What good are climate goals if they’re not considered when real decisions are made in our cities?
It’s a recurring question heard in posts on streets.mn that soon will be addressed at the Saint Paul City Council’s March 4 meeting when it considers the appeal of a proposed development at 2495 Kasota Ave.
The Council approved a Climate Action and Resilience Plan in December 2019, which among other things called for reducing impervious surfaces and vehicle miles traveled in the city. And the city’s draft comprehensive plan has the additional land-use goal of ensuring “that zoning and infrastructure support environmentally and economically efficient, resilient land use development.”
A local business called Rohn Industries wants to turn this 1.7-acre triangle — currently covered in vegetation with a small ephemeral pond in the southwest corner — into a paved semi-trailer parking lot for its nearby business, which gathers and sorts paper from Twin Cities printers before it’s taken for recycling at paper mills. In order to grow its business and maintain its living-wage workforce, Rohn’s owner perceives the need for this type of flexible storage space, as many truck-oriented businesses do.
Turning this land into a parking lot doesn’t just pave one of the few undeveloped pieces of ground in South St. Anthony Park. The 2495 Kasota is a site with at least a three-part history, all of which, in my opinion, argue against allowing this development if the city of Saint Paul cares about its people or its climate-change goals.
A three-part history
- The site was (is) a wetland, part of what was once the Bridal Veil Creek area. Just to the north and south of it are the wetland’s most obvious remnants, now known as the Kasota Ponds. These ponds and the ephemeral pond and land at 2495 Kasota continue to be part of the Mississippi Flyway for migratory waterfowl and are home to other wildlife on the ground and in the ponds. The ephemeral pond hosts the greatest number and diversity of aquatic insects of all four ponds, and the pond complex as a whole has many native species of fish, pill clams, crayfish, fairy shrimp, and three species of turtles. Aside from the construction and parking lot itself, the disturbance of night-time lighting and increased truck traffic will affect the surrounding habitat, especially for migratory birds. It’s also one of the few green spaces in the urban heat island known as South St. Anthony Park, almost all of which shows up as high or medium risk on the heat island maps of Saint Paul.
- The site was (is) the east end of the Elm Street Ash Dump, which stretched for 37 acres toward Dinkytown and was in active use between about 1930 and the 1960s. Over those years, it was filled with garbage-incinerator ash from Minneapolis, construction debris, and who knows what else since it was an open dump. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency documents say it likely “exceeded MPCA standards for cadmium, lead, zinc, selenium and arsenic.” It was capped with 2–4 inches of soil in the 1960s around the time Highway 280 was built and plants have grown up on it since, holding the soil in place. Digging into it to construct a parking lot, light poles, and fencing will release whatever is in the lower parts of the soil to the air during construction and over time through the water that flows out of the site while the vegetation gets reestablished.
In its appeal of the 2495 Kasota site plan approval, the St. Anthony Park Community Council (SAPCC) thoroughly documents the inadequacy of the soil sampling that has been done. MPCA guidelines specify 20 as the number of samples needed for a site of this size, but only eight were taken, and they were not dug at uniform depths representing the planned construction. Even these inadequate samples still found contamination… but the project was approved anyway. (Note: The city’s Zoning Committee tied 3 to 3 on SAPCC’s first-round appeal and the Planning Commission also tied 7 to 7, with the tie broken by the chair, who voted against the SAPCC appeal.)
- In the most recent several decades, the site and the adjacent Kasota Ponds have been the focus of annual cleanup work by SAPCC each year, from trash pickups to buckthorn removal and revegetation with native plant seeding. SAPCC has received grants for this work from the local watershed agencies and the DNR. But now its request for an Environmental Assessment Worksheet has been turned down by city staff in part because this area is said to be too small to matter and that too much development has already happened around it for this additional development to make any difference. If that were the case, then why did those agencies fund SAPCC’s work over the years?
Lost documentation of the pollution
The last time a company tried to develop the 2495 Kasota site in the late 1990s, the decision was overturned at the City Council level. At that time, a SAPCC Environment Committee member read large boxes of records at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency documenting the contents of the Elm Street Ash Dump. Outraged neighbors won the day.
Where is the MPCA in all of this now, you may wonder?
Well, the MPCA has signed off on the planned development because it has lost or misplaced those boxes of records that showed what is in the ash dump.
That same SAPCC Environment Committee member who read the records 20 years ago requested the records again and was shown just a small pile of paper this time. She was told the rest were warehoused during the Pawlenty administration and can’t be found.
Does MPCA plan to sign off on all the brownfields in Minnesota where they have lost the records? Is that the standard Saint Paul plans to use for development within its boundaries, for the safety of its people?
What do climate and resiliency goals mean if wetlands are disregarded unless they’re large and pristine? It seems to me the wetland you need the most is the one that’s adjacent to a bunch of hard surfaces: you shouldn’t fill part of one in with more hard surface because a little bit more won’t make any difference. The exact opposite is true. Allowing this site to be developed into a paved parking lot would be in direct contradiction to the stated goal of the city’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan.
And what does a goal to decrease vehicle miles traveled mean if semi trucks are not part of the goal? They do more direct damage to roads than any other vehicle, and indirectly cause our intersections to be engineered at sizes that make them unsafe for pedestrians and bikes, creating a vicious circle where the only vehicle that feels safe to travel in is a car (or better yet an SUV).
If streets and cities are for people — and I believe they are — 2495 Kasota is a place to make a stand and say just that.
Note: The author is a member of the St. Anthony Park Community Council board and has been involved in the appeal of the 2495 Kasota site plan approval.
The SAPCC appeal can be read here. It’s the first item listed among the documents linked for review by the Saint Paul City Council at its March 4 meeting.
The Star Tribune published this story just after the Planning Commission vote.