This week’s podcast is a conversation with Amanda Willis and Brandon Long, two of the people who have organized called Sustain Ward 3, a new community group in Saint Paul focusing on urban issues. We sat down in Long’s living room the other day to chat about the history of the grassroots organization, Sustain Ward 3, which is trying to shift neighborhood conversations in Saint Paul around things like density, development, transit, and bicycling. I hope you enjoy the conversation.
The podcast this week is sponsored by streets.mn. streets.mn is a website dedicated to expanding the conversation about land use and transportation issues in the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota. I am sure you already know about it, but if you are a fan of streets.mn or appreciate the kinds of conversations that it brings into the public attention, please support the website with a donation. You can find the big blue donation button on the top right of the main page, and your donation will help keep the site afloat and thriving, helping pay for events, web hosting, and other expenses like this podcast.
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[rough transcript slash highlights follow]
Q: How did Sustain Ward 3 come to be?
Brandon Long: There were a lot of folks online, on Twitter, chattering about different developments around the city. The Cleveland bike lane was a big deal at the time. Everyone seemed unhappy about the narrative of the ward, and the folks that were being heard weren’t really representative of “us”. Instead you had lots of folks who were really angry about new developments, saying things like “we want to keep the neighborhood character.” And we were scratching our heads about, what does that even mean? We were all chattering about it and gradually we started making connections in real life.
Amanda Willis: We met each other and had gatherings and thought, hey we can make this into something.
Brandon Long: So we had happy hours and bbq’s, and then we started getting into business and being more formal. We decided, “hey it’s time that we start making this a more formal thing.” And it’s only really been a few months.
Amanda Willis: It’s been since the beginning of the summer since we started having our meetings at the library. It’s on the transit line and it’s open to everyone.
Brandon Long: it was really good for us to start that way because you have to know your neighbors and trust each other and …
Amanda Willis: It was good for us all to become friends. Not just twitter friends but in real life.
Q: What’s the philosophy of Sustain Ward 3?
Amanda Willis: There we want to do these things in a positive, thoughtful, rational way and a lot of times like when they rolled out the larger recycling bins. There were a whole lot of people that were very angry about this, and went on Facebook and complained really loudly. And we were like ok this is a big change.
Brandon Long: It‘s a big enough change for STP that I get it, change is hard for people. And that’s really what it comes down to: any time anything changes, there’s a resistance to any sort of change in the neighborhood, and you get a lot of those angry letters to the editor and an angry crowd at community meetings and people from the Villager or Star Tribune come and say “the neighborhood’s angry!” So we came together and said, “well, we’re not.” So they form a group with a name and we thought, well we can do that. We can have a name and get editorials in the paper.
Q: How did you choose your name and focus?
Amanda Willis: We have three main tenets of our group: fiscal sustainability, environmental sustainability, and community sustainability. We really are based off the sustain language, and the idea of Ward 3, to us, maybe people will start to understand what wards mean.
Brandon Long: Big city decisions happen at the ward level and you have a city council member who represents your ward and we want to be able to influence that. The next level is the District Council system, and there are two district councils that operate in Ward 3.
Amanda Willis: Environmentally, like with the ford site plan, how water runoff is treated. There’s a big argument about it with people who are anti-change they want it to be all single-family homes or golf courses, and then there’s people like us who believe this change is good. It hits the three tenets. Like the environmental piece, there is this creek that is going to run above it and help treat the storm water runoff. and it helps build an environmentally sustainable neighborhood because you don’t have to walk to it you don’t have to drive it’s denser and that creates an environmentally sustainable site.
Q: What is your take on the Ford site debate?
Amanda Willis: There’s 9% green space at the site, so that’s the maximum that the city can do. As far as the other two tenets, it brings more people to our neighborhood. It’s more diverse, more inclusive, and helps bring people to the neighborhood that have not had access to it. That’s community sustainability, and it’s socio-economical as well, because 40% of the neighborhood is renters. We also need the ability to age in place on the site, that’s part of it as well.
Brandon Long: For fiscal sustainability, the denser we make it, the more fiscal sustainability we have for the city. We might have 2400 to 4000 new units, and with them comes more taxes. But we think that leads to a more fiscally sustainable and equitable city. There’s a huge housing crisis, this is one of the least dense neighborhoods in the entire city and we need houses and they’re going to go somewhere.
Q: What are the goals for the future of Sustain Ward 3?
Brandon Long: The Ford site is the sort of story that happens over and over again, with the bike lane, Riverview, Ford, with the changes on Snelling. There’s an angry crowd that comes out.
Amanda Willis: Say yes, Saint Paul. We really want people to know that all the messaging we have on our website is factual. It’s stuff from the city, we want to be very intentional with our resources so that you understand the facts.
Brandon Long: That’s the difference between what we’re trying to do and other groups. This would have happened whether or not there was a giant redevelopment in our neighborhood. This was an idea that was not reactionary, we’ve been clear with our council members and the people we speak with is that we’re going to proactive so that conversation stays positive the whole time and we can continue to do that.
Amanda Willis: We would like this to spread to other parts of the city and if there is going to be a sustain ward 4 we’d like to help with that. As we talk to various people in the city they’re excited to have a positive voice.
Q: What is the group working on now?
Amanda Willis: Our next big push is for public comment to council members and signatures and phone calls we need as many people to stand up at the meeting as possible. I’m sure the public comment portion is going to be very… aggressive.
Brandon Long: How can we do it differently. Can we go to a meeting and stand up and speak rationally? Can we talk to a reporter and convince them that they don’t speak for the neighborhood … Here we have a handful of people who literally live on one street, a street where you can’t find a house for sale for under $700K dollars. It’s a specific set of people that are older, white, giant home owners. They’ve been here for a long time and stand up a meeting and it’s a point of pride, like “I’ve been here for X years” and they founded the town. As if other people who are younger or something don’t matter.
We can be more representative.