Here’s new podcast for you discussing the opposite side of the Metro area from the previous episode. This week’s podcast is a conversation with John Justen, a father, small business owner, and resident of West Saint Paul who is running for city council in that suburban city of 20,000 on the north edge of Dakota County.
John and I sat down at Amore Coffee on Annapolis Street to talk about funding street construction projects, walking in the suburbs, the relationship between small businesses and big box retail, and a whole lot of other topics.
I hope you enjoy the conversation.
John Justen on West Saint Paul urban geography:
In West Saint Paul, you do see a lot of the shift of how the city was built and settled. The houses around me were built in the20s and as you move southwards you start to see later buildings with larger lots, a different sort of gridding to the point where you get to the south end of Ward 2 and look at it on a map and it’s all non-gridded streets, long flowing lines, and the sidewalks completely disappear.
On Robert Street:
One of the things that I’ve been talking to people about is that Robert Street is one of the many access points into West Saint Paul. For example, we’re on Smith Avenue right now, and it leads directly into the West 7th area, but it has been woefully underutilized, I think, because all the focus when it was developed went to Robert Street.
On running a small business:
I’m the 2nd generation owner of Eclipse Music, a store that morphed from being a concert tour supply store and turned into a guitar-sales focused store. We’ve been in West Saint Paul for over 35 years, and we’ve watched the development from afar on Robert Street. It’s changed a lot. We just currently went through this massive redevelopment of Robert Street and has been an ongoing process.
On bicycling and safety:
I remember growing up and occasionally having to bike down Robert Street back then. It was terrifying, and I just found other ways to get to things. Now we’re looking at thirty years later, and if anything, it’s worse now for bicyclists. Even though the rebuild is happening for Robert, it’s an unsafe road for anyone to bike on. What that does is that people who do bike – because people bike for transportation — they bike on the sidewalk. You’ve created a situation that makes it impossible for people to legally use the road.
On Robert Street and thinking about change:
Change is always going to confuse and anger people and you have to get past that. I can tell you that I always avoided Robert Street, even though it was the best route to my work from my house, because that center turn lane was terrifying. Now they added the median, and added some turn lanes. It’s an attractive move. It looks better. Hindsight being 20/20, it would have been better to have done it earlier. Everybody’s known there was a need. As far as what pushed it forwards — from what I understand — it was the fact that the ambulances in West Saint Paul refused to use Robert Street because it was dangerous, not only for the patients in the ambulance, but also the people attending them, because the ambulance would hit potholes and things. That was the galvanizing force, that it absolutely has to happen.
On Robert Street and small businesses:
I fully supported the Robert Street reconstruction despite the fact that it made it hard for people to get to us. But we weathered the storm just fine, in fact we were up. If you have a business that people want to go to, the motivation is to support them. I think sometimes there’s a little bit of a red herring, that small businesses are thrown out as tools for arguments that they don’t necessarily agree with, as if we’re a unified force that all votes in a block and feels the same way about things.
On running for office and knocking on doors:
I’m a political person, personally, but I’ve never had an aspirations about having a political career. And now I have to figure out how to tell people I’m running… As you’re door knocking, you suddenly become aware of all the places where you’re forced to walk on the street instead of on a sidewalk. The sidewalk just stops in the middle of a block sometimes, and you think where am i supposed to go?
As I was walking around and doing that, the things that kept coming up over and over again were walkability and bicycle access. And I think that a lot of times the entrenched forces in politics think that those are minor issues to a population because it’s not as related to property taxes. And I think it gets kind of pushed down on the priority list, but I’ve learned that the frequency with which that topic comes up across demographics — not just 20-year-olds, but elderly people talking to me about the fact that they can’t get in a wheelchair up to Robert from where they live. This is a big deal now, not a progressive or conservative issue but something important for people.
On sidewalks and public health:
The YMCA on Thompson Avenue doesn’t even have a sidewalk going to it. Presumably the YMCA has kids going to it to do stuff, so unless they’re getting driven there, and not every kid has that opportunity, and not every parent has the time — you’ve got that cycle that limits opportunities. There’s a pretty good health argument that people walking more is good. This is not some crazy idea, that walking and action and moving around is a beneficial thing. If you create impediments for people doing that, especially kids, you’re setting up a situation where you continue to have these problems.