Who Should Be Able to Live Along the River?

View from the street of houses next to a 2.5-story small apartment building behind trees

A 17-unit apartment building is tucked in there next to houses. Photo: Google Street View

On April 10 the St. Paul City Council approved zoning changes requested by Ryan Companies, the future developer of the Ford site. The changes included allowing single-family houses to be built along the river on Mississippi River Boulevard south of Ford Parkway. The city’s Planning Commission twice told the City Council that the city should be providing higher density housing along the river for more equitable living opportunities, and twice now the City Council has ignored that recommendation.

As a resident, I am frustrated watching the city make concerted efforts to have a more diverse Planning Commission that is supposed to provide a city-wide perspective, only to have those perspectives thrown out to continue to privilege the voices of those who have always had power — that is, mostly white property owners who think the area’s character is based solely on single-family houses.

Mississippi River Boulevard is not just a pretty boulevard in St. Paul; it’s part of a national park (OK, a National River and Recreation Area in the National Park Service). It’s also part of U.S. Bicycle Route 45 along the Mississippi River. In short: It’s a unique place that more residents should have an opportunity to live along.

If you asked people their perception about who lives on Mississippi River Boulevard, most likely would say everyone lives in a big house because that’s what you see when you travel along it. Those mansions and their front yards (a lot of which are actually public right of way) take up a lot of room.

356 Mrb Streets

Ask people what type of housing they picture along Mississippi River Boulevard, and mansions like this likely come to mind.

But within Highland Park, the neighborhood with the Ford site, the vast majority of housing units with a Mississippi River Boulevard (MRB) address today (from Randolph going south) are in just four multifamily buildings. I counted using the county’s property map. (Feel free to double check.) Out of 425 housing units from Randolph to the end of the street on the south, 339 of them — or 80 percent — are in four buildings.

These include:

  • The polarizing 23-story high rise at 740 MRB, which has 163 apartment units;
  • A senior apartment building on the southern end at 1834 MRB that has 54 units;
  • A “missing middle” 1950s apartment building at 706 MRB with 17 units; and
  • The assisted living building at 750 MRB with 105 units.

Take out the high rise, and over 40 percent of housing units on the street are still in multifamily buildings. That leaves 86 housing units along the street; two of those are duplexes, and six are categorized as townhouses. So you’ve got 76 housing units in Highland along the river, or 18 percent of the housing units, determining the “current aesthetic” that needs to be matched, according to some, because they take up the most land — and have the most political power.

Using that county map, I calculate that 18 percent of housing units in single-family houses take up 78 percent of the residential land along this street in Highland, while the 80 percent of total housing units that are in apartment buildings use only 18 percent of the residential land.

Meanwhile out of those four multifamily buildings along the river, the only one I’ve ever heard any complaints about is, of course, the high rise that couldn’t be built again today because of height restrictions along the river. I’m not even sure the other three buildings truly register in the minds of most Highland residents. You certainly can’t tell they’re there by any noticeable traffic. Density is supposed to be bad? I’m not convinced Highland residents even notice much of the density that already exists.

Although I didn’t check the numbers for MRB north of Randolph to the city border, the street pretty much is more houses, with the exception of a couple of apartment buildings at Marshall and the housing for retired priests at Summit. I often see “for sale” signs when I travel along this street. Anyone who wants to buy a mansion along the river has plenty of opportunities to do so. But for anyone who doesn’t qualify for senior housing, the only choices along the river in Highland are just two buildings — one of which is small and rarely has vacancies.

A 21st century community (which is how the city bills the Ford site) would prioritize equity and recognize that an increasing percentage of households are one person, not the Leave It to Beaver nuclear family of the 1950s. A 21st century community would change its power dynamics so that the people who literally take up the most space don’t dominate the community narrative. A 21st century community should provide more options (both in housing type and affordability) for people to live along a unique natural resource like the Mississippi River.

Sadly, that’s not St. Paul today, and it looks like it won’t be in the future, at least not along the river in Highland Park.

Heidi Schallberg

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Heidi Schallberg tweets @laflaneuse more than she posts here. Her posts reflect only her opinion and not those of any organization.

31 thoughts on “Who Should Be Able to Live Along the River?

  1. Aaron Berger

    Thanks for this. These built form restrictions hurt everybody because they prevent people from trying out ways of living other than what is normative. Also, the average new single family home purchased by a Leave It to Beaver nuclear family in 1960 was 1,239 square feet. That’s only barely bigger than the average new two-bedroom apartment today.


    1. Mike

      What does that really mean “prevent people from trying out ways of living other than what is normative?” The article makes it clear that there are many multi-family options today on the river, in that vicinity, and the Ford site will include almost 4,000 homes of which the single family units are a few dozen. This site when developed will have apartments of varying sizes, townhomes to rent, townhomes to buy, and a handful of single-family homes – Probably large homes given the likely cost of land along the river boulevard, but probably not the size of Summit Ave mansions built 100 years ago. So “normative” for this area of St. Paul already includes a wide variety of home styles and and the Ford site development will substantially diversity the whole city with it’s almost exclusive focus on multi-family options.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    “Character of the neighborhood” is almost always a subjective, class-based opinion that for some reason has a quasi-legal weight in our city’s zoning code. What is the “character” of MRB? Apartment buildings, as you point out.

    1. Tom BasgenTom Basgen

      Not only class but race-based as well, but this is America and the two are inextricably linked. Always a red flag when “Character” is used as an argument.

  3. Hillary Frazey

    Great article! The push for SFH along MRB on the Ford site is definitely about who should (and by extension, who shouldn’t) be able to live along the river.

    Related: I came across this fascinating Ramsey County Historical Society article from 1973.: https://publishing.rchs.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/RCHS_Fall1973_Empson.pdf

    It describes the founding of Highland Park/Mac Groveland and tells the story of what happened when the land originally went up “for sale.” Those who got there first had been anticipating this sale and had staked illegal claims. All the squatters got together and decided who would put a claim to which parcel and made sure there would be only one bid on each piece of land. Then they went to the auction armed with clubs (!!) and literally made a circle to keep outsiders from bidding on the land. One guy didn’t get the memo and tried to make a bid, but the group “disposed” of him. (This story is on page 4 of the PDF, which is page 14 of the original article.)

    The circling up to exclude others is baked into the DNA of the city.

    1. Heidi SchallbergHeidi Schallberg Post author

      Oh wow, thanks for the link, Hillary! I’ll have to read that. And as we’ve discussed recently, the land was originally stolen from the Dakota people. It’s baked into the foundation of our country.

  4. Betsy Larey

    I understand your reasoning behind the desire to eliminate single family housing. This is in line with what the 2040 Minneapolis comp plan was about. I wrote letters to the editor and online sites regarding the idea of purchasing large tracks of substandard homes on the north side of Minneapolis. The concept was to come up with a partnership of city and private development to build something exactly like Heritage Park, just outside of downtown. That development includes townhouses and single family homes in a unique setting with a lot of green space. A fair percentage of housing is section 8. The idea was to make it so nice that people with money wanted to live there as well. Nobody knows who is section 8 or paying full price.
    I was really surprised when I got a lot of blowback from people saying “that sounds nice, but we don’t want to live on the north side”. That is in line with your thinking, which is people who can’t afford expensive homesites should be able to get them anyway. And people of limited means should be able to live in around the lakes because they want to. And now they are demanding the right to live with a view of the Mississippi River.
    We still live in a capitalist society, and until we move to socialism this isn’t ( nor should it ) going to happen. This doesn’t happen in any city I know in Norway, Sweden or Denmark either. I’ve spent a lot of time there and have friends in all 3. That’s not to say that those with moderate or low incomes should live in substandard housing. They don’t. But they also don’t get the pricey locations with the great views. That’s reality. Or at least it is for 95% of the population

  5. Trent

    You make a compelling argument that there are not enough single family home options along the river in this section and these 35 additional houses while hardly tipping the scales on a percentage basis will provide some appropriate balance to the many multi-family options already there.

    This is important because up until this article the outrage has been framed around how unfair it was to only have single family homes, “mansions” along the river and that others deserved the opportunity to live along the river. Now that we know they can, and do, and are today, living in different types of housing the pressure and outrage over these 35 should be greatly diminished.

    I don’t think that will happen, but it should.

  6. Bob Roscoe

    The Ford Site is very similar to Stanley Park in Vancouver B.C., a beautiful knob of land out from the northwest part of the city, mostly forest but adjacent to a mix of housing types. Stanley Park is unique to the city that embraces it.

    The Ford Site has the same opportunity for Saint Paul. It should not be an extension of Highland Park. but maintain a unique presence with a mix of medium density development and creation of sizable forest.

  7. karen Nelson

    The river road street front would have been great place to build missing middle – with some pockets of taller buildings. That increase density could have accommodated some more public, green space on the east side of the road, that will be taken up by front yards of mansions now, and still made space for far more families.

    I like the idea generally of the wealth-off being mixed in with variety of housing, commercial – rather than being segregated in large neighborhoods with nothing other wealthy peope, we can see good examples of this in tradition development neighborhoods before zoing and neighborhood associations were weaponized to such everything down, affordable you can see this on say, Lincoln Ave just off Grand, where homeowners live in high demand houses (almost mansions) with small yards, next to apartments with little to no parking, commercial/retail and taller apartment buildings on Grand.

    So I am not entirely opposed to having somethings that appeal to typical wealthy demands in a new neighborhood, but in this case, there was already some tall buildings in area, a few more along river would have been small incremental increase, and missing middle here would be place where developers would find it financially viable and the tall or middle sized, say six-plexes of some such, would have still been quite high-end buyers.

  8. J

    I bet St. Paul realtors would tell you that homes on Summit take a lot longer to sell than the homes just south of Grand. The for sale signs sure indicate this.

    People with families want a neighborhood feel. And it’s the rare empty nester that is interested in devoting their golden years and/or retirement money to maintaining an urban museum.

    I agree with upzoning these beautiful but not very homey stretches. They can be kept beautiful and full of historic character by enforcing some common architectural limitations (no vinyl siding etc).

    1. Jh

      Excellent comment. Couldn’t agree more.

      Homes around the chain of lakes, a rough analogy, are largely an homage to the inhabitants personal wealth and that other p word. To obtain a multi million house with young kids usually means you were born into some wealth. If you asked where the kids went to school you’d get 20 different answers. Fewer shared experiences to meet the neighbors.

      Too bad empty nesters who inhabit homes during the day, have built up some money over their life and looking for neighbors are now prevented from doing so.

  9. Monte Castleman

    According to the article it was Ryan that requested the zoning change. Was this done at the bidding of white property owners with power and “privilege”, or is it more likely some bean counter at Ryan just figured out they could make more money building single family homes?

    No one can force a private company build anything. At some point Ryan could just walk away from the project, or demand an obscene subsidy to continue. The city is not at “Lake Street K-Mart” levels of desperation yet, but questions need to be asked how hard Ryan can be pushed. Maybe they could be pushed to build multi-family housing, maybe not. Maybe it’s OK if they walk away so a developer can be found that will.

    1. Mike SonnMike Sonn

      Ryan Co stated that they proposed SFHs along the river to appease some vocal nearby residents (read: Liveable St Paul) and it was not a financial decision when Ryan Co was pressed at the Planning Commission hearing.

      1. Monte Castleman

        Point noted, the article did not make that clear that’s why Ryan made the decision they did. That leaves though why does Ryan care what neighbors think if they can make more money building multi-family housing?

  10. PEngel

    Please, stop with the hyperbole. You sound like the single family units are the only housing to be built. There are going to be a couple thousand multiple family units right behind these single family homes. The plan calls for a percentage of which to be affordable housing. These new multiple family units will be one to two blocks from the river. The single family units will be a small portion of the total new housing. And yes these new home single unit owners will be facing a significant tax bill. I suggest you continue your research and look at the property tax bills for the existing single family homes between Ford and Marshall. The City of Saint Paul needs to generate more property tax revenue. Putting single family homes on the highest value property on the Ford sight will go along way in replacing the millions of dollars of lost tax revenue from Ford’s closure. It is a good compromise. And compromise is what we need more of in this day and age of extremism.

    1. Mike SonnMike Sonn

      Wouldn’t a 4-plex (or other MFH) generate higher tax returns for the city on the same parcel than a SFH? I’m not sure I understand your reasoning.

      735 Woodlawn is ~1970’s MFH (12 units?) and valued at $1.5M (not directly on MRB).

      564 Mississippi River Blvd S is brand new SFH valued at $1.7M.

      So we could get the same tax revenue (probably way more w/ brand new MFH construction) and house 12x as many units.

      1. Peter Engel

        The property tax bill for 735 Woodlawn (MF)is $16,008. The tax bill for 564 Mississippi Blvd (SF) is $33,567. I’d say that makes my point.

        1. Mike

          No that’s not right. The apt building is $16k first half $16k second half $32k total.

          So $33k vs $32k.

          1. Heidi SchallbergHeidi Schallberg Post author

            Let’s look at the four apartment buildings I mentioned in Highland.

            706 (built in 1959) – total tax $31,868 (note there are special assessments for MRB I’m not including)

            740 (built in 1961) – $389,088 (wow!)

            750 (built in 1996) – $261,008

            1834 (built in 1988) – $ 127,084

            More of those sure would be great for increasing property tax revenue in the city.

  11. P

    Where were all of you multi family housing advocates with river views, when the City of Saint Paul refused to grant a height waiver for a multi family housing development on the river at the old US Bank operations center? ( Gannon Road and Sherpard Road). The planned development would have added significant multi family housing units on the river. The height variance was less than the planned height of the new multi-family units on the Ford site. The site is still vacant and not generating the tax revenue it is capable of producing. The revised Ford site addresses affordable housing and density issues, while maintaining recreational facilities for the Highland community.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Pretty sure that never came to the Planning Commission. If it had, I’d likely have been for it. Difficult to say without seeing the full project, but I do remember something about it, and believe it got “killed” by someone along the way before making it very far into the approval process. Please share more details if you have them.

    2. Mike SonnMike Sonn

      Oh, I’m still mad about that. I had just moved here and was blown away that that project was shot down so early in the process. I do recall parking being an issue as the parking minimums and the underlying bedrock not allowing them to do much underground parking which forced a higher overall structure. There’s a nearly empty parking ramp across the street that could’ve been used to appease the parking demand for the site until the city finally gets rid of parking minimums and switches to maximums.

      Anyway, trust me, we’re mad about it.

  12. Charlie P

    If our bar for Multi is not a SFD, there are a couple more I know – at least in the end I walk my dog in most days. The County GIS is tricky with Twin/Row houses as they appear on the same Parcel, but have differing PID’s & house numebrs.

    1804/1806 MRB is a twinhome directly next to 1834

    1148/1450, 1454/1458, 1462/1466 are twins as well further north towards the park entrance.

    Interesting as well, between Magoffin Ave and the CP Rail land – nobody really lives on MRB – all the houses are turned towards Colby St . – MRB for that section becomes a pastiche of backyards.

    1. Heidi SchallbergHeidi Schallberg Post author

      Yep, I mentioned there are a couple of duplexes and six townhouses, so those were among those. There’s also a duplex at 1886. I debated including the Colby properties in my #s but to keep it straightforward I went with just MRB addresses. It is odd that stretch is basically backyards, as you observe.

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