtown St. Paul residents and workers rely on.

  11. Nathaniel

    The dichotomy of street culture vs. skyway culture is obviously an issue. I feel as if it has more to do with who is allowed to participate in each culture. By removing shops from the streetfront, moving up upstairs, and creating blank walls, you’ve removed the social policing of the street level.

    Is getting around the skyway easy? I’m sort of familiar with both Minneapolis and St. Paul’s systems; and I always get lost. I’ve always thought that there is nothing easier, and faster, than just using the street.

    1. carolyn

      Skyway usage is not about laziness or being “hardcore” enough… it’s about convenience during work hours and staying where the economic activity is. Food is sold at the skyway level, bathrooms are at the skyway level. Enjoying cross-country skiing and buying a coffee at the Caribou in the skyway are not mutually exclusive!

      The St. Paul skyway is much easier to navigate than the sidewalks. Street-level navigation is cumbersome because of construction in the summer and poorly groomed streets in the winter. Also, St. Paul has some ridiculous crosswalks with very short crossing times (Minneapolis, on the other hand, has very well-timed walk signals).

  12. Nathaniel

    Hey Gary. I want to apologize. I didn’t mean to be harsh earlier. It’s an old article, but who cares? I shouldn’t have said that. I was having a bad day.

    If you have ideas, I encourage you to comment – or, better yet – fill out the contact form with your details and idea, and we’ll let you publish on Streets.MN. We have a fair amount of local decision-makers who check and comment on the blog, so your ideas won’t be falling on deaf ears.

    Thanks Gary. Also, we occasionally have happy hours in Minneapolis and St. Paul. If you’re available, stop on by and chat in person. It’s encouraged. You can check our Facebook page for details on upcoming events:

    Thanks Gary. All the best _Nate

  13. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    Gary, lets have lunch sometime. This is a serious offer. I’d like to hear your thoughts about bicycling in St. Paul. If you’re interested, please call me. 651-266-6059

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