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.

Tom Basgen

About Tom Basgen

Your Friend and Neighbor