Is Saint Paul Missing The Boat on its Riverfront?

The downtown Milwaukee riverwalk.

I was listening to Kunstler’s podcast yesterday, and a recurring topic popped into my head. Kunstler was talking to John Norquist, the well-known ex-mayor of Milwaukee (and current head of the Congress for the New Urbanism), about the state of Midwestern cities today. During their discussion, Norquist began talking about the riverfront in downtown Milwaukee, and how much it had changed since he took over as mayor there in 1988.

Here’s the relevant part of the conversation:

JHK: During your time as mayor of Milwaukee you also worked on the riverfront of the milwaukee river. And just looking at the map, the Milwaukee River is kind of like the grand canal of the midwestern cities. It’s a wonderful thoroughfare, and it’s also not so wide that its still very intimate. And I remember being there 10 years when the CNU had an annual meeting there. And it was late spring and there was a tremendous amount of activity there along the riverfront.

JN: Yeah, it’s gotten even better. If you saw it now, the area that’s closer to the mouth of the river going into Lake Michigan, there’s a whole series of condos with balconies right on the river. And it’s a wonderful place to take a boat. So if you owned a power boat on Lake Michigan, you know a lot of people buy power boats and spend a lot of money on them. They suck a lot of gas. And they own this power boat, and they have this romantic dream that they’re going to go some place. But then they go out on Lake Michigan and float around on the water for a while, and then what do they do? They need a destination. And most of the harbors look like sand storage areas or salt storage areas because that’s what they are, so there’s not a lot to see. Milwaukee and the Chicago river in Chicago, those are places where you have an audience. If you take your little power boat on the Milwaukee River you’ll see people grilling bratwurst on porches, and its a place to show off your boat.

JHK: There were also a lot of action on the street, on the walkway along the river too.

JN: The key to the riverwalk was we kept it simple. We didn’t spend a lot of moeny on concrete and monumental stuff. We spent what money we did on the street grid, connecting it, so that there was a way to get to the river. You know, in Green Bay they built a riverwalk with curvy paths to try to give you the impression you’re at a state park. If you’re in the middle of the town it doesn’t really work very well. You want an embankment, like in London along the Thames. You want a straight embankment.

JHK: Or in any European city, they have a ravettement, that is straight and simple and straightfowards.

JN: Yeah, that way there’s a real connection between the buildings alont the river and the river and street grid, and its very natural to walk along the river. Milwaukee’s river, if you went back 30 years, there were about 2 blocks that had anything resembling a riverwalk. The buildings had their back to the river, there was no way to get to the river.


Twin Cities’ Riverfronts

Minneapolis’ Stone Arch Bridge at night.

The question of how to connect the waterfront to the city is an important one for Saint Paul and Minneapolis (and other Minnesota cities, too; Rochester and Duluth spring to mind). Much of Minneapolis’ downtown boom is because it went to great lengths to transform its riverfront from an industrial space into a well-connected park. Saint Paul, on the other hand, still doesn’t have much life along the river. What little there is appears on the still mostly vacant West Side Flats. The city is working on plans to develop this land, and the river plays a huge part in them. But right now, barring an event at Harriet Island, the Saint Paul riverfront sits mostly empty.

Just across the water, the downtown side of the Mississippi is even worse.  The key problem is that the river is almost completely inaccessible. There’s a lovely but narrow bike/ped trail, but there are only a few tiny access points and these are very poorly designed for anyone not in a car. Part of the problem is the way that the bluff and train tracks come together, another part is that the river here is still a “working river” filled with active barges, and a large part of the problem is Shepard Road, which is a high-speed 4-lane freeway along the waterfront.

What can be done with this space, wedged right between downtown and the Mississippi River? Is Saint Paul’s downtown riverfront a lost cause, or is there something the city can do to bring people down to the water?


Riverfront recommendations from the recently adopted Great River Passage plan.


Four Sketchy Ideas that Might Help (These are short sketches.)

Traffic Calming — I have no problem with Shepard Road west of here, where there’s almost zero housing near the river. But more than anything else, Shepard Road is killing the riverfront downtown. The city should take some extreme traffic calming measures to slow traffic way down on the downtown stretch, and make this a street people can cross and enjoy walking beside. The recently adopted “Great River Passage” plan does call for a redesign of Shepard, with a wider median, improved crosswalks, and a 35 mph speed limit. This shouldn’t be a street people take to get “through” the city, but one they take to get “to” the city.


The recommendation for Shepard Road from the GRP plan.

Connectivity — The other #1 problem with the Saint Paul river is that there aren’t any access points. Basically, you have Jackson and Sibley, and then Eagle Street about 3/4 of a mile away. All of those sidewalks need to be greatly improved, particualrly the two Eastern connections. Beyond that, creativity is required. Is there any way to get people over the train tracks, and down to the river? (I wish they’d been able to use some of the Union Depot money to connect to the riverfront, but that’s water under the bridge.)


The two substandard Eastern connections to the river.


Infill — Much of the riverfront land downtown is surface parking. It seems like a waste. Surely there’s something else we can do with spaces like this. If not housing or commercial, maybe some sort of active park space?


Empty land along the river, on the wrong side of the tracks. People don’t even park there.

Getting Onto the Water — One of the ideas that keep popping up during “idea opens” or arts brainstorming sessions is to make better use of waterfronts. I’ve heard about music barges, swimming pool barges, kayak courses. Back in 2010, Red Bull sponsored an amazing event along the riverfront in Saint Paul, (the “flugtag“) where people built homemade flying machines and crashed them into the Mississippi. It changed the city overnight. As I noted a the time:

Saturday was such a cool day for downtown Minneapolis and Saint Paul. First, you had an absolutely insane number of people show up for the Red Bull Flugtag, a way-better-than-advertised event that combined the folly of Icarus, the imagination of Galileo, and the aquatic gravity of Cannonball. By police estimates (which tend to under-report political protests), there were 90,000 people flooding the streets of downtown Saint Paul during the afternoon

Let that be an inspiration. People are willing to jump into the Mississippi if you give them a crazy excuse.

stp flugtag2

Actual people along the Saint Paul downtown riverfront; a rare sight!

9 thoughts on “Is Saint Paul Missing The Boat on its Riverfront?

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    > This shouldn’t be a street people take to get “through” the city, but one they take to get “to” the city.

    Of course, except perhaps for freeways, most cities do not want any roads or streets to be the one to get through, but the one to get to. Personally, I think Shepard Road (especially between Randolph Ave and the Wabasha Bridge) is quite exceptional in its own right: a high-speed stroad that’s actually highly aesthetic, and that attracts runners and cyclists.

  2. Kele

    I’m sympathetic to all of this, but Warner/Shepard Road does makes for some amazing night-driving with the skyline, lighting, and somewhat high speed limit….

  3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great post. Bodies of water have magical qualities for people. Build some cafe’s beside a field and few will come, fill the field up with a few feet of water and the places will be bustling. When I first moved to the Twin Cities I thought the same thing as so many others—why are they not taking advantage of these great rivers? It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

  4. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    You can’t discuss Shepard Road without discussing the several parallel routes: I-35E and W 7th. On the west end of the city, traffic volumes on W 7th are roughly double the volumes on Shepard due to how the freeway interchanges are configured. If anyone wants to discuss traffic calming, walking, or biking on W 7th, that conversation must include a discussion about traffic volumes on Shepard. East of I-35E, any discussion of the function of Shepard Road is linked back to the prohibition of truck traffic on I-35E.

    Bill, as you mention, the biggest detriment to the riverfront on the north side of the river is the very active freight rail corridor. For a number of reasons, that rail corridor is not likely to disappear any time in the forseeable future (if anything, I’d bet on expansion…). It is my impression that in most other cities where former waterfront rail corridors have been redeveloped into parkland or redeveloped, in most cases those rail lines were largely defunct to begin with. Is this the case? Are there examples of US cities who have successfully relocated active railroad corridors away from waterfronts?

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Yeah, I get the importance of the rail corridor. I just want to brainstorm ways to transcend it. It’s very worth the investment for anyone who lives or owns property in downtown Saint Paul!

  5. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Man, there’s some serious negative energy on this post. Look, I live in Saint Paul. I know a lot of politicians and city employees that make things happen here. It doesn’t have to be so bleak! We can change things. Let’s start thinking positively about what we can do if we put our minds together. Step 1) read Step 2) Join the St Paul Bicycle Coalition Step 3) Let’s elect great leaders and give them the rope to lasso a great city. It’s not out of this world. No more nihilism, please. It’s a real bummer for a young person living here.

  6. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    The City of Saint Paul is likely to be presented with a pretty incredible redevelopment opportunity in the not-too-distant future. The two buildings straddling the bluff just west of Wabasha Street (the old jail and the West Publishing building) have both been vacant for a number of years (as I understand it). Sooner rather than later they will both be demolished, and new buildings will be constructed in their place. What should these buildings look like? What should the side facing the river look like? what amenities? What should we do with that space between the buildings and the railroad that is currently used for parking? All good questions we should begin to answer now.

  7. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I wouldn’t explicitly blame the City of St. Paul for West St. Paul’s erroneous judgment on Robert Street. Although they form a continuous city, they are separate municipalities, and even in separate counties. There’s not a whole lot St. Paul can do about West St. Paul’s terrible choices, except to set an appealing example.

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