The Reclamation of Snelling Avenue

South Snelling Avenue in Highland

Snelling Avenue is a wound on Saint Paul.  A north/south gash bisecting the city’s west side.  It’s a road that fails to serve anyone outside of a car in any meaningful way, but at most times fails the driving public it has been built to cater to.  Snelling has a grim record. Pedestrians crossing anywhere but signaled lights, spaced a half mile apart, require strong legs and good cardio.  Cyclists laugh and roll their eyes when asked if they ride there.  Motorists bemoan the tangled snarl as Snelling passes 94 and University.  Nearly every Minnesotan has a story of woe involving Snelling and the end of a long day at the State Fair, but times change and there are people hard at work transforming Snelling from a misplaced freeway into an avenue that serves the communities it runs through instead of the vehicle traffic trying to run through the community.

One improvement is already in place, the A-Line, a rapid transit bus line from South Minneapolis up to the Roseville mall.  The high frequency bus makes transit travel along the corridor fast, comfortable, and simple.  It also has free wifi, but I’ll spare you the grocery list of the A-Line’s virtues

Mixed use development has begun sprouting up along Snelling.  Recently The Vintage has been leasing a whole bunch of luxury apartments built atop of a Whole Foods.  This kind of denser development lends itself to more street life and the new neighbors will likely be on board calming the 5 lanes of  traffic surging past their front door making for a safer intersection at Selby.  Further down the road are plans for another multi-story mixed use building at St. Clair, with both developments book ending a stretch of road with a history of danger posed to Macalester students and others attempting to cross Snelling.

The Vintage

The south side of Snelling in Highland Park is getting a median installed come late summer thanks to the Highland District Council, Councilman Chris Tolbert, and City Engineer John Maczko.  Between Randolph and Ford, the median will bring a canopy of trees to cut what stands now as 5 to 6 lanes of asphalt. This will serve to calm traffic and reduce the distance pedestrians need to travel in order to cross.  With a road that wide and it being a stretch known for speeding the median will go a long way in making that area accessible to the people who live there; like the seniors at The Water of Highland Park.  They already have an A-Line stop right out front soon to be combined with a more walkable avenue, our elders living there will be able to stay independent longer as our neighborhood becomes more accessible.  

Beyond that, the groundwork is being laid for more improvements to Snelling. A chunk of Snelling just south of Macalester College was just recommended for up-zoning, making way for a more human friendly variety of development to take root.  There is a study being done on the north side from Hewitt to Midway Parkway to see what can be done to improve life for cyclists and pedestrians around the hallowed grounds of The Great Get Together.  Most prominent of all these plans though are for Minnesota United’s soccer stadium which will be replacing a gravel pit of a bus parking lot behind a highway strip mall.

Snelling in it’s current form does little for the surrounding communities aside from ferry their cars to the nearest highway, but looking forward a decade it’s easy to see all the hard work from a myriad of Saint Paul’s citizens translating into a space where people want to be, not just to drive past.

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10 thoughts on “The Reclamation of Snelling Avenue

  1. Karen

    Thanks, good overview of the challenges for this street.

    Having lived just one block off of Snelling, to east on Portland for 20+ years (I’m now in condos off Green Line in SAP), I have seen these issues myself. I typically crossed Snelling at Portland, in the summer to get to the more mature trees and shade on the west side residential area. I always picked up my small dog when crossing and had my head on a swivel.

    The area around the new Starbucks by Marshall Ave is now a traffic mess with cars dangerously backing up for the drive through there. So much of the traffic in this stretch of Snelling is trying to connect from 94 to Ayd Mill Road, don’t know if that can be dealt with in better manner – but don’t want tear up good neighborhood streets for freeway exit.

    But, I have to say, compared to a suburban arterial street, considering the great volume of traffic on Snelling, the stretch of Snelling from northern St. Paul border down south to Highland Park area is immensely more walker friendly and appealing than even much lower volume arterial roads in other parts of the metro area. If this street had been made into a highway (280, shudder) we would be much worse off, or if this stretch of Snelling was like Snelling is to north in Roseville…well…

    Typically, residential property near high volume arterial streets, that are wide and lined with strip malls, do poorly. But our old house, just one block off of Snelling was just as valuable as any other houses in deeper in the neighborhood. If anything, being close to retail on Snelling and close to the ALine BRT was a plus. At least that is what the young couple who bought the house said was most important to them – a walkable neighborhood. That’s a long way from how this neighborhood was regarded when I moved in there in early 90s.

    Snelling has benefit of many charming historic buildings close to sidewalk, with street front retail which gives people reasons to walk, lessens need to drive. It is also a busy enough street, as a woman, I felt safe walking on along it at night, say, stumbling back from O’Gara’s, rather than walking on the quieter nearby neighborhood streets that I used during the day.

    The whole area around Snelling and Selby developed very nicely through a combination of re-use of historic buildings, like where Patina is, and new development replacing some the less charming buildings (Whole foods/Vintage replacing the former bank building).

    I was disappointed the rebuild of the burnt strip mall where BWWs is now didn’t involve moving the buildings towards the sidewalk.

    Where there aren’t historic buildings to use, more dense development similar to way those older buildings were built, that fills more areas like Snelling and Selby would be great improvement.

    And of course, better design of pedestrian crossing is needed. The medians in Highland Park part of Snelling seem great addition.

    Even if you reduced lanes to make room for biking, don’t know if Snelling is best place to have bikes, wouldn’t some quieter north south neighborhood streets make a better way for bikers?

    Have there been any fleshed out proposals for road design changes to Snelling Ave?

    Snelling north of 94 has medians, which I’m sure helps with pedestrians, but they are pretty sad looking chunks of concrete – the pavers with grass growing out of them on University Avenue by Green Line looks more appealing that those Snelling concrete medians.

    1. Lmiranda

      Yes, Snelling is denser than any stroad (suburban arterial street). Guessing it was a streetcar line?

      While it might seem nice to have “some quieter north south neighborhood streets…for bikers”, that makes sense mostly for recreational bikers. If you’re cycling to a job or for errands or meeting friends, you want to be on the same streets as cars—where the density is.

      Snelling needs a safe, separated bike lane (cycletrack) to make biking enjoyable and useful.

  2. Lmiranda

    A gash is a really great way to describe Snelling. Wasn’t there a proposal a year ago to create a “complete street” out of it?

    That looked ghastly. “Here’s some room for bikes & pedestrians, so now cars can zoom faster than ever”. Snelling has so much potential, what with the density surrounding Selby area.

    Citizens should push for a much more friendly streetscape, that’s human-centered.

  3. jc

    I ride transit to commute to work, live just S. and E. of the Snelling and Selby intersection, and see the commuter traffic heading to and fro Ayd Mill as a major issue. The Ayd Mill Park idea has it’s merits, but it seems unlikely that the driving route will be completely upended for a park. However if Ayd Mill was extended to Marshall (a bigger arterial than Selby), a park (including large stormwater management / treatment wetlands and a bike trail) was developed, and that park was connected to the new Snelling – University development and the Minneapolis greenway, several issues would be resolved, and livability increased. That idea is probably not happening anytime soon and Snelling – Selby will continue to be a nightmare for pedestrians and motorists alike.

    One of the primary issues us pedestrian-types face is the Minnesota motorist mindset of running through the yellow-red light of the turning lane. This aggressive behavior is only increased during the busy commuting hours as the motorists sit in a long, frustrating line to turn onto Selby to access Ayd Mill. If I walk out into the crosswalk immediately when the walk signal comes on, more times than not I’m facing a speeding vehicle running the light, into my path in the crosswalk. The aggressive, passive-aggressive driving culture here is horrendous and undoubtedly yet another Saint Paul pedestrian will be injured or killed by a motorists at this intersection. Motorists continue to not follow the pedestrian right-of-way laws and police efforts to enforce them seem to be minimal in general and severely lacking in the major dangerous intersections during rush hours.

    Other cities successfully or semi-successfully leave the bike lanes off of the main drags and use the side streets as bike-dominant pathways. Cyclists get a more friendly ride and the motorists remain a little less cramped on the main thoroughfares. Why not use Saratoga and Fry as North-South bike routes that you can still drive on, don’t have bike lanes, but are bike friendly and low-traffic?

    High-density development can help, but I hardly think that “luxury” condos above an expensive grocery store is making the neighborhood more livable for the majority of residents. Sure, it’s a better use of the space but if these developments continue to proceed without equity in mind our neighborhoods and communities will continue to be divided by poorly planned roadways, intersections, and income-class. Furthermore, cities like Portland, OR that have developed many high-density projects over the past two decades without improving the road infrastructure, providing parking for the development residents as a requirement of the build, and assuming that everyone is going to ride a bike everywhere have failed to improve the livability and affordability of communities while increasing both density and traffic congestion. Saint Paul has an opportunity to be smarter and learn from the lessens other cities have presented.

    Thanks for existing Streets.MN. You’re awesome.

    1. UrbanLite

      I actually think those yellows are reds. I routinely see people blow red lights here as if it has no consequence. It seems as if a “fresh red” is an allowable time during which to blow through a light.

      When I first moved here, I was repeatedly told not to pull into an intersection on green for a second or two as people blow red lights here often. I have heeded this advice as I see red lights, and also turn signals treated as optional. I do not see people drive like this in WI.

  4. UrbanLite

    So yes, I agree, we need a culture shift here in MN. Until we have that, no design fix will fully resolve this problem on Snelling.

  5. Shelly

    I’m really dismayed that you left out all that’s been done on the north end of Snelling, in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood, which is a very active community, with a strong neighborhood coalition: For many years, the community has worked to improve Snelling Ave. and it’s relationship to the surrounding neighborhood, and actively tried to fight the idea that the neighborhood is just a thoroughfare for motorists to and from I 94 or the fairgrounds. Just some examples…

    There is a small garden at the very north end of Snelling, created and maintained by volunteers. There used to be planters also maintained and decorated by volunteers. Several improvements have been made to Hamline Park, and volunteers help maintain it and hold events and programs there. A handful of striking murals were created last year on the sides of businesses, highlighting our immigrant neighbors and their culture and businesses, with several more due to be made this year:

    Of course, the road itself was also re-done, as well as the sidewalks, streetlights, trees, pedestrian crossings, etc. There is a new, dedicated bike/ped crossing at Charles Ave.
    A lot of people gave input and worked very hard on some aspects, and not all things came to fruition, such as a dedicated bike lane, or the median rain gardens, etc. But, it is, of course, extremely difficult balancing all the needs/wants. Lack of parking and difficult access would hurt area businesses. Fewer lanes for cars would make traffic congestion even worse. Traffic and pedestrian safety continue to be an issue. I do not think there is adequate signage to alert drivers to pedestrians, and it is extremely difficult to see pedestrians in the cross-walk with two lanes of traffic. I would advocate for more signage on the medians, and something more along the lines of flashing lights, as you see by Macalester. That said, I think there should actually be fewer pedestrian crossings, and more education of pedestrians.

    You reference Snelling as a source of woe for those leaving the fairgrounds, but for those of us in the neighborhood, State Fair motorists (and any attending large functions at the fairgrounds) are a source of woe for those of us in the neighborhood: traffic, blocking intersections, speeding down side-streets, noise from both cars and people, littering, etc. So, please keep that in mind, when you drive through! 🙂 Thx!

  6. Paul Nelson

    I want to reference the following Streets MN article from 29 FEB 16 by Andrew Singer:

    We certainly have a lot of problems in many places where human beings (walk and bike) are not accommodated safely or effectively, but the very well documented incident described in Andrew Singer’s article is, in my view, appalling and horrific. To spend half a million dollars grant funds on consultation and continued meetings with everyone and produce *nothing* makes no sense. In this case there clearly were no reasons not to implement the design features in the plan; neither money or safety are factors.

    MnDot should come back and complete the work, but I suspect they will not. Clearly Snelling could be a much better highway for everyone, accommodating human beings to walk and bike. As it is now Snelling is basically a motorway only with inconsistent infra for walk and nothing for the bike from 7th street on the south all the way to Moundsview on the north. North of Larpenteur there is nothing for walk and nothing for bike.

    I do not have all of the answers.

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