Saint Paul’s History vs. Saint Paul’s Future

A McMansion built by developer James J Hill. Wildly out of the scope and scale of the neighborhood.

In the Fall of 2017 Saint Paul City Council enacted a development moratorium along Marshall Avenue, a residential transit corridor on the west side (not the West Side) of the Capitol City.  The moratorium was in reaction to two development proposals that had surfaced over the summer.  Legally speaking, the city was not trying to block either development with the moratorium, but the plot was pretty easy to follow once a group of concerned citizens started making noise that summer about how historical the to-be-demolished houses were. The moratorium itself managed to dissuade one developer, however, an apartment building at 1973 Marshall moved forward, coming in just under the wire as the moratorium took hold.

The process from there moved at a pretty dramatic clip as far as city planning goes:

A late October, rowdy District Council meeting where “It’s legal to discriminate against students.” got applause.

An early January unanimous vote of approval from the Planning Commission, the project was within existing zoning guidelines.

An appeal to the City Council brought forward by the group Historic Merriam Park Neighborhoods, hinged now on a tenuous argument of changing grades and the definition of covered vs. enclosed, defeated at Council in a 5-1 vote early February.

The offending proposed homes.


The 1973 Marshall project survived, but its heated, challenging approval process is illustrative of the new tenor housing opposition will take moving forward.  Saint Paul’s history, or the specter of it, will be turned into, at best, a gatekeeping mechanism to dictate who lives where, and, at worst, a bludgeon against people already living in neighborhoods where this sudden adoration of ‘history’ takes hold.

This politically weaponized history has always existed in some form, nor is it the first time it’s been used in Saint Paul.  That said, historically based denial advocacy (read: NIMBYism), is now ascendant because of the death of Livability’s viability. Livability, and all the wildly subjective policy notions that come along with it, withered in the wake of Melvin Carter’s first round mayoral victory. That mayoral race was partially defined by a split on the contentious Ford Site zoning, where the opposition couched itself in Livability.  Carter stood in favor of Ford while his leading opponents had stood in the vague, sometimes racist, nearly always classist, shadow of Livability.  The striking mayoral results signaled the failure of the Livability argument and, heaven willing, will soon be the death of Saint Paul’s unbearably beige tagline: “The most livable city in America!”

I have written previously about opposition to development based in historic preservation. Each time it reappears it is accompanied by a small cadre of white hobbyist historians touting the unimpeachable professionalism of some barely noted early twentieth century architect. The arguments to preserve the memory of white, professional, mediocrity ring perversely hollow in the city that bulldozed Rondo for white suburban commuters.

As we enter 2018 and work to address the housing needs in the Twin Cities, I urge you to watch the discussions around development with a critical eye. Density will remain the core point of contention. Our willingness to share, be it space or resources, is the root from which all other arguments arise, but history in this moment is primed to become the context in which we argue about density going forward in Saint Paul.

24 thoughts on “Saint Paul’s History vs. Saint Paul’s Future

  1. Jack

    I am all for increased density in the city. But that building is dismally ugly. And so are so many of the new apartments and condos popping up across town. If the new construction wasn’t so hideous, I don’t think there would be so much opposition to it.

    When the plans call for a vast expanse of ‘Fiber,’ as the above rendering calls for, I bristle. You cannot deny that ‘fiberboard’ is cheap-looking. You know it won’t age well. (If it’s anything like the fiberboard siding that some genius put on my garage, it will start to deteriorate in a few years). Then what? Tear the whole thing down and build something even more hideous?

    I read somewhere that today’s building codes REQUIRE three or more different finishes on new buildings. If this is true, it’s why so much new architecture all too often resembles a poorly cobbled-together, patchwork quilt. Imagine how much better the above building would look if it were either all brick-clad or perhaps the ground story being stone, and the top four stories above that being stucco. One or two finishes instead of five(!) different ones as proposed would at least make some sense. At the very least it would simplify a too-busy scheme and also compliment the older architecture along Marshall Ave, without slavishly reproducing it.

    I suppose that there are people who don’t believe that cheap-looking fiberboard is an affront to good design. Unfortunately, those are the people who are designing the new buildings all the rest of us have to look at.

    1. Dan

      I think this building is ugly too. It is for that very reason it should be built: in order to dig into ground a testament to history. We live in a city that flattened Rondo for an interstate. We live in a country that systematically murdered natives. Our history is ugly.

      When future generations see this building, they should struggle with it expressly for the same reasons you find it’s design loathesome. They should struggle at the strange confluence of neoliberalism and late period capitalism that birthed this building.

      The purpose of history is to remind us. Why shouldn’t architecture be honest in its history just like any other account of humans existence? Why should a new building create a narrative counter to this eras narrative? Making this building true to another era would switch history for romantic prose. Making this building different than the rest would be a rich neighborhood lying to itself just because it can.

      And ironically? People will have beautiful lives living in ugly buildings. That’s the American gotcha: our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. I’ve seen happy children in worse places and I expect happy students to live in an ugly building.

      It remains what it always has been, our history narratives of our present time borne back ceaselessly into the past.

      1. Architecture matters

        “I’ve seen happy children in worse places and I expect happy students to live in an ugly building.”

        Counterpoint: Poor architecture leads to poor mental health. ‘Someone did a study walking along buildings that was like a poor, undifferentiated surface. It was actually the side of a shopping mall. People’s heart rates went up, their cortisol levels shot up. It makes you anxious to be in enervating, boring, repetitive environments, and these projects are being built at such a large scale that they form the urban fabric that people live in and it’s not good for them.’

        1. Dan

          I agree that pretty things make a mind feel at ease. However: who is entitled to beautiful things? Is it merely rich predominantly white land owners who live around the St Thomas campus? By that token, if beauty leads to health, why is it that neighbors surrounding St Thomas haven’t rallied to stop new housing in the city as a whole? If bad architecture is a threat to our global mental health, why aren’t the neighbors of this development pushing to eradicate parking lots in my neighborhood? Why aren’t they lining up in front of Health Partners by the interstate on the east side to protest its health threatening repulsiveness? Why don’t they march to city hall demanding historically accurate restoration of Johnson High on East Side? It seems disingenuous to hail the beauty of history and the necessity of beautiful architecture for only a rich neighborhood. It seems rather an ugly and unfair way to act. It seems that it has nothing to do with establishing history or creating community health, but rather keeping said health and beauty in a community that already has it and forcing other neighborhoods to pick up the demand for housing. It’s rich neighborhoods being the big blind and I know enough about poker to see how that works and enough about history to see how it has affected inequality in our city in an intensely negative way.

          1. Louis

            “It seems disingenuous to hail the beauty of history and the necessity of beautiful architecture for only a rich neighborhood.”

            How on earth is it disingenuous to care most about the neighborhood in which one lives and or/works, over neighborhoods they don’t?

            Ever heard of the phrase “Think Globally, Act Locally”?

        1. Jack

          I agree with you that good design should be for all and not just for rich people. Nobody should be ‘punished’ with bad architecture.

          1. Dan

            I’m glad you find systemic inequality to be funny. For the record, places like Summit are actively denying housing ( on the basis of architectural beauty. Meanwhile, neighborhoods like mine are developing detailed small area plans in order to plan for the future and incorporate the inevitable demand of new housing. For the record: I do not find it funny that my neighborhood will be bearing the brunt of new development because rich neighborhoods can block housing based on purely cosmetic reasons. I do not find it funny at all.

            1. Jack

              I thought your assertion that we should punish ourselves by constructing ugly buildings because that’s exactly what we deserve to live with was amusing. I did not mean to offend.

    2. Julie Kosbab

      I think you are underestimating the level of animosity everyone anywhere near the Marshall project has against ANYTHING that might house UST students. I have seen people who would normally be pro-housing dig in with “but students should live on campus and stay out of our neighborhood.”

      They have tried to zone apartments where students might live out of the area, repeatedly.

      You could make the swankiest looking building imaginable, that blended entirely with the neighborhood, and not remove these objections. Lately, the neighbors have been defending housing that is derelict and not economically viable to restore, and they’re ugly too.

      1. Jack

        I would like to know what you find ‘derelict.’ It seems some perfectly fine bungalows in my blue-collar neighborhood are being torn down, just because the windows are dirty.

    3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I’m not sure what makes people think that their personal taste dictates what can or should be built, much less choose to express it as though others should take it seriously.

      1. Jack

        Oh, SNAP!

        I’m not sure that someone who posts a photo of a lovely Victorian Mansion and labels it a “McMansion” should be taken seriously.

  2. GlowBoy

    I understand a lot of people think many of the new buildings going up are “ugly” or even “hideous”, but when has that ever NOT been true? Certainly not in my lifetime. There are a lot of terrible looking 1970s and 1980s apartment buildings too, but lots of people live in them and we’re better off with them than with all those people living in SFHs – that many of them can’t afford.

    I’d say these new buildings are a darn sight more attractive than much 1960s-80s apartment construction, especially those truly hideous faux-lonial things with columns (which IIRC there are at least a couple of on Marshall, but will probably someday be considered to be architecturally significant).

    I think a lot of newer high-end homes, especially with this trend of ridiculous numbers of (high-maintenance) gables, are ugly too, but I don’t get to tell developers not to build them even though I “have to look at it”. Neighborhood opposition always seems to be stronger when renters are involved than when a rich person wants to build a single-family monstrosity.

    Marshall is an important non-car transportation corridor, with bike lanes and good transit, and some nice commercial amenities on it (especially with Whole Foods anchoring its east end). FWIW the style of buildings going up all over town is the same style going up in Portland, where I used to live, and Seattle, where I spent some time last month, and I’m sure most major cities. Like it or not, it’s the current style. Ten years from now, construction styles will be different. We can’t wait for fashion to change to get the housing we need now.

    1. Daniel Hartigkingledion

      This is exactly the right argument. Who the heck gets to say that buildings are ugly? Compared to some building, _all_ buildings are ugly.

      I refuse to accept the building of anything less attractive than the Cathedral of Notre Dame du Paris or the Taj Mahal or the Chrysler Building or whatever floats my boat personally.

  3. Jack

    I think we should encourage the use of better building materials.What is wrong with expecting a five-story building to be built out of something lasting and durable, like brick or stone? Why do we allow our buildings to be faced with fiberboard? Our society is so throw-away and we are now erecting throw-away buildings. I am not advocating building copies of historical period architecture, I just think if you put up a five-story building, it ought to add something pleasing to the existing streetscape –at least not become an eyesore in a few years after the cheap cladding rots away. I do not have a problem with the architecture of the above apartment building; but it should not be allowed to be built out of fiberboard. If they cannot afford to face it in something more permanent and durable, then perhaps the project should be scaled back?

    1. Jennifer Cannon

      Because brick and stone are much, much more expensive. The developer does have to be able to make a profit to make the project viable. Requiring brick and stone would be prohibitively expensive. They probably aren’t going to have granite countertops in the kitchen either, but I bet because no one can see THAT no one will complain. Affordable housing has to be affordably built.

  4. Monte Castleman

    I’m not saying something shouldn’t be built because I personally think it’s ugly, but in my opinion that building is. It’s by far the worst I’ve seen (Stillwater Mills, the downtown Target Store, and the original Block E would be contenders for that. I have a strong dislike for slapping a bunch of different random finishes on random parts of buildings, and a bunch of random parts that stick in our out. Such a thing looks like a kid picked a random selection of blocks from his or her toy chest and then couldn’t get them to line up. And don’t me started on fake history touches like the “houses of seven gables” in the exurbs.

    Minnehaha Academy is going to be interesting what they do because they reclad their 1970s fine arts building and built a new gym and chapel in a fake history style to match their historical classroom buildings. And now the real historical buildings are gone.

    1. Monte Castleman

      meant to say “Although it’s far from the worst I’ve seen” and “fake history touches like arches and cornices”.

  5. Scott

    I live in a SFH in the Midway area, near University and Snelling. It’s a great neighborhood.
    I remember going to a community meeting many years ago where the proposal was to use fire inspections to help “manage” the influx of students around Macalester and St. Thomas. Of course, this was all about safety, but it would have the beneficial side effect of limiting student housing in big old houses like the one I used to live in on Marshall (an old single family home converted into five very nice one bedroom apartments).

    I was amazed at the apparently third world living conditions that students were imposing on the good people of Merriam Park. I can be a little snarky, and commented at the meeting that, while I lived in the Midway and didn’t necessarily have a dog in this hunt, I was certainly felt lucky that I couldn’t begin to afford to live in such an awful neighborhood, and felt truly heartsick for those who did.

    Needless to say, my sarcasm wasn’t much appreciated by the homeowner contingent, but the few students who had shown up recognizing the threat to their homes thought it was pretty funny.

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