I once asked prominent Saint Paulite, Lucy Berkowitz, what makes Nina’s in Cathedral Hill so popular and why don’t we have places like it in the suburbs. I expected her to say, “great cappuccinos and food provided by awesome employees.” (…and where the largest sign in a place named after St Paul’s most famous madam is a cheeky.., well, never mind). Instead, without even thinking about it, she said “the building, the walls,” and went on to say how they provide a sense of permanence and a link to our history.
Saint Paul has what few other cities in the U.S. still have: real rock solid history. As Bill noted in his most recent streetcar post, Saint Paul hasn’t torn down the best parts of its historic core. Saint Paul still has many of its appealing historic buildings, and its streets have real names of real people who had a real impact on where we all live and work today.
Like Nina’s walls, these all provide a sense of permanence and continuity and stability—things people are longing for, as most of our cities have destroyed them, and we’ve built suburbs that never had them.
Recently, Saint Paul has become appealing for something else: lack of traffic. There’s still a bit, but not as much as a few years ago, not as much as Minneapolis, and not nearly as much as there will likely be a few years from now. Thanks to this, more people walk around downtown and sidewalk cafes have been sprouting up and thriving.
In the coming years, new buildings will be built and others remodeled. The number of people working in downtown Saint Paul will grow dramatically and the number living here will triple. Union Depot will become a transportation hub bringing people every day to catch a train or bus. All very good things.
What will this change and growth bring with it? More traffic and congestion and noise and pollution and parking problems and fear of riding bikes or crossing streets?
Saint Paul today is warm and comfortable. (Yes, I’ve been outside). It fits. It’s welcoming. And it’s ripe for ruin.
Saint Paul could easily become a just-another-city or a mini-Minneapolis, with all of the traffic and congestion and noise and pollution and parking problems and no unique identity or history. Just another clogged urban downtown like all of the others across the U.S.
Saint Paul, though, has a once in a city lifetime opportunity. A second chance. An opportunity that few, if any, major cities will ever have. An opportunity to avoid becoming another Stockton or LA or Minneapolis—something we already have just a 30 minute bike or LRT ride west of us.
Saint Paul has an opportunity to become something sadly unique in the U.S.—a vibrant, historic, inviting, comfortable, human-friendly city. A city that people want to go to because it’s pleasant; to sit outside and walk around and shop and work and live.
Downtown Saint Paul doesn’t yet have high numbers of residents, and office and retail occupancies are quite low. Now, while traffic is low and development yet to explode, is the time to grab a different future for Saint Paul.
The Four Districts
Perhaps the number one cause of traffic in Downtown Saint Paul was, and is, through routes. How much of the daily traffic on Robert, W 7th, or E 6th streets is going somewhere downtown and how much just passing through? How many people, when going somewhere downtown, take a route that clogs as many streets as possible?
Today, someone coming from a northern suburb for work or dinner near Rice Park likely drives their car down 35E, takes Wacouta south and heads west on 6th through the heart of downtown. They’re not patronizing any businesses along this route, but are making it less pleasant for others; to walk, eat, cross streets, or ride bicycles.
We could, instead of clogging through town, drive around it. Take 94 to Kellogg. This is minimal inconvenience and yet provides significant benefit to people in downtown. How do we get people to do it though?
What if we couldn’t drive our cars all the way through downtown? If, wherever we are going, we must always take the route that uses main roads as much as possible and the fewest local streets?
Let’s try this. Imagine downtown Saint Paul divided in to four districts; by Robert Street and 7th Street. Cars can’t cross these streets between districts but people walking, riding bicycles, driving a fire truck, or riding a streetcar can.
Now, if we’re driving down 35E to the Ordway, in the Southern, or Rice Park, district, we can no longer drive all the way through the North district and most of the way through the Lowertown district and then nearly all of the way across the Rice Park district. We have to take main roads around the city and enter nearest our destination. Instead of adding to congestion on 11 blocks through town, we’ve only done so on 2 or 3. Our negative impact on people downtown is a quarter of what it was before. This will have an immediate and huge benefit in decreasing traffic and increasing livability. And without reducing access.
With so much less traffic we can turn our streets back in to streets. Many can be two-way with a single lane of traffic in each direction. Others can be single lane or pedestrian and bicycle only. Many sidewalks can be widened and what are now extra traffic lanes for through traffic can be converted to local customer parking (and with some possibly angled pull-in instead of parallel).
With such short distances for people to drive within the downtown core, speed limits can be 15 or 20 mph which, combined with much lower traffic volumes and no through traffic, may be appropriate for many Woonerf-style shared roads.
Disruptive? Likely. Good things often are. For individual drivers it should be minimal—at worst a slightly different route. The biggest disruption will be for delivery trucks with multiple stops who will have to make some changes to their routes.
Risky? You Betcha. The big risk is companies choosing not to locate in Saint Paul and people not wanting to live here because they think driving is more difficult.
On the other hand, there’s the probability that people and companies will very much want to locate in Saint Paul because there is less congestion and it’s now a human-friendly environment. It’s more appealing and inviting than any other urban area, not just in Minnesota, but in the U.S.
There will certainly be a lot of naysayers screaming about how this will create huge traffic tie-ups. However, it should do just the opposite, reduce traffic on streets intended for local access and put it on roads designed to handle it. It will not reduce car or truck access, but may increase on-street parking.
This is certainly not the safe alternative. Implementing this is risky, but the likely payoff is huge.
And Nina’s? She said those walls would indeed be only be walls, without people—the great neighbors and visitors and employees (and the cappuccinos they make) inside them.
Many people will likely laugh at this in disbelief, but they shouldn’t. It’s reminiscent of noted Macy’s designer Victor Gruen’s famous 1950s plan for a pedestrian-only downtown Forth Worth (never actually came to pass): http://fortworthtexas.gov/library/info/default.aspx?id=58264
Anyway, this is a great conversation to have. Xcel Center excepting, there’s hardly any traffic in Saint Paul, which is one reason why the bike plan might work for downtown.
OTOH, more car traffic doesn’t necessarily have to be a fait accompli. If we invest in transit and traffic calming downtown, prioritizing not just accommodating those modes, I can imagine a city 20 years from now that is still highly walkable, even with double the downtown residential and office population.
Very cool about Gruen. Imagine what Ft Worth would be like today. Wow.
Agree about traffic not being a fait accompli. This is kind of ultimate traffic calming. I wrote this some time ago, before the bike plan came out, but I think the two actually work quite well together. This provides the lower traffic necessary for people to get to/from the downtown bike trail.
Stockton? I was a little mystified by you throwing Stockton in that comparison. I lived in the Bay Area for 12 years so I’m familiar with it, but I didn’t think anyone outside the Bay Area would be, you must have lived in the area. Sacramento would be a better comparison, also a capital city on a river. All that is just an aside, nice observations and I agree St. Paul has an opportunity and a challenge ahead. I think we can’t overlook what Lucy pointed out about Nina’s, the architecture and in some sense having that old human scaled architecture as the dominant building downtown will make it feel human friendly no matter how much traffic.
Hah! 🙂 When I was thinking about my fears of what St Paul could become, my few trips through Stockton kept appearing.
I like it.
Have you been to Minneapolis? I ask this in all seriousness, because it seems like you haven’t. Minneapolis has quite a unique and interesting history. Perhaps you should research it more before you make claims about it being like any other city, especially LA and Stockon.
LA, for example, hardly has any infrastructure for biking or walking. Minneapolis is well known across the country for its bike infrastructure and it ranks consistently in the top three cities in the nation for biking. Minneapolis also has one of the best park systems in the United States–most of the parks are interconnected, making it easier for bikers to get from one end of the city to the other, without needing to risk their lives biking on the road. Minneapolis is generally considered by planning professionals to be comparable with Denver, Seattle and Portland.
I understand and agree with your desire for more pedestrian and bike- friendly corridors. But Saint Paul is no more unique than Minneapolis, and Minneapolis is light years ahead of Saint Paul in the vision you’re describing.
Wake up, take the light rail West, and discover Minneapolis for yourself.
I’m sure this was at least partial inspiration for your idea, but Groningen has done exactly this and it worked (despite claims by businesses, residents, and police that it wouldn’t): http://www.amara.org/en/videos/hG6YbFt6OlVG/info/ (discussion starts at about 2:10). I think Bill is correct that this isn’t necessary for downtown to be a pedestrian-first place as long as transit/bikes/people are prioritized rather than accommodated. Design elements to do so would probably be needed for the four district plan anyway. So perhaps we should start with design? I don’t know.
Groningen (and other cities) was very much inspiration for this. I hesitated to mention that because there is so much of a tendency to want to avoid anything European.
Which is sad, really. We have so much to learn from them about how to make cities appealing.
Yes. It kind of goes both ways though. Europeans can have an amazingly strong NIH syndrome as well.
Really great idea. Downtown St. Paul is like a nice tight pocket held in by the bluffs on all four sides. Reading your article makes me feel like it could have a pedestrian feel very similar to the French Quarter. Cars are allowed but they are heavily controlled.
You have got to be kidding me. I’ve heard of a lot of wonky ideas proposed for downtown St. Paul. But this takes the cake. Traffic was horrible enough with the light rail construction of the last 5 years. Now you’re basically making it permanent. No thanks.
Until you have light rail or street cars on every other street in downtown and a ring of parking ramps along the outer ring this plan is unworkable. If you think office/retail vacancies are high now, I can only imagine what they would be with this plan in place.
Can you please explain why this plan is unworkable and would result in higher office and retail vacancies or, are we just to take your word for it?
This plan would remove all through auto traffic from downtown. Please explain how it would make traffic “horrible.”
Because you’re basically putting up a barrier for people to drive from one end of downtown to the other. Did you ever drive through downtown while Cedar or 4th St was being torn up for the light rail? It was awful. There is still going to be auto traffic to and from downtown. Where is it going to go?
Removing the ability to go E and W or N and S over Robert and 7th Street is completely unnecessary.
It’s only my opinion, but I just don’t think a lot of businesses are going to locate in a downtown with this kind of roadblock in place.
Thank you for explaining; that’s where I thought you were likely coming from.
I think Walker explained how auto traffic to and from downtown would work in the original post. The point of this plan is to keep people from driving cars through the heart of downtown just to pass through. It would still allow for auto access to all parts of downtown, just not through the center of it.
Of course, you are free to dislike the plan, but I’m not sure you fully understand it from your comments.
But if we do it right, many won’t do this. And that’s even better.
Someone coming from the north down 35E or south up 52 may choose to park near the Saints stadium and walk, ride a bike, or take the LRT (or, in the near future, a tram?). Just about every building in downtown St Paul is within a 15 minute walk or 5 minute bike ride of Union Depot so many people may one day choose the Rush Line commuter rail or other transit.
Someone coming from the south up Robert St or 35E might park near Xcel Energy Center and walk or bike—even if their destination is somewhere north of 94.
The plan may still allow for car traffic into and out of downtown, but it makes it unnecessarily more difficult. Why is that necessary?
Many of the improvements the writer mentioned, bike lanes, wider sidewalks, can be implemented without taking away the through traffic.
I’m all for more pedestrian friendly streets. We can do that by adding more trees and greenery to the sidewalks. Add bike lanes. Create pocket parks. Art sculptures. Murals on blank building walls. Drinking fountains. Better street lighting. Building facade improvements (things like green walls to hide parking ramps). More police. Grafitti and sidwalk cleanup. Bus stop improvements. More bike racks.
That seems far more sensible.
I do not know for certain, but I don’t think many people drive “through” downtown at present anyway. People go around it on Kellogg, 12th Street, and the freeways. For the few drivers that do go through downtown, they shouldn’t. Downtown is a place to be, not a place to drive through.
I don’t think that Walker’s plan will effect downtown traffic and the automobile experience that much, but what it will do is elevate the needs of pedestrians and send a clear signal that downtown St. Paul is for people.
LRT construction was vastly different. It was temporary, closures moved around, and the closed areas were extremely unfriendly areas. This is permanent so people can plan around it, they know exactly what’s going on. This also makes Robert & 7th in to very inviting areas so walking or bicycling along them or across them is a good thing instead of a fear for my life thing like the construction zones.
What LRT construction did was force drivers to re-route to other streets causing huge traffic jams. At least with the LRT construction only one or two intersections at a time were cutoff. Now you’re proposing ~15 intersections where you can’t cross (ie Robert at 4th, Robert at 5th, Robert at 6th, 7th, so on and so on). You’re turning downtown into one big Checkpoint Charlie or 38th Parellel DMZ. I really doubt businesses and employers are going to like that (just my opinion).
Downtown NEEDS through traffic. If you want a better pedestrian experience, there are a heck of a lot easier ways to go about it.
“Downtown NEEDS through traffic.” For what?
“Downtown NEEDS through traffic.” For what?
-So people and traffic can move efficiently.
We shouldn’t be forcing thousands of vechicles to only a few peripheral streets surrounding downtown.
Did you experience downtown when 7th and Cedar was closed for LRT construction? It was terrible. I cannot even fathom what closing more intersections would do.
I’ll say it again and keep saying it, if you want a better pedestrian experience there are much better ways to go about doing it.
Thank god this idea will never happen.
“Downtown NEEDS through traffic so people and traffic can move efficiently.”
At the core of your argument is the idea that downtown exists to serve cars moving through it. If that’s how economic value is created, why don’t stores like Target build high-speed people-movers to whisk you in one end of the store and out the other without stopping?
This proposal doesn’t remove cars altogether, it simply acknowledges that if you are traveling from one side of downtown to another, you should stick to high-capacity arterials designed for that purpose. (Or utiilize an alternative mode more suited to short-distance trips.) If someone wants to access downtown, they may need to alter their trip slightly to enter/exit from the correct quadrant. If someone is driving through downtown, why should we degrade the life of the street to favor them when there are alternative routes dedicated to moving automobiles on a more regional scale?
Downtown does not exist to service cars. Downtown, like any other business district, services organizations, residents, and visitors. The majority of them rely on vehicles to move to and from and be serviced by vendors. And if you make that harder for them, many will vote with their feet and leave.
I think those of you in favor are oversimplifying things like “altering their trips slightly”. You’re forcing vehicles to circle around downtown needlessly to get to where they’ll want to go. I just don’t foresee that being too well received. And as LRT construction clearly demonstrated, closing just a couple intersections at a time caused major traffic jams. For cars, buses, delivery trucks… everyone.
And you all are presuming far too much when you say people will just accept or fall in love with parking further out and enjoy walking/biking/busing into the core to work/dine/live etc.
The point I’ve tried so hard to get across is that cars and people can coexist without closing off ~15 intersections. Why do you need to shuffle the traffic to alternative routes just so you can walk on a wider sidewalk? There are so many easier ways to improve the street level in downtown. Art, murals, sculptures, trees, greenery, pocket parks, green walls, bike racks, sidewalk cleaning, building facade renovations, graffiti removal, more police, nicer bus stops, and brighter street lights are just some of things we could do to improve the experience for pedestrians. I’m sure there are many more people could think of.
But closing fifteen intersections…good grief!! Sorry, but that is just a recipe for disaster. Not to mention the cost needed to implement would be enormous. Far more than the city could afford. Many buildings, ramps, streets would have to be reconfigured to allow access. I can’t even imagine what the total cost would be. Consider that the city’s recently proposed downtown bike loop alone would cost $18 million. I can only guess what the author proposes would be well over $100 million. Probably many times that when you add in all the bells and whistles.
Sorry to be the curmudgeon. But this plan is a nonsense.
Jim, many good points. I’ll take them one by one. Yes, people do rely on vehicles for many things (myself included). This plan does not in any way change the ability to access any building or parking space anywhere downtown. Yes, some people might have to drive a bit further, such as my 35E to Kellogg example, but that’s it. I drove this and many other routes and in most cases the longer route was actually faster. I think that for the vast majority of people you’re talking about an extremely minor route change.
In the end, people can still park in the exact same place that they do currently and take the exact same route from their car to their office as they currently do. That has not changed as far as I can see.
It’s never gonna happen. I’ll stop now.
Four districts vs LRT Construction. As I said earlier, these are completely different animals. Firstly, LRT was temporary and changed often. This is what, above all, created problems. Most people, even those who drive around downtown all day like UPS drivers, didn’t know from one minute to the next where they could and couldn’t go. That’s vastly different from permanently creating four districts so that people (and GPS’s) will know what’s what. Yes, there will be some confusion at first, but it will very quickly subside.
LRT created construction zones that were no-go zones for people walking. You often could not cross wide swaths of the construction zone and combined with the above you weren’t sure where you could and couldn’t cross and when. Often, parking even two blocks away from your destination could mean a five or six block walk around a loud and dirty construction zone so people drove around and around trying to avoid that.
LRT created problems for buses. This plan does not.
LRT created some areas with very limited access. The four districts are large with quite a bit of access.
I immediately thought of New Orleans, too. And DC and Baltimore and Boston and Providence and New York and Richmond and Charleston and Savannah and… I guess I’d just caution you to avoid hyperbole like “St. Paul has what few other cities in the U.S. still have, real rock solid history” or “something sadly unique in the U.S.—a vibrant, historic, inviting, comfortable, human-friendly city” or you alienate those of us who hail from cities with histories and buildings twice as old as St. Paul’s (almost as much as you alienate Minneapolitans for different reasons). Your ideas are intriguing, but you set yourself up to offend and/or be ridiculed with such superlatives.
Jenny, great points. Note though that I did say few other cities, not no other cities. Many cities across our nation have been gutted of their historic buildings and with that a big portion of their history.
I’m not sure you want to make already desolate downtown spaces more desolate. Believe it or not, those passing cars are part of what makes a neighborhood feel safer at night when there are few people around.
Adam, agree. Consider though that people feel, and are, much safer when there are people walking or riding bicycles than driving by in a car isolated from anything happening on the street. Some of the desolateness will disappear as more people live and work downtown, come for games or dinner, to catch a train, etc. Some will disappear as more people begin to consider it safer to walk or ride a bicycle.
Interesting idea. Residents and building owners of Downtown Saint Paul should use the upcoming bike plan open house on Februrary 20th (6-8pm at the US Banck Center Building) as an opening to a broader conversation about livable space. We could use our public right of way much more effectively and make everyone happier.
Man, streets.mn is such an echo chamber. Everyone always agrees all the time. It frustrates me.
you are kidding, right?
I think the premise is flawed. If STPLtown is to be different than MPLSville and other US cities, it needs to do something other than overly concentrate of schemes for changing things downtown.
Not if the goal is to turn Kellogg Blvd and 11th Street into parking lots.
Sorry I don’t wish to be this critical. But if anyone wants to see how to improve the pedestrian level around downtown St. Paul (or anywhere for that matter) go walk around the new Penfield building. Before it was terrible. The new building has street level lamps along its exterior. A new lighted art wall is installed on 10th St. The tall cobra head street lights are replaced with shorter globe style lamp posts. The whole block has been wonderfully transformed. The experience of walking around the area, particularly at night, has been improved tremendously.
Trees, greenery, art, better lighting, etc. That’s all you need to do to improve the pedestrian street level.
When I drive from the East Side to Richfield each Sunday I usually take 35e to 7th and then over to 62. I’ve wondered to myself – should I take 7th all the way instead, so I’m actually getting a view of St. Paul downtown retail rather than avoiding it entirely? Should I slow down my trip for the chance that I might want to stop at one of these places? (I used to stop at Kiev Foods, which was on my route)
We talk about bicycles being better for business because they are slower and more likely to stop, and the calming of traffic could do the same thing.
This plan says I should definitely go around, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I do think this plan would be a nightmare for anyone who doesn’t know about it when entering downtown – such as visitors.
You bring up an interesting trade-off. Businesses will lose your driving by and the potential that you would stop in and buy something. On the other hand, if pedestrian and bicycle traffic increased and more people chose to live downtown, they would see increased business from these. My guess, based on several recent studies, is that most retail businesses would see an overall increase in business.
I don’t know about nightmare, but there will be some confusion. I think that regular visitors, those who work or live in town or come to town more than once or twice a year, will quickly adjust. Many others will simply follow their GPS. The biggest issue will be people without a GPS (or one that is out of date) and the number of these impacted should subside over time due to increased GPS use and people’s knowledge of the districts.
This idea is an idea to increase walkability and pedestrian priority and to preserve older buildings. I would really like to see a fuller post and discussion about repurposing the old city golf courses for pedestrian villages. These wouldn’t frustrate as many people because we wouldn’t be messing with already established patterns (wouldn’t have old buildings, either).
They could have special city codes. Phalen, which is near me, would be great because it would attract people due to the Lake, have close access to bike paths (Johnson, Phalen Pkwy, Wheelock), close to bus routes (Maryland, Arcade), close to highways (61, 36).
These would replace the money pit of a golf course with a lot of tax revenue from a high density of residents and retail.
Would people come to the east side of St. Paul to live in a pedestrian village?
This is a good thought experiment style idea. I would ask instead for lower speed limits in downtown (20 mph), reduced # and width of driving lanes, and using that space for sidewalks, bike lanes, and pull-in parking. This would calm traffic a lot, allow for basic vehicular access, and make Saint Paul much more inviting.
Form based Zoning, requiring addressing the street in some way would also help a lot.
Too bad cows didn’t lay out the streets of Saint Paul. In downtown Boston, the meandering streets supposedly laid out as cowpaths make it difficult to drive through the center of town, and encourage people to use the highways on the periphery. San Francisco’s streets are more regular, but downtown has the intersection of two grids, hills, and traffic jams (as well as good transit). For most trips it makes more sense to drive around downtown rather than through it.
My “sister city” for Saint Paul may irritate people, but rest assured I mean it a good way. I’d compare Saint Paul to Oakland, California. They’re both second cities in a major metropolis, the grittier, more industrial (at least in the past), more working class partner to a more high tech and glamorous partner. Though Oakland has a few traffic jams, many Oakland people don’t want to drive in San Francisco’s jams and pay high parking prices. Oaklanders will tell you that their town is more “real” than San Francisco. I’m aware that Oakland’s crime rate is higher than Saint Paul’s.
Love the cows, though I kept imagining a drunk irishman riding on one pulling a paint striping machine. 🙂 Everywhere I’ve been in Boston has always seemed quite congested to me, though it seems the MIT/Cambridge area has been improving. Are there major areas that are fairly uncongested?
Not so sure I can agree that St Paul hasn’t torn down the bulk of its historic core: have you been down University Ave? What should be a prominent walkable commercial street connecting the two largest downtowns in the state and universities along the way is largely, thanks to St Paul, a drab stripmall in Anyburb, USA. No charm is left intact and any historic ruminations require a lot of imagination to get past the Walgreens, drive-thrus, and big-box stores. The neighborhood you could to from Nina’s to Downtown and stop along the way at a numbr of businesses is long gone with very little trace left. Even further removed neighborhoods like Highland Park has only a few intact blocks on the north side of Ford and Cleveland while the southern side of the street has been wiped away and replaced with parking lot fronted stripmall garbage: even across the street from Nina’s are dumpy one-story 70s/80s buildings and parking lots, which kinda detracts from the experience. I know it did for me.
What St Paul needs to do to set itself apart is set a higher bar than most other cities in zoning and for what gets past the rendering stage of proposed urban infill. Guaranteeing residents, and don’t forget visitors, that all rehabs and new builds are of high quality for the foreseeable future also guarantees a high quality experience for those residing in St Paul and also makes a much stronger case or non-locals to consider becoming locals. Hell, this might even convince some Minneapolitans to switch their allegiance to St Paul.
Agree on all points, though I’m not sure how much there was to save along University. In my post I was referring primarily to just the downtown core, not the legal city limits. That said, 94 & Kellogg both took their toll on older buildings.
Downtown St Paul? Well then, you’re spot on. Although, outside of St Peter-Wabasha and the blocks facing Mears Park I don’t recall any other dense strips of retail that would get a lot of non-motorized traffic.. As tough as it may be just for these two areas to be converted these seem to be able to present the strongest case for carless streets Downtown, especially by interacting directly with the parks too.
One issue with this is that it will really hurt the West Side’s connections to the rest of the city. When I lived in St Paul I almost always went to downtown to get there. That neighborhood is isolated enough as it is, and I think it suffers as a result. I think that needs to enter into the equation.
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