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striking thing on Rice isn’t just the underused (or simply unused) buildings, but the many places where buildings have been replaced by parking lots or simply nothing at all.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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