Alas, the Minnesota State Capitol is the Anti-Madison

It’s time once again for the Minnesota legislative session, the annual period of time when laws are debated at length, stall out completely, and then get decided at the very last minute with no prior knowledge of what’s in them. For those who are into politics, it’s a fun time.

But I want to take today and discuss an open secret about the Minnesota state capitol located in Saint Paul, Minnesota: it’s terrible urbanism.

I know this because I worked there for years. Back in the mid 2000s, I staffed a part-time job at the legislative reference library on the top floor of the State Office Building, before working one entire session as a Minnesota House page. My time at the Capitol complex overlapped with the time when I began writing my blog about sidewalks, and I thought a lot about and experienced first-hand how bad the urban landscape of the capital area has become.

To put it mildly, from a walkable urban fabric perspective, the Minnesota State capitol does for downtown Saint Paul what the HHH Metrodome did for downtown Minneapolis. The only real difference is that instead of Hubert’s Bar you have the Kelly Inn / Best Western in the parking lot by the onramp.

If you don’t understand the reference, it’s a nod to the fact that the large multi-purpose downtown Minneapolis stadium built in 1982 had an almost negative economic impact on the city surrounding it. In all those years, not one business popped up anywhere near the Metrodome aside for Hubert’s Bar, which was dilapidated and abandoned whenever there wasn’t a game. The stadium was, instead, surrounded by acres of ill-kept surface parking lots full of detritus tumbleweed.

The oceanic expanse of the Rice Street Sears / DMV.

And while the capitol mall is nicer to look at, what with all its grass and statues, from an urbanist perspective the same moonscape effect holds true of the Capital Area.

Don’t believe me? A simple exercise illustrates this perfectly.

Here is the list of non-Kelly Inn restaurants and bars within a 10-minute walk of the Minnesota State Capitol steps:

  • White Castle (with drive-thru)
  • McDonalds (with drive-thru, in an old bank)
  • El Bravo Mexican*
  • New Saigon*

* You have never heard of these because both of these small hole-in-the-wall restaurants are in old and run-down buildings and very infrequently visited by Capitol staff or visitors because they involve an encounter with visible signs of poverty on Rice Street. The block where they exist is just out of the control of the Capital Area Architectural and Planning Board (CAAPB), or the buildings would have probably been torn down for parking by now. [knocking on wood]

That’s it. Tens of thousands of full-time staff and hundreds more seasonal staff and hundreds more actual elected politicians and tens of thousands of annual visitors and that’s the sum total of restaurants in a should-be-thriving densely-populated transit-served close-to-downtown part of the second largest city in the state.

People scurry about in these tunnels instead of going outside.

I should also note that there are many employee cafeterias located in the capital area complex, all connected by a well-used tunnel system and serving food produced by a food contracting chain. When I worked there, I was told that the “best one” was at MnDOT, though I always preferred eating in the Capitol basement “rathskellar” when the legislature was in session, simply for the people watching.

This caveat pretty well proves my point.

Outside of maaaaaaybe two dozen days per year when there’s a big rally or event (e.g. an anti-war rally, the Kommen walk, or the Twin Cities marathon) that takes up the whole of the state capitol lawn for maybe six hours at a time, the vast vast majority of the time (24 times per year times 6 hours over 8,760 hours in a year = 1.6% of the time there’s people using the capitol lawn) the capital lawn with all its curving wide roads and mildly interesting statues sits desolate and empty. Taken as a whole, there are probably more people using the space for Pokemon Go purposes than anything else.

So why is Minnesota State Capitol urbanism so terrible?

It’s a long story involving urban renewal dollars, the decline of bourgeois enclaves, industrial expansion, racism, freeways, architectural history, institutional biases, and lots of politics. I promise to get into some of that in a future post, but if you want a sneak preview, just know that there used to be an extremely diverse and interesting neighborhood here [photos below], it was all torn down from the 30s to the 60s, and in 1970 a huge area around the Capitol was given to a committee made up of legislators and overseen by the State Department of Administration.

Here’s a picture of what that building looks like:

As it sits today, the actual City of Saint Paul has no zoning or land use control of this area. Instead, the capitol complex as defined by the boundaries of the CAAPB, is desolate grey parking-laden symbolic landscape that looks good when viewed from a distance but does almost nothing to improve the walkable urban fabric of the city other than provide a backdrop for the admittedly stunning capitol building.

From an urbanist perspective, the area resembles the capitol of a 1970s Soviet republic, windswept and barren. The closest thing to a “civic building” along the mall is the History Center, and even it turns its back to John Ireland Boulevard and is perched awkwardly along some freeway on-ramps and deadly Kellogg Boulevard. The other post-war capitol complex buildings are featureless modernism lacking any engaging detail along the street frontage.

The Google Maps view of both Minnesota and Wisconsin state capitols at the same scale.

I always contrast the lifeless Minnesota State Capitol in my mind with the amazing example of the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. Both buildings are beautiful, but the key difference is that the Wisconsin building is surrounded by vibrant urbanism. It is in every way the gold standard for how a state capitol and its surrounding government buildings can fit seamlessly into a walkable city.

Here’s a list of all the restaurants and bars within a five-minute (!) walk of the Wisconsin State Capitol steps according to the Walkscore website:

  • Brocach Irish Pub and Restaurant
  • Francesca’s al Lago
  • Subway
  • Nostrano
  • Tornado Club Steak House
  • Capital Tap Haus
  • Myles Teddywedgers Cornish
  • Ian’s Pizza on State
  • Rare Steakhouse
  • Mirch Masala
  • Silver Dollar Tavern
  • Paul’s Club
  • Cooper’s Tavern
  • Maduro
  • Opus Lounge
  • Woof’s
  • Shamrock Bar

I don’t know if all of those are real or not, but you get the idea. If you expanded to a ten-minute walk shed, the area would increase exponentially rather than linearly.

It’s worth pointing out that there’s nothing else about Wisconsin state government right now that is better than in Minnesota. Their politics has been a garbage fire in my opinion for many years.

But on this, the beginning of the Minnesota legislative session, I simply wanted to point out that the Wisconsin State Capitol urban fabric is amazing and rich and the Minnesota State Capitol urban fabric is absolutely not.

Maybe in a later post I will brainstorm some ways to fix the many overlapping problems surrounding the capital area. Feel free to start the process in the comments below!

PS. Here are pictures of what the area used to look like.


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52 thoughts on “Alas, the Minnesota State Capitol is the Anti-Madison

  1. Eric

    I think you’re spot-on here Bill and look forward to your future post on the subject. Hopefully including some thoughts on how we make progress toward improving the area.

    I’ve visited the Wisconsin capitol a couple of times and it’s always been vibrant and lovely (politics aside). The State Street corridor, farmer’s market and compact nature of the capital grounds make it ideal for walking and biking. The local and unique offerings of Madison retail and restaurants make it friendly to visitors. Sadly, we chose to sever our capitol from the rest of downtown when we created I-94.

    In the short term, I think we could make real headway on helping support the University Avenue side of the capital campus. We have LRT and some unique, cool businesses there. Some aesthetic improvements and strategic development could make that side of the Capitol more vibrant and friendly within the foreseeable future. Reconnecting the downtown side feels like a steep hill to climb. But I wouldn’t mind being wrong about that!

  2. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    The tunnel system is insane, I’ve seen exercise groups down there during perfectly nice summer days. The MnDOT cafeteria really *is* the best of the cafeterias, but the food trucks that park outside on John Ireland Boulevard are far superior to anything offered inside. The ultimate capitol mall lunch option, of course, is taking a Nice Ride downtown and eating at Afro Deli.

    Bill, you’re exactly right about the capitol grounds, and it’s a bummer. I hope that as the generations of political leadership change, we will start to see a different perspective. John Ireland Blvd, MLK Blvd, and Cedar St. are all about three times wider than they needs to be. The mall itself is pockmarked by an astonishing five surface parking lots, which have about 50-100 spots each. Given the semi-recent completion of an entirely new MnDOT parking structure, it’s insane that these smaller lots still survive.

    The elephant in the room is I-94, which basically protects that capitol area from ever seeing any kind of development pressure. One day, St. Paul will cap the highway from St. Peter to Jackson, and build on top. I think, when that finally happens, it will be easier to replace voids like Lot K and start restoring the capitol area to a neighborhood again.

    1. Micheal Foley

      You’ll be happy to know that the giant parking lot by the Charles Lindbergh statue was removed and replaced with grass last year.

  3. Micheal Foley

    I think about this all the when I leave my nice walkable neighborhood (Cathedral Hill) and cross the freeway to the Capitol Complex for work. If I need to pick something up on the way to work (ibuprofen, donuts, etc.) that I can’t get from the MnDOT cafeteria or vending machines, I’m pretty much out of luck. In addition to the lack of eateries within walking distance, there’s also no real convenience store in the area. While I appreciate the tunnels in the winter, or rainy days, I much rather spend my lunch hour reading on the capitol lawn or walking around downtown St. Paul. The whole area is a real bummer if you’re into vibrant urbanism.

  4. Jack

    Our Capital looks nice in a car as you speed past, but there isn’t much to entice a stop. I read about a proposal to construct a land bridge over the highway at, I believe Victoria, where they wanted to reconstruct parts of the largely destroyed Rondo neighborhood. There would be buildings on the bridge on either side of the street. It looked like a pretty cool idea. Something like that in front of the Capitol might help reconnect it to downtown St Paul.

      1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

        It depends on the type of structure that gets built. Hudson Yards in Manhattan is a cap over Penn Station’s railroad tracks. If that can get built, there’s no reason buildings couldn’t be built over the I-95 trench. I’d argue there’d be no point in doing it otherwise.

  5. Andy Gifford

    Obviously, Madison benefits greatly from having a major university campus mere blocks from the capitol.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      But Saint Paul’s capitol building should benefit from being “in” the second largest history downtown in the state? They seem pretty equivalent, except for the age of the populations.

    2. Justin D.

      The Wisconsin capitol basically IS downtown Madison though. It’s in the center of the city and it surrounded by vibrant urbanity. The Minnesota capitol is NEXT to downtown and is cut off from downtown and doesn’t have anything much going for it in the immediate surroundings.

      The U of W campus is about the same distance as the U of Texas is from the Texas capitol, and the Texas capitol is also connected to downtown Austin. It’s actually not that well connected to the U of T (wide streets and parking lots in between the two areas). The area around the Texas capitol isn’t as nice as the Wisconsin capitol either, and it also features a large expanse of lawn and some pretty unfriendly streets, similar to the Minnesota capitol. The Wisconsin capitol is very compact and directly connected to adjacent urban streetscapes.

  6. DerekThompson

    The state of the Capital grounds is definitely one of the most frustrating parts of being a St Paul resident. The Capital building should be an asset for the city but it’s basically cut off from the rest of the city. The south is cut off by a giant freeway trench with limited crossings. The east is cut off by bland office buildings, freeways, and Regions Hospital. The north is cut off by more bland office buildings and a broken street grid. The west is cut off by a dying Sears and endless parking lots. To make this worse the capital grounds itself is covered in ugly office buildings and parking lots. The capital grounds are just too big.

    Unfortunately I don’t know if most of those issue can be fixed. The south end of the capital complex would need pretty much all of 94 to be capped with mixed use buildings to ever be semi urban but you still have the issue of the big empty space where 94 and 35E meet. The east side is mostly full already. The north side is mostly full and the street grid doesn’t exactly lend itself to great urbanism.

    The west side of the capital grounds does have some potential. The Sears site offers giant redevelopment potential and I do think that whole Rice street corridor has a lot of potential, although I don’t know how much will change as long as it is a high poverty area. Even if that Rice street corridor did develop it would still be hemmed in by an empty Capital complex and a giant freeway to the south.

    St Paul is frustrating.

    1. Karen

      The lack of connection to downtown is sad but long before a freeway lid comes along – the areas within a few blocks of the capitol could be developed with some vision and proper encouragements as it own smaller business district, with offices, retail, and residences that could easily be well connected to the nearby neighborhoods (Frogtown, Summity-University)

      Nothing wrong with having a second smaller “downtown” area built up – in fact, in some ways a series of denser/office/commercial areas through out the city may be a better way to go in terms of smoothing out real estate value, rents, different types of businesses, residences the just one big downtown and a bunch of residences and single story office space outside of that.

  7. Karen

    Thanks Bill, it is sad how a major office area is so lifeless otherwise. We have done so much better downtown St. Paul to bring more all day life and economic activity, at least around lowertown and W. 7th, would that we could do that in this area also.

    Like anything, it seems smarter for community to get ahead with visioning better uses and values that waiting for public sector or private sector to do whatever on an adhoc basis, as the results will likely be far less appealing just sitting back.

    I’m sure they have a lot on their plate but ‘;m hoping District 17 Capitol River Council has some good ideas for improving this area their 10-year plans being developed and submitted to the City of St. Paul right about now. Given this is the moment for neighborhood district councils to get their input to the City, and City to make its long-term plans, seems like a great time to push for a better vision for this area.

    Besides making it more of an economic engine for during the day when office workers are there, this park land and service businesses that could be developed around the capitol could bea great place for night time and weekend recreational uses for local residents, when office workers are away. And also, seems there is great opportunity to bring more residences to the area along with businesses/offices/jobs space, so some people could live walking distance from such a big employer, the Capitol.

    The lawn space cries out for some weekend or night markets, possibly with some semi-permanent pop-up/simple shop shack type store structures nearby that could be cheap, local business incubator, as some of the food hall/markets have done.

    Madison is famous for its farmers market, why not start building up this area with more events, markets?

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Great ideas. The occasional food trucks on the mall are really the only positive thing going for public space / urban vitality in the entire area. Expanding that concept would be a great start!

  8. Scott

    I live right across the street (I-94) in the Penfield. 10th and Minnesota. The other problem is the Green Line and the weird jog it takes north of I-94, which further isolates the capital from downtown. Pedestrians aren’t even allowed to cross I-94 on the Minnesota Street bridge…there is no way to cross the light rail once you brave crossing I-94.

    It’s fun living in downtown Saint Paul. I see extending the fun across I-94 and onto the Capital grounds as the next step in the evolution.

    Great article. Thanks for writing it, and I’m looking forward to the next chapters.

    1. Will

      Downtown/Lowertown resident, and I’ve taken some walks up to the Capitol. You can cross on Cedar or wait until Robert, but you’re right, it’s not ideal. Especially since vehicle traffic off Minnesota can only turn left, there’s no reason a crosswalk on the east side of that intersection could be made.

  9. Karen

    Some very good things is there are some super wider roads and lots of green space that is public land, so lots of opportunity with some vision, care for the community, neighborhood. The wide roads beg to become wonderful complete streets, the green space could become more usable park land with proper design.

    Just a good little seasonal restaurant, snack/ice cream place just off the lawn could start to get the green space some critical mass of people in the summer. So many parts of town are starved for a little park, and here is this huge lawn with hardly anyone using it.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Again, no one lives there. Who will patronize these businesses? Green space is not an automatic draw. This area needs people, not some magical cute business.

      1. Karen

        Make it a place people live and spend time at nights and weekends.

        Let developers build on a new complete street across street from a park and that close to capitol and downtown , please…

        Lowertown used to not have many reodents or noght life either.

      2. Jennifer Cannon

        OMG. If you think if a magical cute business idea, please let me know. I’d open one immediately.

  10. RW

    The capitol area does not represent a soviet capitol. Those were cities like Talinn, Riga and Kiev.

    The place the St Paul state capitol area most closely resembles is the capitol area of Washington DC.

        1. Monte Castleman

          You can laugh at the North Dakota state capitol, but at least they tried to do something that wasn’t fake history. Most of the state capitols were built in an architectural style that hadn’t been current for hundreds of years. I don’t hate North Dakota’s building, nor Hawaii’s. Probably the most architecturally unfortunate would be Florida’s.

          1. RW

            i dont laugh at the ND capitol, or central asian architecture for that matter. I think its pretty interesting. What should architecture look like in the middle of a vast, stark, empty landscape? it is an interesting question.

            However I dont think it is accurate to say the architectural style of most capitols was not current. Beaux Arts was the pre-eminent architectural style of that time period. It drew upon history for its facades and ornamentation but was very contemporary in terms of building technique, layouts, process, etc.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I haven’t been to Riga, Tallinn or Kiev, but weirdly I’ve heard good things about all of them. Maybe that’s wrong.

      It is a small touch like D.C., except that the Mall in DC is a major tourist attraction, thanks to the Smithsonian in no small part. But nonetheless, the back of all that Mall-facing stuff is in an actual city, which has come a very long ways since the early ’90s doldrums. And the freeway goes under the Mall, not through it.

      1. RW

        The big problem of course, are the freeways cutting off downtown.

        Of course it can’t compete with DC but I dare say as a tourist destination downtown St. Paul is better than downtown Minneapolis. Especially if you have to entertain kids.

  11. Monte Castleman

    It’s probably better now than with State Highway 218 going diagonally across the front lawn and close to the west side.

    It does seem Madison is the outlier, and most state capitols, at least away from the east coast, are built at least a ways from downtown and surrounded by acres of grass. Would we have been better off if the north south boulevard and Wabasha Ave mall had been built as originally planned? It doesn’t help that the capitols themselves have, (with good reason) become fortresses where you need to go through security screening to get into; you can’t just wander in and out through any door like the public buildings they were intended to be. The first time I visited Illinois’s capitol in the mid 1990s you could do that there.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Now you’ve got me thinking about state capitols I’ve been to. The capitol building in Annapolis is right in town. Lincoln too, although the immediately surrounding blocks wouldn’t win any urbanism awards. To the extent Tallahassee has a downtown, that’s where the capitol is, I think (at least I know I walked there, not far from my hotel). Denver has some park space, but I recall it being pretty much right in the city.

      I’ve been to Olympia, but don’t really remember (didn’t really do much more than drive through). Albany’s more or less a dead campus of state buildings and greenspace like ours, I think.

      You can still pretty much wander in and out of the Capitol and surrounding buildings in St. Paul.

        1. RW

          atlanta’s capitol building is in downtown but the area has less going on than the St. Paul capitol area. It is also adjacent to an enormous spaghetti junction

          downtown Atlanta is a strange and empty place

          like that rem koolhaas essay, Atlanta is is more of a landscape than a city

      1. Daughter Number Three

        Washington State’s capitol in Olympia is in one edge area of downtown, but away from the center. It has somewhat-too-big green spaces around it, so not as pleasantly connected as Madison, but much better than St. Paul.

  12. Paul

    Great piece. Having worked in both buildings, I was always struck by how different they are. But maybe once Sears goes under, that whole block might be transformed into a shiney new urbanist paradise. But the residents of Highland will probably rise up and squash it somehow.

    1. Karen Nelson


      Less well off homeowners nearby means less resistancce to change. And unlike former industrial areas of St. Paul that developers are piece by piece converting to more mixed use, there isn’t even high amount of former jobs to wish for some magical return and to protect by zoning, so area around Capitol could be a real blank slate other than likely resistance historic concerns about doing a thing to the caption lawn green space.

      By nearby areas could be done in mix of offices, retail and residences with much improved connections to Frogtown and University Ave to the west.

      Also seems ideal place to creat some public community gathering spaces (small museum exhibit spaces, small library, child care center, meeting spaces, food vebdors) etc near the capitol and the lawn

      Just needs more compact offices, retail and reosdences that all need to get on street to move around.

      1. Daughter Number Three

        As a resident of St. Anthony Park, I resonate strongly with your words, “And unlike former industrial areas of St. Paul that developers are piece by piece converting to more mixed use, there isn’t even high amount of former jobs to wish for some magical return and to protect by zoning.” You have spoken the name of South St. Anthony Park.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

          Yes there aren’t a lot of vacancies in South St. Anthony but few jobs either. I am thinking about the self-storage facility in the old building by Vandalia.

        2. Karen

          Some guys got some funding via historic tax credits and other sources to re-do a conglomeration of buildings at 2103 Wabash in SSAP as mostly residential with some commercial spaces – and the zoning and conditional use didn’t allow – the staff reviews said no – because it was industrial zone. The building had basically had no industrial jobs in it since 1979 when slaughterhouse shut down. There is a guitar shop and was a dog boarding place. Meawhile, more mixed zone is allowed about a block away. I think they are getting through anyways…

          but I just don’t see the point of pretending traditional manufacturing jobs are coming back to these areas. I do see the point of wanting to preserve jobs and wanting to avoid becoming all residential. But from my eyes office buildings attract a lot of high buck jobs, see, say Court International at 280 and University – there are a lot of jobs there and its small, light industrial that is looking for space in the cities.

          Once upon a time 80 percent of us were involved in farming – then lots of people were involved in manufacturing jobs, now that has shifted also….so to me saving former industrial areas for the return of traditional manufacturing jobs in the cities is a bit like trying to save farmland in the cities – other than U of MN research facilities, doesn’t make a whole bunch of sense and we may as well admit city land and locations are sort of expensive, but certain types of employers and residents, the extra cost is an over value. Large scale, heavy manufacturers are not in that category generally.

          I don’t want to shoo away the likes of say West Rock in SAP, but can’t we agree, say for example, for Mpls in this day and age, having river front switch from industrial to mix used, and park land is a good thing for overall city’s economy?

  13. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Bill, well put. But I must point out it hasn’t always been so vibrant in Madison. I wrote some articles for the student newspaper in Madison while attending school there in the mid-90s. One article was about longing for the days of traffic jams on the capitol square. Had there been Walk Score in 1997, it would have listed less than half of today’s total, although I’ll point out Myles Teddywedgers has been there forever and you’d love it!

    For as vibrant as Madison has always been, the Capitol Square in the 1990s was pretty quiet. Things have gotten more vibrant since then for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the main point is the urban fabric allowed it. As well, city policy has thoughtfully encouraged good urbanism. But the urban fabric allowed it, whereas we’ve allowed the urban fabric around the capitol in St. Paul to become quite degraded.

  14. Scott E.

    Great piece, Bill. I appreciate posts that compare good urban design in different cities. Do you know whether the Capital Planning Board considers the lack of vibrancy and urban density as a problem? Perhaps, you should send them this article.

    The capital complex in Sacremento, CA is better than St. Paul, but does sit off away from the downtown. The streets are generally more walkable and my understanding is that Sacremento has been improving quite a bit when it comes to urban design.

    The capital building in Baton Rouge, LA is a beautiful, art deco skyscraper that sits in a grassy park near State office buildings and museums and away from a dull downtown.

  15. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

    Is there anything in the new Frogtown neighborhood plan about the capital area north of University?

  16. Suzanne S Rhees

    The CAAPB are actually strong advocates for planning and for public buildings that address the street, but lack the typical tools that cities use to encourage redevelopment. The CAAPB zoning rules are in fact form-based (I helped develop them as a consultant back around 2009) but again, I think the implementation tools may be lacking. See (Peter Musty, the principal planner at CCAPB, is a new urbanist from way back.)

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      I’m sure there are plenty of good people involved, but in my opinion the end result, caused by a combination of history, politics, funding, and complex tangle of policies across many layers of government, is a woeful urban realm.

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