Thune and the Port Authority Quietly Neuter Walkability on Saint Paul’s West Side


The West Side Flats Master Plan area

Line-item amendments to small area master plans are not the kinds of things that make the news. But if you live next to the area being planned, as I do, you might notice what’s going on.

The West Side Flats is a central part of Saint Paul right next to downtown and the Mississippi River, and it has an interesting history of needless destruction, racist displacement, and decades of economic stagnation. I’ve written about it before, but basically, it’s an old urban working-class neighborhood that was bulldozed in the 1950s and replaced by light-industrial office parks and vacant lots. Apart from two or three river-side buildings, not much has changed during the last 50 years on this large piece of central land.

Recently, though, things have started to slowly change, as downtown Saint Paul starts to “boom” (albeit in a quiet Saint Paul way).

For the last two years, a neighborhood task force has been meeting to discuss the future of the Flats. The group hoped to improve on an earlier attempt to shape development that was seen as too restrictive, and finally earlier this year, the official West Side Flats Master Plan was released to the public. It’s scheduled to be adopted in the next few weeks by the City Council.

The plan does a lot of what I would consider really good stuff, framing the flats area well for a mixed-use walkable future. It proposes green spaces, groundwater, bike paths, connections to the river, and lays out a rather innovate and flexible mixed-use development framework that aims to accommodate residential, commercial, and industrial land use patterns in a way that will hopefully make them compatible with each other. (No easy feat, this!)

Misguided controversy and last-minute changes

To make a long story a bit shorter, the plan proved to be controversial at public hearings at the planning commission. The big problem was that a purely conceptual diagram showing a future park and a map of future streets happened to fall on the site of an existing can factory.


The unfortunately located conceptual park.

Despite the city’s (and the task force members’) pleas that the illustration was purely conceptual, the plant’s employees turned out in force during the public hearing decrying that the city was going to destroy the plant.

The Planning Commission approved the plan after adopting an amendment aimed at making it clear that it was not intended to displace existing businesses, and that things like the restored street grid and future green spaces would only be built if land was redeveloped. We took great pains to clarify the language and address the concerns of the plant’s workers. (Note: I’m a member of the Commission, and participated in the discussion.)

But apparently that wasn’t enough. Once the plan reached the City Council, soon-to-be-retiring Council Member Dave Thune (who represents the area) introduced an amendment that strips all the walkability and parkland out of the Eastern half of the flats plan.

Here some of the details of the last minute changes; most of them are centered around stripping the restored street grid, reducing parks, and eliminating calls for less surface parking from the Eastern half of the  project area.

What the plan says about vision:


What the Thune amendment does:


What the plan says about growing jobs:w-side-flats-2

What the Thune amendment does:


What the plan says about green space:


What the Thune amendment does:


What the plan says about attracting new businesses:


What the Thune amendment does:


What the plan says about mixed-use:w-side-flats-5
What the Thune amendment does:


What the plan says about automobility:w-side-flats-6

What the Thune amendment does:


What the plan says about street design:w-side-flats-7

What the Thune amendment does:


What the plan says about zoning:


What the Thune amendment does:


What the plan says about implementation:w-side-flats-9

What the Thune amendment does:


There is more. You can read it for yourself: Thune amendments to Master Plan 5.6.15.

Regardless of what you think of these changes, at the very least, after years of meetings where seemingly all parties (residents, neighbors, planners, city staff, and the Port Authority) were gathered around the table and working through their differences, coming in at the last minute and re-writing a huge section of a plan like this seems like bad form. After this precedent, why would any Saint Paul task force trust the city (or the Port Authority) again?

The past and future importance of walkability

West Side Flats_thumb

The historic street grid, in place until the 1960s.

I’ve written about this elsewhere, but there are two very good reasons to keep a walkable street grid, minimal surface parking, and green space in the plan. The first is what I explained in my 2013 post, that the old neighborhood was needlessly bulldozed in the 1960s, with whole working-class neighborhoods uprooted and displaced.

For the last fifty years, the tens of thousands of people who live on the West Side have been separated from the rest of the city by large blocks of underused industrial property, surface parking, and neglected vacant lots. The thousands of us that live on the neglected West Side deserve to have the heart of the neighborhood restored, and deserve to be re-connected to  the river. (For the record: I live on the West Side and walk, bike, and bus through the plan area almost every day.)

The second big reason is that, whether or not groups like the Saint Paul Port Authority admit it, industrial demands are changing. Designing mixed-use, smaller-scale, amenity-rich industrial  neighborhoods is no longer a pipe dream. The West Side Flats could become a model for the nation, and the plan as written offers a flexible, non-invasive framework that aims at that goal.

Saint Paul’s lost potential

stp-west-side-flats-vacant-lotsValuing industrial land is difficult, but it doesn’t take a PhD or a real-estate expert to know that low-value land, right next to downtown, sitting between the country’s most famous river and majestic wooded bluffs, is very valuable. For the last fifty years, Saint Paul has gotten minimal return on that land. If they adopt the Thune amendments, it’s likely to stay that way for the next fifty years as well.

There’s been a quiet debate over the last few years between city staff, neighborhoods, and the Saint Paul Port Authority over how best to design and develop industrial property in Saint Paul. In general, the Port Authority seems to insist that standard “parking-first” designs are necessary, and resists what they see as the “loss” of light industrial land to more dense development patterns.

Meanwhile, others in city planning departments or neighborhood groups look for more walkable and dense development approaches to industrial land, and don’t see re-use of land for mixed-use purposes as a zero-sum “loss” to the city. On the contrary, many people are looking for industrial designs and land uses that fit better next to residential and commercial neighborhoods. Because of its proximity and potential, the West Side Flats seems like an ideal place to demonstrate some of those forward thinking ideas.   

For all the talk about the possibilities at the Ford Plant site, the Flats is larger and arguably more important to the future of the city. It would be a missed opportunity if Dave Thune, carrying water for the Port Authority on his way out of office, left a legacy that leaves the West Side behind for the next generation.

The final public hearing on the proposed changes to the plan is at 3:30 this afternoon at City Council Chambers, at Saint Paul City Hall.

This is the kind of thing that normally flies under the radar, but if you care about the future of the Flats, feel free to email your City Councilmember. A vote is expected next week.



The amendments passed City Council unanimously. Here’s the Pioneer Press story, which incorrectly states that roads and parks were planned “through” existing businesses. Rather, roads and parks were planned should future development take place. Is this distinction too complicated?

CM Thune seemed rather gleeful about progress on Twitter: thune-tweet

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.