356 Mrb Streets

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

About 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.