On January 25, 2019, Ryan Companies presented its plan for the Ford Site redevelopment to the St. Paul Planning Commission. One third of the way through the presentation, Ryan officials finished talking about themselves and turned to the city’s (supposed) vision for the Ford Site,
That vision includes environmental sustainability, vibrant urban infill and a transit-oriented community. The last point is arguably the most vital prerequisite to the first two, yet “transit oriented” has become, as the development takes shape, little more than a punchline. Ryan, supposedly, “applauds this vision and looks forward to carrying it out,” yet beneath the veneer of marketing jargon and flashy presentations, the development is starting to look suspiciously like a strip mall with some housing and a water fountain.
How have we come to this state of affairs? While it is worth speculating that a St. Paul company might not only lack the imagination but also share views of urban planning analogous to those held by the mendacious Ford Site opposition, in the end it comes down to a simple and depressing truth — parking is the ultima ratio, the last word, of any policy decision in St. Paul.
Ryan has petitioned both Highland District Council (HDC) and Macalester-Groveland Community Council (MGCC) to recommend variances to the proposed parking maximums, and won their endorsement to double the amount of retail parking in the development from one space per 400 square feet (1:400) to 1:200. The change is based on two aggregate yet dovetailing data points: retailer feedback and established standards.
Ryan claims that “quality” retailers need this doubling of parking and that those retailers forthrightly have said that the development will not be feasible without it. But which retailers? And how have those retailers arrived at their conclusions?
Is it Starbucks, which sought a variance to city zoning that allowed a suburban-style drive-through on Marshall and Snelling? The city has a bottomless appetite for appeasing retailers that want to make life better for cars, and I struggle to find examples of where such changes improve the community. Perhaps the retailers in question are ones like Target, which has made its fortune in car-dependent suburbs.
This leads to a discussion of standards and parking minimums.
Supply and demand
To bolster its unsourced retailer demands, Ryan has submitted average parking supply ratios sourced from the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), in order to demonstrate that a 1:200 ratio is still parsimonious compared with a range of other use numbers that averaged 1:104. By those metrics, the Ford Site, Highland and St. Paul as a whole have come out ahead (unless you love parking as much as many in St. Paul — particularly Highland — do.)
In these post-modern and post-factual times, the importance of expertise, credentials and institutional knowledge cannot be overstated, and so I am loathe to pose questions about the ITE data set that flirt with the notion that data is somehow “biased” or “partisan,” particularly after the effective campaign of disinformation waged by “Neighbors for a Livable St. Paul.” And yet, although ITE is a respected entity, a priori choices and assumptions underlie its parking numbers that ought to be placed in context and questioned accordingly.
ITE parking numbers are primarily derived from a suburban model of transit, where cars are the only viable mode of transportation. However, the city has clearly stated that its “transit-oriented” vision for the Ford Site — a vision that Ryan supposedly “looks forward to carrying out.” No need, then, even to reference ITE figures as justification for parking ratios since the numbers are an apples-to-baseball bats comparison when applied to the Ford Site. They are irrelevant.
In truly transit-oriented communities, ITE recommendations for parking tend to be roughly double what is actually required to serve the needs of the locale. Despite this, cities that feature nearly every kind of planned transit mode-share routinely utilize ITE numbers as a baseline and then pad their final figures by an extra 15 percent. As a result, even in mixed-use localities (transit light, if you will) where surveys show that drivers believe parking to be scarce, there exists on average a 65 percent oversupply of parking. Let’s accept that the Ford Site is going to be “transit oriented,” but temper the definition with St. Paul’s idea of what that means. If ITE guidelines suggest a parking-to-square-foot ratio of 1:104, then 1:300 is closer to a correct model for mixed-use development.
Do numbers lie?
This is not to say that ITE data are incorrect. They are quite correct, in a certain ethical context, and the selection of which professional guidelines and standards to adhere to is also tribal, and ethical. These choices go into finer detail than the choice to adopt a car-centric, suburban development model. For instance, the ITE guidelines assume “free” parking, a phenomenon that prompts a great deal of circling for it, disfigures communities and is a massive subsidy for a select group. The guidelines also presuppose that the “free” parking will be primarily in lots immediately proximate to the location, without the need to cross a street or walk so much as a block — hence, Ryan’s ask for a doubling of retail parking density. Then, to ensure that the majority of users get the desired parking experience, while minimizing the circling that “free” parking engenders, the numbers are larded considerably.
All of these considerations are entirely ethical choices underlying data that masquerade as being precise simply because they are specific. But precise is not the same as accurate.
If ITE data persuade the district councils and ultimately the Planning Commission and the City Council to grant Ryan its retail parking lots, one must wonder why that particular data set is so compelling to St. Paul city planners and politicians. The data regarding 25 mph speed limits in the metro are more compelling and less controvertible than the ITE parking recommendations, and yet Ramsey County and St. Paul find myriad reasons to disregard those numbers. How refreshing it would have been had Ryan insisted that in order to build a thriving community for our future, St. Paul should enact the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) guidelines for all street construction on and around the site. Those multimodal guidelines don’t elicit the same interest or concern.
Similarly, when I pressed Highland District Council and even Mayor Melvin Carter about their interest in adopting pedestrian-safe Vision Zero in St. Paul, all parties claimed utter ignorance of the program — even while Minneapolis was launching Vision Zero across the Mississippi.
The upshot is this: The numbers that Ryan cites, and that Ryan wants, are accurate in addition to being precise, because the Ford Site is not a transit-oriented community. I asked at a public session whether the lack of transit was as worrisome as the perceived lack of parking. A Ryan representative replied, with no sense of irony, that residents will not want to leave, and that residents and visitors who use transit will be able to walk to the 46th Street Station available. The absurdity of this statement, and the likely need to hop the A Line on Ford Parkway to ride the two miles to the 46th Street Station (a reality that the Ryan rep did not mention), needs to be considered alongside what kind of walk and effort is ethically or practically unacceptable for a driver under ITE guidelines.
HDC members at the meeting did not bat an eye, nor did they hesitate to grant Ryan every requested parking change. Ryan doesn’t need to plan for a “transit-oriented community” because the city isn’t planning for a “transit-oriented community.” No serious transit is being planned for the Ford Site (despite the city dubbing it a “21st-century community“). It is debatable whether Riverview Corridor, the only transit project in the area involving the necessary capital investment, is real transit, and either way it will not touch the Ford Site. To build a “transit-oriented community,” the City Council tacked an amendment onto the Riverview Corridor resolution to explore adding a bus line.
Ultimately, the opaque retailer surveys and ITE data are merely a polite veneer for Ryan’s only real negotiating point on these variances: Without the conversion of the Ford Site to a strip mall, Ryan is out of the project. They could quit, a prospect so chilling that the HDC, MGCC and St. Paul will give them whatever they want, despite the bold statement of values laid out in the Ford Site Vision and the zoning plan itself.
Ryan’s line in the sand on parking is the most definitive statement of its limited vision of the development. The Ford Site requires either plentiful transit or parking to support the density and sustain the businesses, but Ryan officials did not say they would abandon the development unless the city gets serious about transit. A more charitable view of Ryan’s line could be pragmatism: The company could demand either the ability to build more parking, or demand that the city build more transit. Which is more likely to happen in St. Paul? Perhaps Ryan just went with the most probable outcome to protect its investment.
To be fair, the Ryan modifications involve less parking than the original approved zoning plan, even if it involves more strip-mall parking. Highland District Council members who supported Ryan’s modification bring up this fact to support their decision. But that has less to do with Ryan’s commitment to a sustainable, transit-oriented community than with Ford Site supporters steadfastly refusing to talk about transit — to the extent that they missed the absurd amount of parking automatically written in under St. Paul’s internationally ridiculed parking minimums.
I, too, naively assumed that transit would be integrated, based on value statements and the concurrent transit study. But Ryan and Ford apologists on the HDC, and likely those to come on the City Council, are afraid that Ryan will quit and a development, therefore, would be delayed. Highland District Council apologists now say we should be pleased with what we get, because it will be good for the community and is still “most” of what supporters wanted. Perhaps that makes the “failure” in my headline a bit harsh. But did we expend so much political capital for “OK”? True, the evolving development will be better for the community’s bottom line than a vacant industrial waste site, but that does not make it “most” of what we wanted, given the centrality of transit infrastructure to a community. “OK” is a far cry from “hopeful,” “transformative” or “visionary.”
Most of the Ford Site opposition fought hardest against the most visionary aspects of the development, in the nebulous cause of preserving Highland’s character. Supporters like me hoped that the new development would be the seed of a re-imagining of the city. Highland Park is home to some of St. Paul’s most dangerous intersections, to copious sidewalk gaps and unwalkable tracts, to tiny pockets of dense housing shunted off behind stroads. No coincidence that the annual “Tour de Highland” bike ride gets out of Highland as quickly as possible, since the HDC acknowledges that Highland’s roads are unsuitable for families not armored in cars.
Now, the Ford Site is becoming an expansion of the car-choked Highland Village strip mall. The most affordable housing will be shunted to the back of the development as far as possible from the 46th Street Station, and the A Line that will get people there, and we’re even keeping the ballfields. So much character. It seems “Neighbors for a Livable St. Paul” got at least partial veto authority over the project after the public zoning was approved.
What might we have done instead? A proud city, committed to its values as stated in the Ford Site zoning vision, would start by actually enacting those values and becoming serious about transit to the site. We citizens shouldn’t have to hope that companies like Ryan will enact values that the city itself is unwilling to uphold. Then, having firmly committed to transit, and maybe even NACTO design standards, if a developer like Ryan lacks the imagination to work within those guidelines and values, let them walk away.
How many cities have ever had a development opportunity this large, this blank, centered within their urban core? Somewhere is a developer — maybe from Portland or Boston — that knows how to succeed within transit-oriented communities and within NACTO design, and that developer will show up for an opportunity of this scale, for a city that is clear about enacting its values. Let Ryan walk away. Cities and communities, not companies, establish their values, and cities and communities should proudly stand by their values.