The Need for #HousingnotBillboards in Saint Paul


A billboard mounting an old one-story building in Saint Paul.

Saint Paul is not lacking for one or two story commercial buildings topped with billboards. This is frustrating on many levels – they are designed for drivers, not pedestrians; there are no design standards; and they are often ignored in “neighborhood character” discussions.

The first two of those frustrations, driver-focused design and lack of design standards, are also routinely ignored. The more physically damaging to our neighborhoods is the car-centric nature of large billboards. They draw the driver’s attention away from the road and up into the air 40-50′. If you’ll recall, the one on top of Saint Clair Drug featured a pedestrian-shaming ad; meanwhile, the building was later “in the way” of a driver, i.e. someone drove their car into the side of the building itself. (Somehow, this happens often in Saint Paul.) For a neighborhood like Mac-Grove that seems to be obsessed with design standards around tear-downs, standards-free billboards can mar the urban landscape by featuring whatever gaudy ad campaign is currently sweeping the nation.

But the main thrust of this piece is the final point – how glaringly absent billboards are during any discussions of “neighborhood character.” For example, look at the pushback against a proposed development at Saint Clair & Snelling, which included an architectural feature of “lit towers.” Quickly, there was a chorus of skeptics claiming that “it’ll light up the night sky!”, with zero mention of the billboard across the street. This billboard is lighted at night — all night, every night. In my opinion, this is the very definition of light pollution.

I’m fine with this development keeping or removing the lit towers, it really makes no difference to me, but let’s have an honest conversation. It’s not about light pollution.

Rendering showing the new St Clair development in context of existing buildings. (Note: design has since changed)

Rendering showing the new Saint Clair development in context of existing buildings. (Note: design has since changed)

Short of the usual parking and traffic concerns, the proposed height of the building was at the top of the list of reasons cited for opposing this project.  I hate to keep picking on the northeast corner of Saint Clair and Snelling, but that two story building is more like a 4+ story building in its “actually experienced”  height when the presence of the billboard is considered. Billboards are typically 20′ tall and usually supported by at least an additional 10′ of scaffolding. This means that buildings with billboards are usually 30+’ taller, or approximately 3 additional stories.

I’m introducing a new hashtag, #HousingnotBillboards. The hashtag is meant to shine a light on the fact that somehow it has become acceptable to add 3 stories of height onto buildings for billboards, but the world stops spinning if that height is proposed for housing.

For example, I’m currently enjoying a cup of coffee at Quixotic where I have a lovely view of the Highland Village strip mall with 6 billboards on top of it instead of 2-3 stories of apartments. One ironic billboard is a car ad for “spring cleaning” – as in clean out your garage for a new car. (I don’t think they did their Saint Paul homework on that one: garages here are for storing junk, not cars.)


Highland strip mall with six billboards instead of housing.

Highland strip mall with six billboards instead of housing.

I was originally planning on riding my bike around Ward 3 and taking pictures of all the potential housing lost to corporate graffiti, but I think it’d be more impactful if you join me in tweeting out pictures and hashtagging them #HousingnotBillboards. I will warn you, you’ll be surprised how many billboards you’ll notice now that you’re looking for them.

Mike Sonn

About Mike Sonn

Mike lives in Saint Paul.