New streets are being built every day, mostly in the exurbs, where forests and farmland continue to give way to new subdivisions. Here in Saint Paul we pretty much stopped building new roads half a century ago. The problem is, there seems to be a law of nature that once those roads are built, they can never be unbuilt, even if they no longer serve any useful purpose.
Maintaining a useless road is not without cost. For starters, the city must plow 1,874 miles of road lanes every time it snows. And all those miles of road also require pothole repair, street sweeping, policing, and lighting. With climate change and limited funds making some of these tasks less manageable, it’s time to consider closing some of the city’s streets with the lowest return on investment.
My suggestions here may be all wrong, but I think we should begin a thoughtful discussion about paring back our expensive network of urban streets. Who knows? Once we get used to the idea of decommissioning streets, we might even get carried away and create neighborhoods like Milwaukee Ave in Minneapolis, where the street was beautifully transformed into a pedestrian mall.
The most controversial example, of course, is Ayd Mill Road, which the city just committed over $3.5 million to temporarily repair. AMR has been covered extensively here, but I would add one observation: unlike almost every other street in the city, AMR serves no businesses or residences and generates no property tax revenue. What’s more, all the money we spend on AMR will not create any additional tax revenue for the city. We can argue about the convenience of AMR or its affect on traffic on other city streets, but we can’t escape the fact that it’s a big ol’ drag on the city’s bottom line.
But let’s not argue about Ayd Mill Road, shall we? How about some other city streets that done’t earn their keep? Here’s some low hanging fruit:
Water Street West of Harriet Island
Following along the west bank of the Mississippi from Harriet Island to 35e, Water Street is just a few feet above river level and is often flooded. This year, it’s been closed since March 14th. The first wave of spring floods left the street covered with fallen trees and sand banks. As soon as those were cleared, June rains flooded it again.
It’s a beautiful route, but with climate change apparently making floods more likely, it’s probably time end car traffic on Water Street. It should be kept as a recreational trail for bikers and hikers, who have continued to use it throughout most of its closure.
Besides, there’s nothing down there to drive to. Unless you’re taking a swampy drive to see the place where Keanu Reeves ineffectively buried Cameron Diaz in leaves in Feeling Minnesota, there’s really no good reason to drive on Water Street.
Hidden Falls Lower Entrance
Another repeated victim of spring flooding, all of Crosby Farm and Hidden Falls park is truly messed up this year. Boardwalks and docks are destroyed, trails are washed away or buried in sand, and parking lots are ponds. It’s clear that the Mississippi wants this land back.
Of the three entrances to the park system, the lower Hidden Falls entrance at Prior Avenue seems to have been hit the hardest. As of July 6, the parking lot is a shallow pond, downed trees block the road, and the pavement is buried under little baby maple trees growing in banks of mud.
The Crosby Farm entrance serves the Watergate Marina and the Upper Hidden Falls entrance serves picnic shelters and a boat launch. But the lower entrance just has a parking lot–not a very useful purpose. Given that cleaning up these parks yet again this year is going to be pretty expensive, let’s cut our losses and abandon the Lower Hidden Falls entrance.
Port Douglas Road Entrance to Battle Creek Park
One of the most oddly overbuilt streets in St. Paul, Port Douglas Road has scant traffic and, at its best, serves just a few houses. It should be a narrow two lane country road but it’s actually a full five lanes wide. North of Lower Afton Road, its serves only as an entrance to Battle Creek Park, yet it remains nearly wide enough for a semi truck to do a U-turn.
The road into the park is so underused that it’s absurdly marked as no parking, probably because there’s no good reason to park there. The remains of burnt out car, it’s radial tires melted to the pavement, serve as a karmic warning against violating the parking prohibition.
Further south, part of Port Douglas Road is only a bike trail, which calms the rest of the street. Replacing the road to Battle Creek Park with trails would open up more of the park for recreation and eliminate almost half a mile of useless, underused roadway.
For some reason, St. Paul maintains a pair of wide frontage roads along I-94: St Anthony and Concordia Avenues. They function as speedways, especially during rush hour when commuters use them as alternate routes to the freeway.
Of the two, Concordia seems the most dangerous and problematic. Stretching uninterrupted from near Fairview all the way to Kellogg Boulevard, nearly 6,000 cars a day speed by at speeds often topping 45mph. Following the former routes of Rondo, Roblyn, and Carroll avenues, Concordia was reconstructed as a frontage road in the 1960s. It crosses paths with five pedestrian bridges, two colleges, two city parks, a high school, a post office, and an elementary school. Accidents are inevitable. Last summer, a driver critically injured a bicyclist as she was exiting the Griggs pedestrian bridge.
There is no logical reason Concordia should be a throughway for such a long distance. That’s what I-94 is for. If we stopped it from crossing Snelling, Hamline, Lexington, and Dale, for example, there would be no real decrease in access for local residents and businesses but a real reduction in speeding traffic volume. The city could do this today at limited expense.
Fourth Street East and Commercial Street
The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary is a wonderful and hidden urban gem. Located below Indian Mounds Park and underneath Kellogg Bridge, the sanctuary is full of history, wildlife, and intrigue. Just a stone’s throw from downtown Saint Paul, it’s a welcome contrast to the sea of parking lots that dominate eastern Lowertown.
If you’re visiting by car, there’s a small parking lot off of East 7th and Payne. But there’s no real reason to drive up 4th street (euphemistically dubbed “Positively Fourth Street”). If you do wander through 4th’s Victorian viaduct with its epic potholes and an open sewer that looks like a setting in Alan Moore’s From Hell, your only option will be to keep driving onto Commercial Street, going up the bluff and ending up just to the east of where you would have been if you’d stayed on Kellogg. You’ll quickly realize there’s no reason whatsoever to be driving through there. Neither street serves any useful purpose at all.
Why do Positively Fourth Street and Commercial Street even exist? Why is that viaduct so dark at night? Why is there a vast sea of parking lots next to downtown instead of housing or an even bigger nature sanctuary?
Like many aspects of St. Paul, this whole area is a hodgepodge of railroads, streets, and bridges that once made sense, serving a brewery and and a rail yard that are now just crumbling foundations. Before that, the railroad and commercial developments destroyed sacred Native American sites along the bluff.
And yet this area screams opportunity. Although it’s not obvious to the casual visitor, this area is a nexus of St. Paul’s best bike trails. The Sam Morgan Trail along Shepard Road, the Bruce Vento Trail through Swede Hollow, the Indian Mounds Trail, and the Lafayette Bridge trail to the Westside all converge here in a tangle of mostly unmarked paths.
The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary could be St. Paul’s version of Gold Medal Park, bridging its present with its distant past. Taking out a couple of unneeded streets and adding some proper trail wayfinding would make a world of difference.