Restore the Grid! A Vision for the Center of Downtown Saint Paul

I live and work in Lowertown. Frequently my errands and wanderings take me up to the Rice Park/Landmark Center/7th Place areas. I’m always either on foot or bike. Over the last two-plus years of living here, I’ve become increasingly annoyed with the presence of the two “SuperBlocks”. These are the blocks that have 7th Street as the northern border, Wabasha Street as the western, 6th Street as the southern and Minnesota Street as the eastern border (See map). They house the Wells Fargo tower and the Bremer Bank tower on the north ends, facing 7th Street. The vacant Macy’s store and DoubleTree by Hilton face 6th Street on the south end. If you are coming from the mostly-pleasant 7th Street pedestrian mall and you want to go over to the eastern side of downtown, the most direct way is through the indoor “shopping” mall and skyway configuration of the SuperBlocks.

SuperBlkMap

Walking through these spaces is a soul-killing experience. Entering the complex from the doors on Wabasha, you veer to the left following blank walls into the skylit atrium. But there are no stores, only vacant storefronts or soul-less institutional businesses and organizations. When it first opened about 25 years ago, there were high hopes that the retail stores, the dancing fountain, the food court and the carousel would bring people back into the ailing downtown. It was a suburban concept that was already out there in suburbia, so yeah, no surprise that it would become a massive failure as a point of interest. Now the fountain no longer dances, there’s maybe one small retail store, and the carousel has moved out long ago (and is now sitting pretty in Como Park). There is a sizable food court, but there’s life there for about 3 hours a day at lunchtime.

Exiting the easternmost SuperBlock onto Minnesota Street is the most soul-killing experience of all. Now you’re facing one of the dreariest corners in the nation– 7th Place and Minnesota– with the long abandoned derelict Woolworth store on one corner and the Securian building’s parking ramp exit on the other. I’m convinced we’ll never see any improvement here until the street, which would be 7th Place, is restored. This would allow the vitality of the Wabasha business area to spill down the hill to Minnesota Street and beyond. The SuperBlocks are a big, ugly obstruction standing in the way of a potentially livelier street life.

In my opinion, big shopping malls belong in suburbia, not downtown. I moved here to experience an urban life and that means more life at the street level. If you take a look at the map from around 1950, you can see what the SuperBlocks replaced. Lots of small businesses. Imagine how lively and interesting the streetscape was. Can we begin to restore some of that vitality by getting rid of mistakes made during the desperate decades of “urban renewal”?

1950Map

I’ve drawn up an idea, pictured here. The DoubleTree, Bremer tower and Wells Fargo tower could stay right where they are. We have the ice skaters across from Rice Park in the winter, how about skateboarders in a new plaza next to the DoubleTree during the warmer months? It would be nice to be able to buy a new shirt or pair of shoes downtown again, maybe at a store in the former Macy’s. I’d like to see small businesses lining the new 7th Place. And it would be a street for pedestrians and cyclists only, not private automobiles, much like Nicollet Mall (without the buses). Restoring 7th Place would go a long way to bringing vitality to the city.

7th Place

 

1950’s map courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society’s Gale Library. 

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11 Responses to Restore the Grid! A Vision for the Center of Downtown Saint Paul

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke November 17, 2014 at 8:24 am #

    I have nearly the same thoughts while walking around downtown. Some of the superblocks are better than others. The Ecolab HQ might be the best of them. I’m going to do an “objective” ranking next spring.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke November 17, 2014 at 9:31 am #

      also i hate to turn this into a skyway post, but this is really all about the skyway

  2. Rebecca Airmet
    Rebecca Airmet November 17, 2014 at 9:19 am #

    I spoke recently with a downtown artist who reminisced about downtown BEFORE those department stores showed up. She says the street-level vibrancy was amazing back in the 70s or so, with shop windows, pedestrians, etc. The suburbs don’t belong in the heart of the city: let’s continue to bring back locally owned retail and then USE it.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke November 17, 2014 at 9:39 am #

      to do that, we’re going to need a lot more population density (at least a doubling) in the downtown and/or a big increase in transit/bike/walk mode share.

      the penfield offers a good example of how this can work.

  3. Jim November 17, 2014 at 9:54 am #

    It’s free to dream I suppose. Not to be a Debbie downer, but realistically this is a $50+ million idea. Could we cap over I-94 instead with that money? You would have to demolish huge sections of these tower’s podiums to make this a reality. Those podiums are filled with office space filled with jobs. Possibly mechanical uses for the buildings themselves. There’s also a big elevation change from Wabasha to Cedar Street. Not to mention the light rail catenary above Cedar Street.

    These superblocks are here to stay sadly. For a loooonnnnggg time.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell November 17, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

      I’d think the Macy’s block can go which can open up W 7th between whatever replaces it and the Agribank block. The city needs to make sure that whatever happens on the Macy’s block results in ground floor store fronts along all sides.

      The Doubletree/TKDA block is tougher but I don’t know that there’s any need to touch structural elements. An Arcade can be opened up through it and some ground level storefront work done on all of the blocks and you’d be 90% of the way there. Gotcha’s? You betcha. Ideally the arcade s/b large and open air which can present energy efficiency issues. Can they be dealt with? Tough to say. Another element is making this monetarily appealing. On the surface I’d think there’s a viable way to do that. I’ll get back to you after another beer.

  4. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell November 17, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

    Yes! St Paul has so many wonderful areas and the superblocks are certainly a blight on all of the great parts of St Paul. I fear that the leaders only want to be more like ‘the big cities’ rather than the great and thriving community that St Paul can be.

    One disagreement. Shopping malls don’t really belong in the suburbs either. But more on that another day.

  5. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman November 17, 2014 at 5:26 pm #

    Looking at it from the suburbs I’d have to agree these things were a mistake. Why would I go to Town Square to shop and eat when it’s so much closer and easier to park for free at Mall of America and local restaurants. I could see from day one that Block E was going to be a disaster too. I haven’t eaten a meal downtown outside of the stadiums since I was on jury duty in the mid 1990s, but the people I know that do go into the downtowns seem to want the “urban” experience, not the same kind of stuff that’s easy to find out here.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell November 17, 2014 at 6:48 pm #

      Good points. We drive in to town fairly often to eat and sometimes shop. Grand Ave is destination number one, Selby second. If we had good bicycle facilities we’d likely ride fairly often in good weather. We’ll also hit up Meritage, Amsterdam, Masa, and Alma. Don’t much care for eating in local malls like Rosedale, Har-Mar, or Maplewood and wouldn’t visit malls in town unless they had something really desirable.

      Speaking of, it’s interesting to think about how many downtown malls have spectacularly failed (and some suburban are struggling). Gaviidae seems to get emptier and emptier every time I’ve been there. I’m still amazed how quickly The Conservatory went under. And yet Grand Ave, Selby, Downtown White Bear, 50th & France, blocks around Mears and Rice parks in St Paul, and gobs of other outdoor places with appealing streetscapes are jamming.

  6. neb November 19, 2014 at 11:43 am #

    This is excellent. It would be great to at least start and include one block extension of 7th place with the demo and rebuilding of the macy’s building. You may have to move the street a bit over as the Wells Fargo/WTC building extends out over the former 7th street, but it could be designed to still be very nice and connected. The city needs to think in better ways and include this in their plans!

    Then later the task would be to figure out how to open it up between Minnesota and Cedar. An alternative would be to redesign the existing indoor area to be a sort of covered street. You could just get rid of the doors and reconstruct it a bit to have storefronts and a pedestrian street going through and underneath the old town square. This would then give a full pedestrian connection from st. peter all the way to lowertown.

    this is totally doable

  7. Dave Peterson November 30, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

    Roberta, thank you so much for your great article. I agree with you 100%. Seventh Street downtown needs to be reconnected in order to reestablish a vibrant retail street and a natural pedestrian route connecting the eastern and western ends of downtown. The next step is get some kind of citizen advocacy going so we can make this a reality.

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