If you don’t know about downtown Saint Paul’s Pedro Park controversy — or even how to correctly pronounce the name “Pedro” (hint: you probably don’t) — here’s a quick summary from the recent Pioneer Press article, “Six residents quit St. Paul’s Pedro Park design committee in protest”:
On Saturday, residents of several downtown St. Paul buildings will plant flowers in the small gardens where the Pedro’s Luggage store once stood. They’ll do so with more than a bit of irony. On Thursday evening, six of the same residents quit a city-led committee aimed at designing the future Pedro Park.
The group defection from St. Paul’s Pedro Park Design Advisory Committee comes at a critical time. St. Paul is working with the Ackerberg Group of Minneapolis to redevelop the former public safety annex building adjoining the land into office space. The proposal calls for Ackerberg to buy the future Pedro Park space and fund park improvements on the land for 20 years.
The design advisory committee is intended to help guide those improvements, but residents remain at odds with the city’s vision for new green space. They worry they’ll be left with something more akin to a corporate lawn than a sizable neighborhood gathering place like Mears Park.
Berg and the Friends of Pedro Park Expansion noted that the Pedro family donated 0.45 acres of land to the city with the expectation that St. Paul would someday establish a larger park, possibly stretching across the full block. A city staff report in November said a 2.1-acre park is still possible, given time.
The Friends of Pedro Park group said it became clear during the two design meetings held to date that the city has no such plans.
For me, it is easy to empathize with the people frustrated by the likely outcome of the former Pedro Luggage site. These folks were told one thing many years ago, and now they have learned that things have changed. Furthermore these changes were made somewhat unilaterally and without much transparency, and people have the right to be upset. I would imagine that many of the people who have been trusting a process that they hoped would result in a new civic park named after their family member would feel betrayed by the situation today.
That being said, I think the city is making the right decision and here’s why. The current evolution of the plan would preserve an historic building, create a high quality public space, and increase the density of downtown. All those things are important.
To take these points one by one: preserving old buildings is important for downtown Saint Paul. Too many of downtown’s pre-war buildings have been knocked down in the name of progress, parking, and wider roads. I see little reason to demolish one more perfectly good historic structure because a promise was made 20 years ago.
Second, the budget issue is important as well, as money invested in downtown should be carefully weighed against other needs in the city. Over the years, I have witnessed how budget cuts have affected city services and staffing at City Hall. Saint Paul badly needs to save money at the margins, and that’s why this proposal is so appealing. It would make an improvement at little or no cost to the city while simultaneously growing the city’s tax base.
For broader contest, one needs to understand how, compared to most economically growing cities, Saint Paul’s downtown does relatively little to generate tax base and revenue. For example, Minneapolis’ downtown is a huge revenue cash cow for their civic budget; Saint Paul, by contrast, with its tax-exempt government offices, vast publicly-owned land, and many non-profits like MPR, the Science Museum, and [chokes] the Scientologists, is not even the largest tax-base district in the city. (The West Midway industrial area generates more tax base dollars, for example.)
Finally, parks alone do not solve problems. Granted, I don’t live downtown and don’t have to walk my dog there, but to me, as a frequent visitor and worker downtown, and as someone who thinks often about how to cultivate great urban spaces, I don’t believe the problem with downtown Saint Paul is a lack of parks and green space. Sure there are a two great parks downtown, and that’s wonderful. At the same time, there are multiple downtown “parks” like the Kellogg River Balcony area, Raspberry Island, or Wacouta Commons that remain underutilized most of the time. This isn’t always because of their poor design, but because Saint Paul lacks the density and consistent street activity to fill these public spaces. (This is not to mention the huge public areas like the riverfront or the state capitol grounds that often operate as de facto parks, and also remain empty 99% of the time.)
To me, the greater problems with downtown Saint Paul can be summed up neatly: lack of density and lack of quality streets. The lack of density speaks for itself, and in many ways, the streets do too. Saint Paul has crappy sidewalks. Saint Paul’s sidewalks are often of literally poor quality: unshoveled, lacking ADA curb ramps, and designed in ways that make walking dangerous. They are also poor because they lack street life, adjacent stores and windows, and are rarely compelling or interesting to walk along. This is especially true for the sidewalks that might connect the different nodes of vital activity with each other (through the central skyway-laden “dead zone”), and doubly true for ones that might connect the downtown with the surrounding neighborhoods in all directions.
For generations, the “solution” for downtown Saint Paul has been to bulldoze older buildings and replace them with empty plazas, blank and “defensible” skyway-laden skyscrapers*, and inhumane parking lots. That’s not the recipe for creating a thriving downtown.
The current Pedro / Ackerberg proposal would not solve these problems overnight, but I think it would be a step in the right direction. Instead of tearing down an historic building to create another expensive and probably-often-empty downtown park, this proposal would preserve an irreplaceable funky building, create quality office space and (presumably) fill it with workers, and maintain a public space at little expense to the city budget. (I happen to like the existing “Urban Flower Field”, which was built for the extremely low cost of $30,000. I think it was one of the best investments Saint Paul has likely ever made, along with other civically inspired public art projects like the sidewalk poetry initiative.)
To sum up, I feel badly for people who were misled by a previous generation of downtown officials, but I believe increasing the density and vitality of Saint Paul’s small struggling downtown is the right thing to do, no matter what promises were made in a previous era of downtown deal-making.
* albeit raccoon friendly