Saint Paul and the Incredible Shrinking Downtown

Birawer Dt Stp Painting

A Michael Birawer painting of “downtown Saint Paul.”

Downtown Saint Paul Map ExampleMaps of “Downtown Saint Paul” are pretty consistent. They almost always depict a small slice of historical urban density, edging a river, and firmly enclosed by a ring of freeways on all sides. The end result is a downtown that is small, quaint, and looks nice in photos taken from a distance. Downtown Saint Paul is decidedly not, however, a large, vibrant, gritty, urban downtown. As maps make it clear, Saint Paul is too small for that. The name Paul literally means “small”, after all.

Anyway, the maps are mostly the same. As an experiment, I unearthed a bunch of maps of downtown Saint Paul and plotted them over each other in Google.

Here are the results:

Downtown Map Overlays

(You can play around with them yourself.)

The “downtown” areas of each of the map examples, arranged from smallest to largest:

As you can see, downtown Saint Paul is small, less than a square mile in total area.

But wait, there’s more…

There’s one map of downtown Saint Paul that I really like, because it offers such an exception to the other downtown maps. It’s the Metro Transit “downtown zone” map of Saint Paul, showing the area where you can travel by bus for a mere 50 cents.

Metro Transit Stp Dt Zone Map

Downtown Zone East 7th

East 7th and Maria Street, the eastern end of the “Downtown Zone.”

Here, by contrast, downtown is more expansive. In this map, the “downtown” encompasses everything from Metro State, up on the East Side bluffs, all the way west to the corner of Selby and Summit where the Cathedral towers over the city. On the other axis, downtown sprawls from the Rice and University light rail stop all the way south to Plato Boulevard, halfway into the West Side Flats. This territory is much larger, encompassing 1.18 square miles of land.

(If you connect the endpoints, as I believe you should, and add in some of the more ambitious connections from the various maps, you get a maximum possible extent where Downtown Saint Paul includes over 2 and a half square miles, five times the size of the smallest map.)

Dt Stop Expanded Area

A more historic conception of “Downtown Saint Paul.”

I love the expanded idea of downtown, and believe that it reflects a historical character of the city, where downtown was larger, denser, and more seamlessly linked to the neighborhoods around it. To me, a more expansive concept of downtown offers a terrain that reflects the historical scope of what downtown Saint Paul might have felt like a hundred years ago. Then, the bustle, density, and cosmopolitan character of downtown would have extended gradually up into the neighborhoods in the surrounding hills and over the river.

Stp Cathedral Hill 1905

The view from the site of the Cathedral in 1905, where density stretched seamlessly into downtown.

For example, one of my favorite views of the city is from the steps of the Saint Paul Cathedral, which sits like a candle on a birthday cake overlooking the valley where downtown is cradled by the river bluffs. Before about 1930, this entire area from the Cathedral to Rice Park was a dense thicket of apartment buildings and mixed-use, with apartments, commercial stores, and even industries like the Purity Bakery. They were all all densely packed in these blocks between the downtown core and the Cathedral, along narrow streets that zigged and zagged back and forth. Downtown extended to the foot of the Cathedral and through “seven corners” , and the whole area was full of people, density, shopping, and parks.

So too with the West Side Flats, where Robert and Wabasha streets were lined with commercial and industrial properties, and a tight network of streets was full of dense and diverse homes for thousands of people who were mostly new immigrants from all over the world. (My great great grandfather was one of them, and worked at a mill on Robert.)

Stp Wabasha West Side Flats

The view from the bluffs on the West Side, showing the Flats before they were bulldozed. Density connected seamlessly up Wabasha Street into downtown.

Before the war, you would have found mixed-use density on the east end of downtown as well, where the Lafayette Park neighborhood lay, near where today Highway 52 rams into West 7th Street and the empty husk of the original Red’s Savoy pizza sits empty, on the far side of the Saints ballpark. So too with Seven Corners, which I’ve written about here before.

And finally, there was a lot more density around the State Capitol, which up until the 1930s and 1940s was surrounded by homes and apartments of every conceivable stripe. I’ve written about this before, and it’s something that I think about each time I take the Green Line past the capitol dome or bike up Rice Street from downtown proper.

Before After East Rondo 2

Before After East Rondo 1

The edge of downtown Saint Paul, before and after the Capitol and freeway demolitions.

Stp Kellogg Divided Highway

Kellogg Boulevard is literally labeled as a “divided highway.”

What happened to downtown Saint Paul was a tragedy of shrinkage, bulldozing, and misguided planning. On all sides, the once-dense edges of downtown were erased from the map. The first to go was the State Capitol area, where bulldozers began demolishing buildings way back in the 1930s, sacrificed in the name of a Cass Gilbert sketch of symbolic green space. (Of course, these projects were also an excuse to demolish housing for poor people.) Today there is no trace of the hundreds of homes that once sat on streets surrounding the Capitol. Even the streets are gone, and instead the capitol area offers a mostly empty green space full of memorial plaques, parking lots, and grey office buildings that are deserted by 5 pm. Needless to say, few people live there. The freeways, industrial parks, and empty green spaces came through and essentially ringed the remnants of downtown Saint Paul in a neat little noose, where it still sits today, cut off on all sides from the neighborhoods surrounding it.

Thinking about what the future holds for downtown Saint Paul, one fundamental step is to expand the scope of the conversation. I believe Saint Paul leaders should re-imagine a more connected and larger vision of downtown.

There are a few things that might make this easier:

  • Completing the Capitol City Bikeway into and out of downtown.
  • Taming, capping, or removing a lane from some of the freeways that cut off downtown from its former parts and the riverfront, especially Shepard and Warner Roads.
  • Rezoning parts of the edges of downtown away from marginalized and undervalued industrial land to more mixed-use urban uses. This is especially important in the West Side Flats and the Lafayette Park area (west of Railroad Island).
  • More aggressively working with the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board (which controls zoning and land use decisions in the large Capitol area) to encourage density and walkability around the Capitol.
  • Traffic calming, slowing speeds, and narrowing dangerous arterial streets, especially Kellogg, Plato, Robert, Pennsylvania, Marion, and East and West 7th.
  • Removing superfluous and dangerous freeway connections, like the off-ramp at 10th Street (west), the on-ramp at 10th/Wacouta (east), the ramp at Wall Street (east), and a few more.
  • Removing the fifth traffic lane on the Robert Street bridge and striping a bike lane instead.

As you can see from this list, I believe the key to expanding the scope of downtown Saint Paul lies in growing the walkable fabric of downtown. If people can easily walk to and from the downtown core, they might live, work, eat, or shop in the areas around downtown. If they can’t, they won’t.

There are lots of ways to do this, but if we continue to limit our conception of “downtown” to just the part that is bounded by freeways, we’ll be selling Saint Paul short. The city was once much bigger than that, and it should be again.

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30 thoughts on “Saint Paul and the Incredible Shrinking Downtown

  1. Ethan OstenEthan Osten

    I always thought a great title for a book about Old Saint Paul would be “The City That Demolished Itself”.

  2. Scott

    Nice article.

    IMO the biggest barrier to making downtown St. Paul vibrant is a lack of economic demand. Compared to downtown Minneapolis, which has its’ own problems like perception of crime and a withering retail base, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of development. Retail is mostly gone, there’s only a modest residential population, and the office core even seems to be struggling. I very much want downtown St. Paul to thrive, but worry it’s going to limp along for the foreseeable future.

    Car culture is another barrier. Undoing the awful streets and freeways, parking facilities, and blank street-level facades in the office core seems unlikely- especially when St. Paul’s top priority is rebuilding a parking ramp for $100 million.

    1. Brian

      The parking ramp is used a lot for RiverCentre and Xcel Energy Center events. I bet a lot of suburban folks simply wouldn’t come without parking. There is little or no transit for many of those folks, especially at the times most of these events happen.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

        It’s a matter of priorities and cost. The proposed replacement ramp would be over $50K per parking space. Meanwhile, there are plenty of often empty parking lots nearby. What else could that money do?

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          Also, I bet they will come and just learn where else to park. I think this because they want to get to those events enough to decide to drive into highly unpleasant conditions.

        2. Brian

          It isn’t like the city of St. Paul is suddenly going to have $100 million they can just spend on something else if the parking ramp isn’t built. They don’t even have a commitment for the money and may never get it. At least some of the costs would be offset by parking revenues if it does happen.

          The St. Paul home show runs parking shuttles. Will they do that for every event if the ramp is demolished?

          A better answer would be to increase transit services so people don’t have to drive, but would $3 million a year over 30 years (Cost of parking ramp) provide enough service to get event attendees out of their cars? There are always going to be those who want to drive and park even if they were paid to take transit.

          1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

            Yeah, well half the money is city funds and the other half is a hoped-for state or Federal grant. The problem is that, asking for state funding for projects is sort of a zero-sum game. If we ask for $50M for a parking ramp, it makes it a lot less likely we’ll get $20M for other projects that are on the downtown wish list.

            So the money is kind of a problem IMO. Make the city walkable, it’s an investment that will pay dividends in many ways, not just in reducing walking distances for people attending the flower show.

            1. Brian

              Making it easy to walk to Xcel/RiverCentre is great if those putting on events want to draw only from the residents living downtown. Nobody is walking from places like Woodbury and there is no transit option for many.

              Parking revenue from the ramp appears to be around $5 million annually today. The city could simply increase rates enough to make the ramp self sustaining.

  3. Peter Granlund

    Maybe this is more specific to Lowertown than all of Downtown as a whole -not to mention all of the Twin Cities- but the construction of new apartments at the expense of existing businesses (see Kelly’s, O’Gara’s) feels like we’re going in the wrong direction, especially from a walkability standpoint. Seeing more commercial and retail development would go a long way here.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Hard to see how allowing more people to live near stuff hurts walkability.

      And in O’Gara’s case, it’s not at the expense, is it? Won’t the bar be back in the new building?

      It’s hard to see downtown St Paul as lacking retail and commercial when, like most downtowns, it’s been on a long term detail in retail, in part because not enough people live there.

  4. Nick

    Many years ago, St Paul asked Holy Land Deli to relocate from Central Ave to downtown. What a tragedy it did not. It would be wonderful to have the multicultural, cosmopolitan and booming Central Ave in downtown St Paul.

  5. Matt Brillhart

    Wow, you could build out an entire neighborhood in the area bounded by East 7th, Lafayette St, Grove St, and Broadway/94 (basically due north of CHS Field). If the 7th Street bridge over I-94 ever needs to be replaced, I’d want it to be designed with better walkability and connectivity to this area in mind.

    What’s the story behind that 800′ long by 300′ wide Murphy Warehouse?

    1. non-DHS working person

      That “neighborhood” is the reason I would almost certainly never try to work at DHS despite being highly qualified to work there. It’s Mordor. There is nothing there except parking lots and the walk across 94 on 7th is godawful.

  6. mark roba

    Cover the Highway.
    ST PAUL downtown is very unattractive with too much parking lots and ramps instead of housings,retail,office etc .The biggest development downtown is the Dorothy Center now cover 2 blocks in prime location. Discontinue stand alone parking ramp .Cover the parking ramps with ads(electronic billboard) to make downtown attractive .

    MET COUNCIL should be working with Xcel/Ordway and other big venues to provide buses to events from P/R like State Fair Several buses already serve Xcel .Some P/R they should be exploring during events.
    Sunray #63/74 ,20-30 mins ride.
    28th AVE Ramp #54 .25mins
    Reroute #62 /68 to be close to Xcel
    Hwy 36 P/R already have #62 20mins
    Signal Hills #62/68 travel time is 15mins.
    Maplewood mall P/R #54/64
    During events Xcel can provide shuttles from ST PAUL TECH ,Sears parking lots for a fee
    #21 serve this area,#67 can reroute to serve this area (this downtown zone for 50 cents)
    Afton P/R run #94 to St PAUL and MPLS for BIG Events

  7. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    I’ve said before that downtown Saint Paul has the higher ceiling of the two downtowns. The survival of cohesive pockets of its early 1900’s urban scale has become a unique asset in these early 2000’s. But it also has a long way to go, and seemingly less momentum towards getting there than downtown Minneapolis.

    I enjoyed this piece, Bill, because it is a good reminder of how much there is in the downtown St. Paul orbit that has been obliterated, but could someday be redeveloped. I posted on twitter some thoughts about the various zones around downtown, I’ll expand on them here:

    + WEST 7TH: The path of least resistance for downtown, if only for the simple reason that there is no hard physical barrier in the way. However, the X and associated parking lots have created a parking crater that acts as a soft or mental barrier. As is being demonstrated in Downtown East, Minneapolis, this effect is surmountable with a concentrated public/private effort, but there’s not a lot of evidence of that occurring in St. Paul. Perhaps Riverview Rail would provide that impetus.

    I’d love to see the Mayor start a task force to look at the parking lots northwest and northeast of the X and the RiverCenter lot, and create a community vision for the redevelopment of these properties and the larger Cleveland Circle area. It should serve as a link between Rice Park and West 7th, and a mixed use neighborhood of its own. The streets are too wide, and ought to be redesigned. The lots are large, and well-suited for an expansion of downtown St. Paul’s core business area (3M are you reading this?) or high density residential of the kind being proposed for Washington Avenue in Minneapolis.

    + CATHEDRAL HILL is a wonderful place to be for three nights every year when Red Bull Crashed Ice comes to town. Otherwise, it’s totally dead, with only a weird pocket of older fabric grimly clinging on. The most interesting thing I’ve ever seen here was a man with a massive handlebar moustache smoking a pipe outside the Knickerbocker Club.

    There are several surface parking lots and grassy areas in this area. I assume the Church owns some of this land, which might mean it’s all available for the right price. But issues with grade, its complete and total separation from anything (even History Center Island, which needs trees, not development), and the general lack of any amenities in this area might make it a hard place to develop. This place needs a pretty hefty community planning process and a lot of money to make work. In another world, maybe the Church might’ve been that force. In this world, it’s a pretty low priority area unfortunately.

    + CAPITOL HILL is in much more respectable shape, in large part because it sits on flatter ground and isn’t quite as cut up by freeways. The main issues with redeveloping this area are all institutional. The state government has spent decades obliterating any hint of urban fabric nearby, and has been on a binge of parking construction. The hospital is going to keep developing a hospital campus. These are hard nuts to crack.

    Much more promising is the neighborhood to the north of the capitol, which is already getting some redevelopment interest. It helps that there’s a nice park here and some remnants of the old neighborhood. There are also a number of very developable parking lots. To the west, the white whale of the area is the massive Sears lot. This is one of the best remaining superblock development opportunities in the city. It’s directly next to a light rail station, the potential views are excellent, the access to neighborhood amenities is already good. Of course, the fact that Sears is going down the tubes is also helpful on this front.

    + WACOUTA COMMONS is well within the freeway loop, but this area of downtown is mostly disappointing. The parking lot bounded by Jackson, 7th Place East, and East 7th is good real estate that might as well barely exist. The neighboring blue glass Ramsey County HR building is a monstrosity that should be destroyed immediately and redeveloped. There are a lot of other smaller lots in this area that are perfect for development, and that, if developers were actually taking St. Paul seriously, would be snapped up quickly. Alas…

    + LAFAYETTE PARK (ISLAND) is a part of the city that I don’t think many people know exists. At least people live in Railroad Island and bike or walk in Swede Hollow. But nearby Lafayette is totally ignored, and it’s no wonder. Everything about it sucks, it’s just a city/county/state-government anchored suburban office park. Everything about what happened here is a disgrace to government, and hopefully better political leadership at all levels will come together to start a master planning process for this area.

    + LOWESTTOWN is my name for the area between CHS Field and Bruce Vento Sanctuary. There’s two big problems here, the Green Line maintenance facility and the Rt. 52 viaduct. To mitigate the former, why not commission a number of murals to cover the blank wall along E Prince St? To mitigate the latter, why not plan to take the land under the viaduct and construct recreational facilities like basketball courts or a skate park? Otherwise, this area is basically all surface parking, and it’s all developable. With one of the best parks in the entire metro on the east side and one of the best neighborhoods on the west side, this area could be a wonderful place to live.

    The biggest problem is that nobody is talking about it. I’d like to see the St. Paul Saints and Metro Transit lead an effort to start thinking about it. For instance, the Saints could help develop the property where they currently have a loading dock beyond left center field. You can keep the parking and loading dock (this would be a bad spot for retail anyway) and build an apartment building above, perhaps with bleacher seating on the roof like with the buildings around Wrigley Field in Chicago. I doubt the Green Line O&M facility could support building on top, but I’d be surprised if it couldn’t support (or be slightly retrofitted to support) a green roof and maybe a bit of park space for the neighborhood.

    What this area requires is creative thinking and some simple and cheap strategies to mitigate its disamenities.

    + WEST SIDE is, at least as far as I can tell, the furthest along of any of these areas to actually planning for the future and articulating a vision for it. Along with West 7th, its also getting some light developer attention. In this case, it’s probably mostly a matter of enough development creating a critical mass for retail along Wabasha and Robert Streets. aBRT along Robert would be helpful here, and dedicated protected bike lanes on the bridges are essential in my eyes.

  8. Scott

    Does the proposed St. Paul 2040 Comprehensive Plan envision bold changes to downtown and the surroundings? Seems like an ideal process to start such conversations.

  9. Frank Phelan

    Is it possible to walk to a restaurant from the Capitol? The Transportation Building? The Centennial Building?

    1. Julie Kosbab

      Capitol: 4-6 blocks, crossing over 94 towards the river.
      Transportation Building: See above, and has its own cafeteria.
      Centennial Building: See above, and has its own cafeteria.

      Transport and Centennial are basically 1+ blocks closer to restaurants than the Capitol proper going towards downtown, and a block further away if you’re headed somewhere N or NW, which is a rarer path.

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