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.
To clarify: The 2495 Kasota site is privately owned (and would be purchased by Rohn if this plan is approved). The other Kasota ponds are on public land or rail road land. Grants have not covered the 2495 Kasota site specifically. SAPCC has done trash pickup on the site and a biological assessment of the pond there, but no revegetation of the site.
So in other words the printers should just throw their paper in the trash rather than recycling it because we’d have to use trucks and pave a parking lot for them to do that?
Or alternatively if this company moves themselves and their livable wage jobs to Shakopee because St. Paul doesn’t want to accommodate them, aren’t we going to be complaining about how those jobs are now not transit accessible and all the carbon generated by people driving out to their jobs.
Holy smokes. Monte, if you wanted to paint with a broader brush, you’d need to get one at Costco.
It’s really Shakopee or the one lot in the city? There’s now grey there?
Sheesh. Let’s see what’s possible before we throw in the towel.
It would have made a better article if the author had “looked at what’s possible” instead of just stating opposition to that particular site without suggesting any kind of solution. Most articles you see something like “this road is too wide, so let’s do a 4-3 conversion, or “Motorists don’t stop for pedestrians here, so let’s build a traffic signal.” You or I may or may not agree on the solution, but there is one for us to discuss instead.
The author seems to imply that locating this on another lot in the city would not be an acceptable solution with her bit at the end about how semi-trucks are bad. It”s a fair opinion that we shouldn’t design roads in the city for them, provided people in the city are willing to pay the higher costs associated with deliveries with smaller, inefficient vehicles.
But I’d wager semi-trucks are much lower carbon than multiple trips in a smaller vehicle, probably even an all-electric smaller vehicle when you look at electricity sources and the costs of producing those vehicles. So if not in the city, where? Maybe we want freight going back to moving by train, but that’s not the world we live in where a company doesn’t have a place to park their trucks tomorrow.
So where do we put this? You don’t see much industry moving into the ‘grey area” like Richfield or Bloomington. Sick is a notable exception but it”s more they wanted a prime location for their headquarters than to put their factory there. In face so much industry in Bloomington has disappeared that the city is trying to protect some of what’s left with zoning and land use policies. New industry goes in places like Shakopee where there’s cheap land and often tax incentives.
This is a great piece, Pat!
I voted against approving this on this site in Saint Paul. To me, it’s a very flexible land-use that could go in a dozen places, basically anywhere with some asphalt and access to a truck route. Why put it here, with so many potential risks?
Apparently truck parking is a big thing. Minneapolis is considering banning overnight truck parking on city streets, and the state is short thousands of truck parking spots. https://www.truckersnews.com/study-finds-minnesota-has-truck-parking-shortage/
I’m about as far liberal lefty as it’s possible to get, but I try not to be so liberal that my brains have fallen out. If a local business wants to expand, that’s good. If they want to expand inside the boundaries of the most built up part of the cities, that’s really good, better than taking over more unspoiled land in the outer ‘burbs. It sounds like the land they want to cover up is already polluted.
is there a way to mitigate part of the damage? A parking lot should get fairly low traffic, can it be built of permeable blacktop, or can they use pavers with gaps in them?
I sympathize with the desire to keep the area green space, but if this is going to go somewhere, I’d sure rather see it go in an already urbanized area. If it can be built in a way that is more permeable, or reversible in the future that seems even better.
“try not to be so liberal that my brains have fallen out.”
Eek. Not a great way to start, Scott. Pat has given this a lot of thought and I’ve never known her to a knee-jerk reactionary to any cause she takes up.
They have no plan to build the parking lot with permeable pavers or anything like that. It will be asphalt. And because the underlying ash dump fill is so heterogeneous (some light and fluffy, some denser), it’s entirely likely that it will subside at variable rates under the weight of the trailers and cause the parking lot to fail.
Truck parking is indeed a big thing, and one that I hope others will address here on streets.mn. It’s part of the increasing use of semis for everything including local deliveries, which has multiple effects, none of which are good for people in cities (intersection size for pedestrians, air quality, interaction with people on bikes, noise).
As you said, the land is already polluted – but if you read the post you will see that it’s currently contained. The site should not be disturbed unless it is fully remediated, and that is not the plan here.
Do not build a parking lot. Leave it alone, or better yet, completely remediate and make it safe.
The article and the headline don’t seem to match. The article seems to be about not building a parking lot on a particular piece of property due to poor soil conditions from a former ash dump and being a wetland.
Sounds like a reasonable case to sue to stop it.
This is how the final decision played out, as covered by Fred Melo. The parking lot will be built. https://www.twincities.com/2020/03/11/st-paul-city-council-allows-recycling-company-to-pave-kasota-avenue-lot-for-storage/