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.
How could anybody support the Robert Street project which contained zero improvement for cyclists or pedestrians, zero, further cementing Robert Street and West St Paul as a regressive city only for cars and big box stores all while the cost ballooned from 2 million to 45 million? My family was forced to sell our home and move our business from West St Paul because of this unmitigated fiasco. This combined with West St Paul’s disastrous Rental Ban which arbitrarily and unconstitutionally steals some people’s property rights while allowing others (largely white and wealthy) to keep theirs was just too much for my family as well as 5 other great families on my block who have all abandoned Worst St Paul forever.
Tim, that stinks. Lived here a long time and hate to see small local businesses leave. What business did you own and where did you end up moving to?
The worst part is my old neighborhood, which I and my former neighbors cared for deeply, where we advocated for years for a more safe, sustainable, dense urban village community replete with pedestration and cycling amenities, local independent businesses etc, where my grandparents and mother grew up is now a complete dump after we all sold our well maintained homes in a six month period. Five great families gone from West St Paul forever. I drove by a few weeks ago to check in on a few of my elderly former neighbors still there, that I would visit regularly and shovel snow and mow lawns for and it was so sad to see my home and my old neighbors homes so neglected now and run down. There are piles of garbage in the yards now, landscaping gone to hell, siding falling off, people loitering around, garbage, dog crap and beer cans in the bushes (I used to pick up daily) cars parked in yards that were unmowed etc. I guess that’s what the city wanted when it ignored us and drove out good hardworking people with college degrees, good jobs and businesses in the name of what? Awful, arbitrary rental bans which we were promised were to be “temporary tools” (but of course they became permanent) designed to keep out renters (which totally coincidentally happened to be disproportionately poorer people and minorities, totally coincidental of course). Was it for a bloated boondoggle “improvemnent” project which improved nothing for us despite having my property taxes literally quadruple in just 6 years? Who knows? My heart broken, my faith in local government completely gone, I moved to the woods. Far far away from witless petty tyrants. Good riddance to West St Paul. The only question is, who is going to shovel my old elderly neighbors out now? Not the newbies with the junk in the yards who haven’t even introduced themselves to then yet, I can assure you. Well done Worst St Paul. Welll done indeed!
Cool story Tom
Tim I think you are lost, this obviously isn’t about the West St. Paul that you are from, the small local businesses are doing great and the majority of residents are very pleased with the changes. WSP has some of the lowest taxes in the entire are, so I’m really confused about where you moved to escape the extra spending.
No. It’s the same West St Paul. Everything I said is true and based on facts and my actual experiences. Not sure why you are confused. Glad you have the hubris to feel you speak for the majority of residents. I disagree.
When did property taxes quadruple? Not anytime in the past 10 years, and there was a housing bubble before that. Property taxes go along with home values. So, you sold at the top of the market and left us to pay the bill. Thanks!
Also, if you believed at any time that reconstructing Robert St. was going to cost $2 million, you’re nuts. The first estimate was $20 million, which was rebid when bids came in too high.
I’ve lived in West St. Paul for 7 years now and while my taxes have gone up slightly they’re still considerably less than what we’d be paying for a similar home in Minneapolis or St. Paul. Homes are still selling quickly and I’ve seen several new ones built on vacant lots in recent years.
Tim, where is this blighted neighborhood you’re describing so we can go help with cleanup?
See, I telld ya all thaht it waz a bad ideah.
For the record, I like the term “West St. Paul Pioneer.” I call it the Great Hipster Migration.
Really though. I am one of those (…obnoxious?) people that recently moved in to an affordable house in WSP from an apartment in the Cities. I love this city, and I especially love my neighbors. I just recently got back from a run and told my husband, “Everyone I saw today said ‘Hello’–that never happened in Minneapolis.'”
I have already become intensely loyal to some of the local businesses (YMCA, Mike’s, Taste of Love, Boozemart, Fireside, Pho Saigon). Special shout out to “big-box” Menards because we bought an older house, so we go there at least once a week for home repair/remodel supplies…
All that being said–I think this podcast points out the issues. Vacant lots, inaccessibility, and what appears to be a lack of city planning. What is the point of these great parks if you can’t walk to them? I sometimes feel like WSP was designed for the people that shop here–not the people who LIVE here. And another thing–who came up with the slogan “We’re close to it all” ? How about focusing on what’s inside the city limits?
These are fixable issues. I’m really happy to hear that John Justen and other local politicians running for office understand these problems. It is also the job of people living here to do support the city they live in, and it sounds like a lot of people have already devoted years to doing just that in WSP. Newcomers should learn from these people and try to do the same. At its core it’s a resilient, welcoming community, and we should be optimistic about what we can accomplish here.
I agree with you that people do say hi more in WSP than in MPLS, due to the same pretension people in SF, Seattle, Portland etc feel about MPLS. Everybody needs somebody to look down on in the USA…
I strongly disagree however that there is or ever will be a “great hipster migration” to WSP of all places. Rather there is a great exodus from WSP to far more progressive, cool, thriving, fair and equitable places. WSP truly had the once in a generation opportunity of a lifetime to really change the city for better with the Robert Street Project but they blew this opportunity on a epic scale. They chose cars and only cars, parking lots, draconian rental bans, empty garbage filled lots, urban blight and ghastly big box stores over other obvious alternatives. Insofar as Menards, you do know that Menard heavily contributed to Scott Walker right? Why would anyone want to save big money while you’re spending all your money at a place that supports disgusting neocon madmen like Walker? In closing, WSP is close to it all. Everything except freedom.
A lot of what you’re saying is true–but yes, you appear to be a little bitter. Things can improve. I don’t expect to change your mind, because you are the type of person that moves out of a city only to troll it online.
I know several “millennial” couples/families that have recently moved to the area because of the affordable homes. I think the current population mix–people that have lived here a long time and are committed to the city/people that are just starting out and want to like where they live–means that we could become one of those “progressive, cool, thriving” places you mentioned. West St. Paul is not the desolate place you’re describing.
Just the statement alone “my property taxes literally quadruple in just 6 years” discredits every last word you say. That folks, is the sound of the Old Boys Club drawing it’s last breath. Glad you were able to find your out of town through the mountains of trash and dog poop. Save a spot for the mayor and his cronies. Then you will be able to reminisce of the good old days and McDonalds Playlands.
For what it’s worth, my wife and I love it here. Quiet streets, friendly neighbors, retail nearby, and it seems like every square inch of the city is covered in mature trees. Everybody wants something different in a neighborhood, but there’s a lot to be said for affordable housing close to the city. All my friends in our late 20’s and early 30’s are moving from the core cities to nearby burbs like WSP, Richfield, and St Louis Park.
And I have to say our property taxes are incredibly low compared to the core cities and even most other suburbs. I’d gladly pay more for the right amenities like consistent sidewalks and more green spaces.
What’s not desolate about West St Paul? S Robert S is just one big long dump from end to end; I have no reason to head out there, let alone walk or bike down that horrible street. The only part I’d visit is on the west end with Amore Coffee and Cherokee Tavern. There’s basically nothing there. Count this millennial out.