Ramsey County Highway 49 is Killing Rice Street

For more than a year, Ramsey County has been conducting a study to determine the best plan for the future of Rice Street–or, as Ramsey County highway engineers like to call it, Ramsey County Highway 49.

We’ve had meetings, meetings, and still more meetings. At every turn the divides in the neighborhood seem to get deeper and angrier, and the accusations darker. Neighbors have been banned from neighborhood businesses. Shop windows all along Rice are filled with signs that seem to mean different things to different people. When the North End Business Association endorsed one proposal for changes to the street, some of its members promoted accusations of conspiracy. The battle over Rice Street helped to shatter the neighborhood organization’s board and power a County Commissioner challenger’s shocking convention victory against a twenty-year incumbent. As someone involved in advocating for change, I’ve had violence against me discussed online so much that I’ve grown numb to it.

But through all that, one thing has stayed the same. Rice Street has kept going downhill, and it’s not hard to figure out why.

You don’t have to spend much time on Rice Street to understand that something is wrong. More than a dozen buildings on the street are vacant, ranging from historic landmarks like the Caron-Fabre building and the Tschida Bakery to humbler neighborhood storefronts and restaurants and even brand new spaces. What activity exists is confined mainly to home health care businesses drawn by the rock-bottom rents, dive bars, and a few longtime institutions that have managed to hang on. The best-represented type of retail on Rice is for cheap cell phones.

It’s a dispiriting sight, easily enough on its own to qualify Rice among the least successful commercial strips in the Twin Cities. But the most striking thing on Rice isn’t just the underused (or simply unused) buildings, but the many places where buildings have been replaced by parking lots or simply nothing at all.

The hard thing about a problem like Rice Street is that its failure is complex. If JFK once said that “victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan,” it can often be that the defeat had too many potential parents for anyone to tell. To be clear, Rice Street runs through some of the poorest and most disinvested areas in the Twin Cities. There is a problem with violent crime at night that is–while overblown by some–real and troubling. And many of the neighborhood’s more recent arrivals are refugees struggling to adapt in a neighborhood whose racial dynamics have been fraught for decades.

But one of Rice Street’s biggest problems shouldn’t be in dispute; it’s parking. The thirst for parking has been an enormous factor in causing buildings up and down the street to be demolished. And for those buildings which were torn down for code reasons, or which burned down, or which suffered the thousand other fates of an urban commercial structure, the absence of convenient parking has become an insuperable barrier to getting new structures built. The lack of convenient parking is also a huge factor in the crush of vacant storefronts along the street. It’s no coincidence that the businesses which have proliferated there, like home health care offices, are ones that require little or none.

Rice Street’s lots are small and crowded, laid out in the days when people walked from horsecars or streetcars to their modest homes. To provide enough parking off-street would require enormous amounts of space, space that could only be provided by tearing down more buildings. The need is so great that a 1970s study actually recommended demolishing all the houses behind both sides of Rice Street to build long, narrow parking lots.

But the thing is, Rice Street could have plenty of parking–abundant parking, in fact, plus room for wider sidewalks buffered from traffic and bumpouts to attract pedestrians and even room for better bus shelters and improved transit service–if Ramsey County didn’t insist on maintaining a four-lane profile to help rush hour traffic speed through without delay.

You see, every day in the morning and afternoon, Ramsey County bans anyone from parking on Rice Street. During the hours when most businesses are at their busiest, and when customers are most available and on the go anyway–at the very moment when the need for parking is at its greatest–the most obvious and convenient option is taken away. Not only does this hurt businesses on the street, but it makes the street drastically more dangerous for pedestrians at precisely the times they are most likely to walk there. Even when parking is allowed, many drivers seek out other options because parked vehicles are so unexpected that they are routinely (and understandably) plowed into by speeding, weaving drivers.

Throughout their study, Ramsey County has tried to thread this needle with half measures. Instead of banning parking on both sides of the street during both rush hours, they say, Rice could instead ban parking only in the peak direction; the west side (southbound) during AM peak, the east (northbound) during PM. But the experience of Rice Street as it is today should teach us that this is no solution at all. Parking is only safe and reliable if it is reliable, if it does not disappear by the unknowable vagaries of a traffic clock. Everything that businesses and residents alike say they want on Rice Street–more parking, better sidewalks, safer crossings, more comfortable bus shelters, everything–stands in direct conflict with Ramsey County’s insistence on maintaining the outer lanes of Rice Street as travel lanes for speeding rush hour traffic.

One of the county employees managing the Rice Street study told me a few months back that he didn’t think Rice Street was ready–psychologically–for a real road diet. He pointed to Payne Avenue, Rice Street’s far more successful doppelganger, saying that Rice needed the kind of renaissance and business growth Payne has seen to make real changes possible. But the problem with that attitude is that Rice Street will never and can never reach that point without change that actually addresses its problems. Slowing traffic will be painful and contentious. It will mean more acrimony, more meetings, and perhaps even worse. But if Ramsey County is serious about making Rice Street into a street that works–for everyone–something has to give.

Ethan Osten

About Ethan Osten

Ethan Osten is a writer, a co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition, an avid cyclist and bus rider, and generally a pretty boring guy. He lives in Saint Paul's North End.

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19 thoughts on “Ramsey County Highway 49 is Killing Rice Street

  1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

    Isn’t Rice Street more like Arcade? Highway, through street, missing teeth in the building fabric. Still, Arcade does not have anything like 4 lanes in the older section, and it certainly doesn’t have restaurants like Payne.

  2. Ethan OstenEthan Osten Post author

    I credit Payne as Rice’s double more than Arcade because Arcade is generally a little narrower–60′ vs. 66′ for Payne and Rice–and much more residential. But the two are similar in a lot of other ways, as you mention.

  3. codyzwief

    Great article, Ethan.

    Dale is extremely similar to Rice as well IMO, except with only patches of businesses peppered around single family homes. Many sections of Dale have parking turned on/off based off the time of day; unoccupied and blighted buildings; unnecessary four-lane thoroughfare that kills the environment on the street. Dale, just like Rice, needs a road diet as one solution as part of many to help revitalize the street and neighborhood.

  4. James Frese

    [comment edited] This article is about making Rice Street friendlier to pedestrians and local businesses. The bit about tearing down homes for more parking was a study done in the 70’s, probably alongside advocacy for wider bellbottom polyester pants to enhance the grooviness of Rice Street. This article is arguing that consistently allowing parking on both sides of the street all day long would benefit the local businesses more than the current bewildering parking regulations. Reducing traffic to one lane in each direction would make it much safer for pedestrians to cross the street. Seems logical to me.

    The reality is that being an “affordable but desirable” neighborhood is often a delicate balance between decay and gentrification. I think most people see the Rice St. area as leaning a bit too far toward “decay” and would really benefit from greater investment, not less. Would coffee shops and vegetarian restaurants really be so terrible?

    1. Ethan OstenEthan Osten Post author

      It hasn’t been Minnesota Highway 49 in decades. It remains Ramsey County Highway 49. There are signs at many places along the street—take a look!

  5. William Lindahl

    Not a sanctioned highway but rather a county road. It’s county road 49, not highway

    1. Al DavisonAl Davison

      Rice Street is classified as a County State-Aid Highway (CSAH). County Roads are similar but distinct from CSAHs. County Roads are managed and funded by the county, where CSAHs are special county highways that get State Aid funding from MnDOT.

      1. Al DavisonAl Davison

        I noticed Ramsey County Public Works has a good definition of CSAHs and CRs in their 2018-2022 Transportation Improvement Plan:

        “There are two types of roads under the jurisdiction of the
        County: County State Aid Highways, totaling 264.108 miles and generally numbered from 1 through 79, plus 88, 96, and 149, whose construction and maintenance are funded primarily from the Minnesota Highway User Tax Distribution Fund. County roads, totaling 21.031 miles in length and numbered 80 through 163, which are funded from property taxes. All of these roads and the 59 bridges on them require monitoring and maintenance by the Public Works Department of Ramsey County.”

        Source: https://www.ramseycounty.us/sites/default/files/Roads%20and%20Transit/2018-2022%20TIP-%201-11-18.pdf

  6. William Lindahl

    Also you might want to take a look when those highway signs were posted. They just were never taken down

    1. Al DavisonAl Davison

      The current signs along Rice Street do still say 49, but on a blue sign shaped as a pentagon. That indicates it’s a county highway, whereas State Highways have square signs that are mostly blue with a orange-ish outline.

      Example of the sign (from eastbound the State Highway 36 exit to Rice):

      I’ve lived in Little Canada for most of my life, though I don’t remember seeing any of the old State Highway 49 signs except for a bit after it turned back from state to county highway at the turn of the century. MnDOT usually leaves the old highway signs up with an “OLD” sign above it for awhile to warn drivers of the change. I’ve only seen the “Ramsey County 49” pentagon signs since they removed the state highway signs.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

          Within the complex road network, those county road signs denote County State Aid Highways, as others have explained. It doesn’t SAY highway, but it means “county highway.” If you read public works documents, as I do, they refer to these roads clearly as highways. It’s also part of a mindset that engineers tend to adopt, that these roads are meant to be regional highway-like collector and commuter roads, rather than local commercial streets.

  7. William Lindahl

    You act like you’re not talking to someone who grew up there their whole life. The signs you implore to “take a look” literally still say Minnesota Highway. So if you actually “took a look” you might have realized this

  8. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Good post Ethan. Rice is a mess. Like many others it has an identity problem. The powers that be can’t decide if its a thoroughfare or street so they leave it as an unworkable mishmash of both.

    Dutch, Danes, Swedes and many other European countries began formalizing a solid and workable street hierarchy or classification system in the 1970’s and 80’s. A lot of it was based though on the Dutch Woonerf from the 1960’s (and dropped from the classification system in the 2000’s) which was one of the first to tie in all of the elements; traffic, uses and environment.

    In this system you mostly cannot have retail or residential fronting a street with more than a single motor traffic lane in each direction. Nor would they allow our massive brutalist light rail stations on streets with retail or residential frontage but rather much smaller tram stations similar to our bus shelters.

    To accomplish this meant classifying every street as to what it would be and then working towards making it that. Streets that would still have retail or residential frontage where narrowed to no more than the single motor lane in each direction. Those classified as through roads which allowed more than a single lane in each direction had retail and residential frontage eliminated (industrial could remain but with no access doors other than for emergencies), often by gov’t purchasing the adjacent land and making it a buffer zone.

    In between they have some compromises but these all require a fair amount of space. The most common is a multi-lane road with single-lane access (frontage) roads beside them. If space allowed this would be done on both sides, if not then on a single side with the other made a buffer unless it was already non-accessible industrial.

    The other common compromise is a buffer next to motor traffic, a somewhat wider bikeway and then a very wide walkway. Here’s one of the worst case examples which actually combines a bit of both in having a very wide walkway but also allowing extremely limited vehicle access: https://www.google.com/maps/@52.3646502,4.906003,113m/data=!3m1!1e3

    Sometimes building owners were required to widen the sidewalks in to their street level building space if they wanted to keep human access: https://www.google.com/maps/@52.3627555,4.9069701,3a,60y,90t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s1f7LUN_WyLjkIDQvlkfgAQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      What would they do with Rice?

      They do not have motorways like 35E going in to their cities so they did have to make some streets like Rice in to a through road. In this case they would likely have purchased the buildings along one side (likely west so that retail would retain afternoon sun) to create a buffer and then re-centered the 4 lanes of Rice a bit towards that direction in order to allow for a smaller buffer and an access or frontage road on the east side that would retain retail. There would also be a protected bikeway on each side.

      So west to east something like major buffer, SB protected bikeway, small buffer (perhaps 10′ w/ trees), 2 SB lanes, 2 NB lanes, small buffer, 8′ access street, parking, minimal buffer, 10′ NB bikeway, walkway, retail buildings.

      BTW, I believe there was some thought that the increased value of the properties on the east side that remained retail would offset the costs of purchasing those on the west side.

      Given that we have 35E though I think they might say that is more than enough and so Rice s/b 1 10′ lane in each direction (with appropriate protected bikeways and walkway).

    2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      This has been a long process. It was first begun to be implemented in Amsterdam, Utrecht, parts of Stockholm and Copenhagen in the 1970’s. It was not without a gob of anger from motorists fearing that it would make life hell for them. Amsterdam stuck to their plan while both Stockholm and Copenhagen watered theirs down. The latter are now leaning more towards the Dutch classification system.

      As it proved successful and motorist outcry largely subsided, more NL cities began doing it. It was not until 1998 that the full classification system was formalized for all of The Netherlands. By 2012 about 92% of all roads had been upgraded to the new classification system. I believe their goal is every road by 2025. This also includes redoing a lot of roads done in the 70’s and 80’s to upgrade them to the newer standards which have wider bikeways and buffers and more protection, especially through junctions.

      It is still a bit of a battle though. While most traffic engineers, planners and politicians lean towards going beyond minimums for walking and bicycling, a few occasionally lean the other way.

  9. Frank Phelan

    Payne is not analogous to Rice. North of Maryland, Payne is largely a residential street. I suspect that traffic counts on Rice get higher north of Maryland and also north of 36.

    Given that parking on Rice is banned on the southbound side for the AM rush and the northbound side for the PM rush, allowing for two auto lanes with parking on one side all day (and bike lanes) means the overall parking availability stays the same. Doesn’t that address business concerns about parking?

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