Checking Back with a Saint Paul Snelby Decision

Do you know what happens not nearly often enough? Looking back at urban design debates of the past and checking to see how they played out.

For example, writer and board member Sam Newberg had a series of posts he had started where he’d look at developments that celebrated their 10th anniversary, and see how they were doing. That was a great idea! Sam looked at West River Commons on Lake Street, and Kensington Park in Richfield.

The reason that going back and looking at already-built projects is so interesting is that, often when a new development or street change is discussed, there is much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands. When the new [building / bumpout / bike lane / transit project] is proposed, many people argue that it is certainly definitely for sure going to [create hellish traffic / ruin the character of the neighborhood / be filled with crime].

And then somehow, in a political sausage-making miracle, sometimes the project happens anyway. (Note: also sometimes it does not.)

But then what? Typically those tasked to study and plan cities move on to the next thing and forget about the decisions of the past. They become just another seamless part of our built environment, silently shaping our lives.

But some people remember. I’ve been on the Saint Paul Planning Commission for almost five (!) years now, and my institutional memory has grown long indeed. In particular, these days I am remembering a debate and decision that came down the pipe during my time on the Commission. Let’s look at what happened and how it worked out.

The “Snelby” bumpout battle

When/Where: Flashback to 2013. The old bank on the corner was sold, the large building was slated for demolition, and Whole Foods and a developer (Ryan Companies) were planning a new five story (!) building for the corner of Snelling and Selby.

The building was one thing. I liked it; some others did not. Regardless of the density, the key issue for me was the street design, especially pedestrian safety and the quality of the sidewalk. This corner was already pretty crap for walking (and biking of course!), thanks to Ayd Mill Road which funnels brutal amounts of freeway traffic onto Selby Avenue at all hours of the day.

What was proposed: The big debate was whether westbound Selby Avenue would have a dedicated right-turn lane moving onto Snelling Avenue. City Public Works’ staff wanted the lane for congestion mitigation purposes. It wasn’t initially proposed by the developer, but because Ayd Mill congestion was so routinely bad, engineers suggested that a proposed bumpout be removed and a turn lane put in, which would allow free right turns off of Selby Avenue.


From the staff / traffic report.


What I argued: I thought it was a bad idea. It wouldn’t really “solve” the congestion. Because of the huge differential in traffic volumes between the four-lane grade-separated Ayd Mill “freeway” and the Snelby walkable neighborhood, there was really no way to make this into a congestion-free corner.

But meanwhile, any pedestrian safety features of the new building would be eradicated by the constant stream of traffic turning around the corner, right where the Whole Foods entrance was proposed to be. The bumpout would do much more harm than good, I thought at the time.

What happened: After a debate and some back-and-forth, and a hard lobbying effort by myself, neighborhood groups (including grassroots Neighborhoods First!), the turn lane was scratched and the bumpout was saved.

How it works today: This is just my take, but it seems like a huge success. The corner is actually pleasant to be on. People actually use the picnic tables on the sidewalk. Given that they are located on the horrible MnDOT traffic sewer that is Snelling Avenue, that’s quite an accomplishment! Traffic is still bad coming off Ayd Mill, but that was always a lost cause anyway.

Meanwhile, the Whole Foods and general sidewalk and pedestrian landscape is a big improvement for this key corner in Saint Paul.

Check it out yourself. Have you been? Any thoughts? (Leave them in comments.)




24 thoughts on “Checking Back with a Saint Paul Snelby Decision

  1. Mike SonnMike Sonn

    It’d be worth mentioning the removal of the bumpout at Syndicate/Selby to promote Ayd Mill car traffic going around the back of this development. It is a true shame because rarely is the traffic backed up that whole block from Snelling so the extra lane only accomplishes a larger turning radius so drivers can speed thru this turn onto Syndicate.

    Hmmm, maybe if we just gave AMR a trim down to one lane in each direction…

  2. Luke Birtzer

    What about the sign directing traffic coming off of Ayd Mill to turn right onto Saratoga –> Dayton –> NB Snelling? Was that a part of the same plan / compromise?

    I used to use that route before the whole foods came in, despite it seeming unordained by the neighborhood. Now it’s recommended route.

  3. hanslu01

    Hi! I visit this corner very frequently (usually with a bike), and I’m so glad that for the bump-out. I agree with Bill’s assessment that it makes the intersection much more pleasant and welcoming for pedestrians (not to mention safer).

    I’m curious to know (Bill, or anyone else who can answer): do you believe the city of Saint Paul will ever extend Ayd Mill Road even further to connect with I-94? I work in the neighborhood, and I’ve heard rumors of this intention; but I can only imagine that it would involve constructing an ugly, multimillion-dollar flyover where the railroad bridge crosses Snelling, and then bulldozing a few dozen homes and other buildings west of Snelling between Marshall and I-94.

    As Mike mentioned above, I suppose the best way to quell the traffic coming off of Ayd Mill Road is to reduce the number of lanes– not to connect it directly to the freeway. I’d love to know others’ thoughts on this.

    1. Andy SingerAndy Singer

      Yeah, reduce it to 2-lanes or close it entirely. See– There is a lot of valuable real estate on it, particularly at exit/entrance points, where apartments or other build projects could happen which would add to the city’s tax base. This is particularly true at the north end where any proposed connection would happen. Currently this space is under-utilized with empty warehouses etc …but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a huge amount of potentially tax-generating land. It would be a shame to pave it over.

    2. Monte Castleman

      The “direct” connection that’s been proposed is more of a surface boulevard with several traffic signals that would go through some of the decaying industrial land behind Pascal and then tie into the I-94 frontage roads. Ayd Mill Rd is how I get to the Midway area and I guess the thought never occurred to me to go behind the Whole Foods building.

  4. karen

    I like this look back stuff – nothing like real world data and examining things after the freak out.

    So I used to live a few blocks from this intersection and my spouse is now a person that drives through here via Ayd Mill Rod and takes a right there almost every day commuting back from suburbs to where we live now near 280 – so I know this well.

    That right turn can be congested and frustrating when others are not turning right but at peak hours, there aren’t any gaps save the light turning green anyways.

    It is a price worth paying – that area is much more ped friendly now and just generally appealing for the neighborhood.

    In contrast, where we live now, I watch a far smaller volume of traffic going south on Eustis , south of University Ave, at Franklin, to get to 280, or 94 entrance or go back behind storage buildings to drive west on frontage road go where, that Franklin couldn’t take them, I don’t know. They spread Eustis out to 4 lanes at Franklin, one a right turn only lane. I’m always amazed at how at least two of these four lanes is hardly needed, even at peak hours – but given its a pedestrian wasteland and hopefully MN DOT blows up this whole travesty and puts a lid on it, should not concern myself with it.

    Also, back to Snelling – I know people rip on Snelling all the time but having lived 1.25 blocks from it for 20 years in a very pleasant neighborhood – I would take being near this stretch of Snelling, even with all its volume of traffic, over being near most stroads in suburbs in a second. Also, its way better than living near 280., except when I want to get to Roseville fast, that is pretty sweet.

    The older, denser building stock closer to the road helps a lot. I wasn’t in love with walking on Snelling when I lived there but I didn’t hate it or fear it either. When I had to walk across Snelling with my small dog, I carried him because the traffic it worried me enough ( I always crossed where there was no light, because, you know, that was my street and walking blocks in other direction to just cross was not going to happen – a median would have been great) but still Snelling for me was better than most suburban stroads.

    The improvements being slowly made along Snelling and the older, mixed use, denser building stock makes what would be a horrendous road in any suburb – with that massive volume of traffic – not nearly so bad. Houses just a block away suffer nothing for being so close to all that volume of traffic – in fact they gain by being close to BRT.

  5. Bob S

    Oh, memories! I was on the Planning Commission at the time, on the Commission’s Zoning Committee and Chaired the still-young Transportation Committee. So speaking from that experience. When it came time to weigh in, I recall that slightly disconcerting feeling where all my fellow Zoning Committee members looked to me for guidance through the rocky terrain of difference of opinion.

    Some context. Usually decisions about roadway configurations aren’t the direct decision of the Zoning Committee, but in this case, the City’s Public Works staff had come to the conclusion fairly late in the game that the added traffic brought by the development would degrade the flow of the Snelby intersection going westbound on Selby into the intersection. And so when the developer was rebuilding the sidewalks, Public Works wanted to ask the developer to allow part of it to be rebuilt as a turn lane.

    Again, not usual for a Zoning Committee decision, but this provided me entree as a Committee member to quiz Public Works staff if their traffic modeling looked just at that intersection, or if it also pulled back and looked at the tradeoffs drivers were going to make at surrounding intersections. If Snelby would be as bad as envisioned, wouldn’t many drivers from Ayd Mill Road learn to avoid the intersection, and instead go north on Hamline and use Marshall or St. Anthony Avenue to connect to I-94 at Snelling? But Public Works staff said they had not modeled that impact, and of course some drivers would choose other routes, meaning even if the assumptions about volume were all true, it seemed likely the impact was likely overstated.

    The Complete Streets guide, which was in draft format, recommended a minimum sidewalk width of 14 feet where possible. If memory serves, the turn lane would make parts of this sidewalk 10 or 11 feet. The seating area was an important mechanism to reclaim an otherwise forlorn and dehumanized section of roadway. Because it was in draft form, I didn’t think I could formally use the Complete Streets guide, but it provided important context. And this was, no matter how you looked at it, going to be a signature intersection for the neighborhood.

    It was a thorny decision to be sure – going against a staff recommendation, especially on a topic as controversial as Ayd Mill Road traffic – means a person has to dot their i’s and cross their t’s to stay sane. I recall some pointed letters, an editorial cartoon and I believe also an editorial in the Villager. And it was a split decision, if I recall. But experience has borne out that I think it was the right decision.

    And I did appreciate the dedicated attention of my fellow Commissioner Lindeke and others who weighed in. 🙂 When you’re going against the grain (or staff recommendation) that kind of support is invaluable. And I wholly agree with Bill’s analysis, though I’m seldom a Whole Foods shopper, many are, and it does seem like it worked out very well!

    1. karen

      Glad you guys did it – its a good improvement and I think sets the stage well for further pedestrian improvements in the area

    2. karen

      Also, Ryan Companies built the Vintage Apt building at Snelby for about $50 million and just sold it to Swiss company for a cool $87 million.

      That is some pretty good return on value in less than 6 years since conception of the project.

      I think overall the city, the neighborhood and developer did a good job making this great improvement at that corner, the increase in value shows that.

  6. Cole Hiniker

    One of the things I really like about dual “bump-outs” is the added space between the curb ramp and the fixture poles (traffic signal, lighting, etc). It gives the corner a more spacious feel while providing more space to navigate around barriers on the sidewalk.

  7. Martin

    “The corner is actually pleasant to be on. ”

    Well, that’s relative. I would not characterize that corner as “pleasant” while on foot. Traffic fumes, noise, being constantly vigilant of vehicles. It’s the price we pay to live in the city. The bumpout is a small improvement, but so long as vehicles take precedence over pedestrians, we have to live with it. I live in the neighborhood.

      1. karen


        Still stand by my opinion that Snelling in this area, on the whole, is way better than many stroads that have way less traffic.

  8. karen

    So talked to my spouse about this Snelby intersection since she drives it everyday – she goes thru it as reverse commuter (she travels southwest out in morning from cities to work southern suburbs, so goes east on Selby in am) -the congestion on Selby is opposite direction of her drive and she sees it all – so morning going west on Selby is bottleneck.

    You might want go by there between 7:30 am and 8:30 am on a weekday to get a better idea what a mess it is.

    The stretch of Selby from Snelling to Ayd Mill Rd, and last most northern part of Ayd Mill is a real big congestion problem. The bump out at Snelling is probably just one small part of it. Main issue appears to be how north/west traffic from Ayd Mill dumps onto Selby right at base of the Selby bridge and very long light waits at Snelling and Selby

    In the morning the traffic dumping from Ayd Mill Rd going north/west, often backs up several blocks worth on Ayd Mill Rd itself as people try to turn right from end of Ayd Mill Rd onto the Selby at the bottom of the Selby bridge. Visibility there for that turn is bad, and makes people skittish and slow to turn and gaps are hard to find.

    She says congestion on northern end Ayd Mill Rd dumping onto Selby is bad enough in morning, when she is getting onto Ayd Mill Rd, people trapped in the congestion on Ayd Mill Rd going opposite direction will get frustrated and flip a U-turn over the center median on Ayd Mill right in front of her car, to bail from the congestion.

    Past that bottom of Selby bridge choke pt, she says there is still enough congestion on Selby going west in a.m. that she sees people turn right both on neighborhood street, Saratoga, and also they turn right through Whole Foods parking garage.

    Though her congestion through this area is far less because of being reverse commute timing, still she says she refuses to ever go all the way north on Ayd Mill Rd to Selby. She instead exits Ayd Mill Rd on Hamline, and then takes left at Marshall – right onto Snelling from there is not bad.

    Really, some better traffic direction where northern Ayd Mill Rd meets city streets and how best to get people to 94 is sorely needed….

    …Snelby is NOT to place to make this connection.

  9. Wendy OConnor

    I love the bump out. It’s great for walking and if you are shopping at Whole Foods and park in their horrid garage, you can actually pull out on Dayton and turn north on Snelling and feel safe doing so.
    I work in the area and now I know why it’s easy to get what about the Starbucks at Marshall & Snelling? They need to start over on that one.

    1. karen

      Thanks for comment about the Starbucks – they never ever should have allowed a drive through there – it is a nightware – way worse than congestion that a bump out would cause.

      1. Andy SingerAndy Singer

        I urge any of you who are pissed off about the Starbucks Drive-thru situation to send an e-mail to the Union Park District Council, the Summit-University (District 8) Council, and City Council members Russ Stark and Dai Thao. Getting complaints from people is the only way that situation will improve.

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