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.)




Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.