Saint Paul’s Downtown Renaissance Begins on the Sidewalk

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Peñalosa at Saint Paul Central High School. img TCDP.

Thanks to the generosity of a friend, I got the chance to attend the 20th Great River Gathering (GRG) about ten days ago. The GRG is Saint Paul’s annual civic booster dinner and mingle-fest, put on by the Riverfront Corporation. (Fun fact: the GRG used to be called the Millard Fillmore dinner, which is a funny story in itself.)

For the past few years, the dinner’s organizers have invited well-known placemaking and urban design experts to come in and spend a week in Saint Paul talking about street design and urban development. While it can be occasionally ironic, in general focusing on placemaking is an exciting way for Saint Paul to think about its future.

This years’ speaker, Gil Peñalosa, was particularly inspiring to me. Gil is the Colombian urban planner who helped launch the Ciclovia movement around the world (since spread to such far flung places as Minneapolis and Saint Paul). For the last few years he’s been living in Toronto and developing a design philosophy he calls “8-to-80 cities,” which emphasizes pedestrian safety and comfort for people of all ages as the key priority of urban design.


Top-Down Urbanism

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Mayor Latimer during the Town Square opening, 1980. Img fm MNHS.

Seeing Peñalosa talk at events around the city, I was struck by how his message contrasted with traditional economic development attitudes. For decades, decision makers and the “local growth coalition” (i.e. what urban geographers call developers, property owners, business owners, political leaders, etc.) have focused on downtown development by trying to shore up big office and retail projects. The list this type of public-private deals is a long one: Town Square, Galtier Plaza, the World Trade Center, and the Saint Paul Macy’s are four high profile examples. (Over in Minneapolis, we’ve had City Center, Block E, and St. Anthony Main, among others.)

Few of these projects have worked out so well. If you go to the Town Square building today, you’ll find a sign blocking the escalator to the plaza that formerly held the carousel and rooftop garden. Galtier’s movie theater is shuttered, and the building has become quiet offices for supercomputers. The empty Macy’s, of course, waits for the wrecking ball. (Across the river, Minneapolis’ big downtown revival efforts haven’t fared much better.)

These are all examples of what I call top-down development. The idea is that downtowns need one big project to serve as an anchor to spur future development. These projects often include hotels, urban malls, “festival marketplaces,” convention centers, or large office buildings. These kinds of projects appeal to both developers and decision makers because they combine relative simplicity (just need to assemble a large enough parcel) with a straightforward business deal (just a few owners and contractors). The problem is that top-down development hasn’t worked, not in the Twin Cities and rarely around the rest of the country.


Peñalosa’s Bottom-Up Prescription

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Sidewalks during the “Future of 4th” event.

Peñalosa talk at the Great River Gathering was pretty short, and it was difficult to sort out his key message from the bullet points flying by. But if you caught any of his other talks during the residency, his message was simple: urban development has to start with walkable streets. Peñalosa advocates an approach to economic development where, by contrast, large-scale economic activity results from investment in small-scale street-level projects. In other words, office buildings begin with good sidewalks.

The prescription here is rather different than the traditional top-down development model. Instead of fixing on one or two big projects, urban decision makers should focus on street design: things like bike lanes, sidewalk quality, street fronts, and signal timing. Penalosa’s slideshow was full of examples of streets that had transformed from dangerous and unpleasant car sewers into places full of street life, cafés, strollers, and green parks full of people. If cities make safe high quality streets, Penalosa suggests, economic growth and development are sure to follow.


The Future of Downtown

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A vision from the ProsperSTP.

To my mind, Downtown Saint Paul leaders seem close to figuring it all out. For the last three years, the Riverfront Corporation has brought in placemakers as keynote speakers for their annual dinner, and there are a bunch of groups (BOMA, SPACC, Wabasha Partners) that seem intent on revitalizing the often-lonely downtown streets. Of course, the impending Green Line will be the keystone for the bottom-up approach, but I’m also excited about “downtown bike loop” and the potential for the Saints stadium to catalyze people walking through the Eastern half of downtown.

That said, the future of downtown floats up in the air. Compared to Minneapolis, Saint Paul is small and has few downtown residents. The office vacancy rate remains stubbornly high. Generating consistent street traffic and economic activity is going to be difficult, particularly in the core where most of the sidewalks front lifeless blank walls. For example, the just-opened Penfield project offers a good barometer of the success of downtown’s bottom-up designs. The building sits a bit removed from downtown’s prime walkable areas, and investing in an active and rewarding streetscape will be a challenge. (For example, the Penfield apartments remain only one-third occupied, which pales next to similar projects in Minneapolis. Meanwhile, the Lund’s store just opened in the building.)

But I’m hopeful that if Saint Paul takes Peñalosa’s advice and focuses on walking and biking downtown, the Penfield will be a sign of good things to come. With great sidewalks, new buildings will sprout like flowers in vacant lots and the downtown will spring to life.

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Plans for the Pedro flower park.


12 thoughts on “Saint Paul’s Downtown Renaissance Begins on the Sidewalk

  1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    The other problem with the top-down model is it seems always to be based in the notion that if you just build the right thing you’ll attract people from elsewhere to come downtown to use it. If there’s one thing that we should have learned in the last 50 years, it is that this doesn’t work (doesn’t even work for malls anymore). You need the people first and the retail and entertainment will follow.

  2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    The future of 4th should involve no cars on that block pictured. There’s not a single entrance on that block between Robert and Minnesota. It could just be car-free public space. But look at all those signs crammed into 10′ of driving distance! I’m sure some engineer loved that.

    1. Jim

      Both the First Natl Building and 111 Kellogg have entrances on 4th St between Minnesota and Robert St. They’re also some of the few reliably open to access to and from the skyway.

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          Yep, I’m wishing that we could eliminate more blocks of single lane next to LRT tracks (on 5th St in Minneapolis too) and turn that space over to people/bikes/sidewalk seating/etc. It would actually make the people entrances to buildings better.

  3. Jim

    It’s early days, but I can tell you the response to Lund’s has been incredible. I live adjacent to the Penfield and I can see people coming and going all the time. I’ve shopped there three times since its opening, and the traffic in store is very high. Also you note it’s only at 30% occupancy, but the PiPress reported it’s 47% leased. Half leased after about six months doesn’t sound too bad. Also the new Pioneer Endicott apartments report leasing at 80% and it’s still not finished. So the draw of living downtown is very strong at the moment.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      That’s great to hear. It’s a new building not connected to the skyway, which pleases me to no end

      1. Jim

        I remember a certain downtown business owner/activist was strongly pushing for a skyway to the Penfield. I can understand the desire for one as I’ve noticed a lot of folks in wheelchairs going into the Lunds. There are a lot of handicapped people living in downtown because of the convenience the skyways afford. I fear those folks will have a much harder time getting to Lunds during the winter.

    2. Dana DeMasterDanaD

      I work at the Department of Human Services, which is across Minnesota St from Lunds. Everyone here is thrilled! I’ve been in there nearly everyday since it opened and every other person has a DHS badge. Our cafeteria is a sad place and having a better option across the street is a big draw. After a decade of working downtown St. Paul and having very limited options for picking up a few groceries or a bottle of wine (Liquor Depot opened in the Eisenberg’s building), I am loving not having to bring a bike lock so I can stop on my way home. With the train out front on Cedar St. it almost feels cosmopolitan!

  4. Al DavisonAl Davison

    I’m hoping for some “let’s get rid of the dystopian 1970s atmosphere” movement/group to magically erase all of blank walls in downtown someday and transform the downtown away from it’s “only open 9-5 on weekday” vibe.

  5. David W

    I live downtown and walk up to work in the capitol area. The Penfield development (along with better weather) has brought that street to life in a way I never expected. Sure, there have been several successful businesses in the Rossmor building for years, but there’s something about having destinations on both sides of the street that has been particularly energizing.

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