I moved to St. Paul last summer for work. Sadly, after just one short year, I am once again relocating for work, so I am leaving St. Paul. I came here from a large East Coast city where I relied on walking, biking, and transit to get everywhere because I don’t own a car. That’s what I’ve done here in the Twin Cities as well, although it hasn’t always been easy.
While I am excited for my next chapter in life, I will miss St. Paul quite a bit. It left a great impression on me in many ways, and I wanted to share my thoughts as a relative newcomer on what the city does (and doesn’t) do well urbanism-wise. St. Paul bills itself as “the most livable city in America”. That’s not a quantifiable claim, obviously. But from a qualitative perspective, does St. Paul live up to its own tagline?
One caveat: Although obviously a huge factor in livability, I’m not going to discuss St. Paul’s housing market. It is too complex for this post, and many more knowledgeable people have written extensively on the topic here on streets.mn. (Plus, my views are a bit skewed based on several years of living in one of the most expensive cities in the country.)
What St. Paul Does Well
The park system. So, this is probably the most obvious one. There’s a reason St. Paul has the second-highest ranked municipal park system in the United States (beating out Minneapolis, which sits at #3)! There are so many fantastic parks here, large and small, scattered all over the city. They provide wonderful opportunities for recreation and relaxation while combating the urban heat island effect. My favorites? Mears, Rice, and Raspberry Island Parks downtown. Hidden gems? Trout Brook Nature Sanctuary in North End and Mattocks Park in Mac-Grove. It is also great to see the city continue to invest in opening new parks, such as the Midway Peace Park.
The trail system. St. Paul is also known as an excellent city for biking (ranked #18 in 2018), in large part due to the Grand Rounds network and other off-street, multi-use trails. And 2020 was a great year for biking in St. Paul, as the city opened 20 miles of new bike infrastructure, half of it fully-protected. Several of these trails, including Johnson Parkway, Wheelock Parkway, Como Avenue, and Ayd Mill Road, are some of the best examples of urban bike infrastructure I’ve ever ridden in the United States. Wide, well-paved, with (generally) well-designed intersections, although there’s definitely room for improvement in spots. The prevalence and increasing connectivity of these trails, especially on the East Side, make it really easy to traverse wide swaths of the city without doing much on-street riding. A huge asset not only for recreational riders and bike commuters, but also folks who don’t feel comfortable riding in mixed traffic.
Small-scale retail in residential neighborhoods. This is mainly a benefit of its pre-war grid system and (surviving) urban fabric, but I love how many small retail locations you can find in otherwise residential neighborhoods. These locations not only provide great local amenities for residents, but add to walkability, streetscape diversity, and economic resilience. This type of residential-commercial neighborhood mixing is not something you see much of in post-war developments. They also make for good spots to implement tactical traffic calming improvements.
Street tree canopy (some neighborhoods). Certain parts of St. Paul have absolutely phenomenal tree coverage. Half the charm of walking or biking through Cathedral Hill or Mac-Grove consists of the wonderful trees that provide plentiful shade and natural beauty. This is not the case in all of St. Paul, however (see below), and of course the Emerald Ash Borer is a huge issue that threatens the continued vitality of St. Paul’s urban tree canopy.
The transit system. Coming from a city with an extensive metro / bus network, I was at first a little concerned about the ease of getting around St. Paul without a car. After all, as much as I’d like to, I can’t use my bike for every trip! However, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of coverage by Metro Transit. I might have a different opinion if I had to rely on the bus or light rail every day, but for running errands or getting around generally, I think St. Paul certainly does a decent job compared to most American cities (the Twin Cities metro had a pre-COVID transit modeshare of about 4.8 percent—dismal by developed world standards but pretty good by US standards). Again, the grid system probably helps, but I’m also a big fan of Metro Transit’s fare system—the To-Go Cards are convenient to use, intuitive, and well-integrated across multiple modes. Also, I’ve found the transit operators are super nice! Favorite bus line? The 62 for the views going across the Mississippi.
The coffee scene. In my humble opinion you can’t have a truly excellent city without a solid local coffee scene that provides a host of third space options. I think St. Paul definitely punches above its weight when it comes to good coffee roasters and coffee shops. St. Anthony Park and Mac-Grove are particularly blessed with a solid density of local coffee places. My favorites? Bootstrap Coffee Roasters for the quality of their roasts, JS Bean Factory for their outdoor patio, Caydence Records & Coffee for their unique aesthetic, and Claddagh Coffee for their freshly-baked scones!
Where St. Paul Can Improve
I’ll preface this section by acknowledging that much of what St. Paul struggles with from an urbanism perspective stems from the destructive and racist legacy of urban renewal, from the leveling of neighborhoods to build the Capitol Mall to the destruction of Rondo to build I-94. Repairing much of the damage will take a lot of time and money (like with the Rondo Land Bridge proposal), and of course the city will never be able to regain even a fraction of what was lost. That said, here are some things I think St. Paul should continue to focus on going forward.
Disparity in park access and equity. While the park system here is truly outstanding, equity in park access remains an issue. Neighborhoods comprised of a majority of people of color have 30% less park space compared to the city median. The silver lining of this metric is that St. Paul does better than Minneapolis on this front, where the figure is 58%. Still, more work needs to be done, and the opening of the Midway Peace Park should hopefully help narrow the gap.
The best off-street trails rarely connect to important job clusters or retail destinations. While they are amazing places to bike, trails like Johnson Parkway, Wheelock Parkway, and the Mississippi River trails by and large are much better-suited for recreational riding as opposed to commuting or just traveling around the city. They largely weave through park space or low-density, single-family home neighborhoods. Some notable exceptions to this are the Capitol City Bikeway downtown as well as the new Ayd Mill Road trail. But if you want to do some shopping on Grand, hit up a restaurant on University, or bike to work anywhere outside of downtown, it’s not always easy to do so in a low stress manner unless you are willing to meander through residential backstreets. The intrusive presence of highways throughout the city as well as dangerous, high-speed stroads like Snelling, Lexington, and West 7th certainly don’t make things easier.
I’m not sure if these factors at all impacted Nice Ride pulling out of St. Paul, but it’s a huge shame that the city doesn’t have a bike share system. I used bike share quite frequently in my former city, and would have loved to have done so here. Alas, I was forced to turn to scooters at times!
St. Paul is plagued by an excess of surface parking and parking ramps. Due to a history of bad land use policies like minimum parking requirements, approximately 8% of St. Paul’s land area consists of surface parking, with another 25% of land taken up by roads. Surface parking lots spread everything out, making it less practical or feasible to navigate the city in anything but a car. They also create dead spaces in the urban fabric that result in increased safety concerns. Not to mention they suck up heat in Minnesota’s increasingly-warm summers and are a disaster from a purely aesthetic perspective. I mean, just look at the Midway area:
The Minnesota Capitol Area, as well as adjacent Lafayette Park are also largely islands of nothingness that make getting in or out of downtown on foot or by bike a pain. Bill Lindeke has written an excellent piece on why Minnesota’s capitol area is so terrible when compared to Wisconsin’s.
Thankfully, St. Paul may finally start to reverse some of this damage by following Minneapolis in eliminating minimum parking requirements altogether. Also, the state Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board (CAAPB) has some exciting plans to knit together a piece of the Capitol area by redeveloping the now-vacant Sears site into a connected urban neighborhood with a public park at the center.
The skyway system is an eyesore and kills street life in downtown St. Paul. Literally the only reason I’ve ever had to use to use the skyway was to go to my dentist. I hate how the skyways remove foot traffic and retail frontage from downtown, leaving much of the streetscape consisting of parking ramps and blank street walls. It is also a very inaccessible system to enter from the street as a pedestrian—signage is terrible and it seems like the system is primarily intended to be self-contained. You drive in, park in a ramp, enter the skyway, go to your job or errands, return to your car, and leave. I agree with much of what Bill Lindeke says in his 99 PI interview on the skyway systems of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The cities would be much better off if the skyways came down over time.
I also don’t buy the “it gets cold here” argument. I’ve lived in several cities, a few of which experience quite cold winters and more snow than St. Paul. None of them had skyways, and people managed perfectly fine. Honestly, for all the talk of Minnesota having harsh winters, I’ve found Minnesotans—at least those in the Twin Cities—to be pretty wimpy when it comes to cold weather. Most complain about it constantly and never want to venture outside to go anywhere, instead electing to travel everywhere in the pampered comfort of their cars. I walked to work several days this winter when the temperatures were minus 10 degrees or less and it was totally fine, refreshing even. But I digress.
So, is St. Paul the most livable city in America? Maybe, maybe not. But I absolutely loved living here for a year and will miss it dearly. It’s a great city that has a lot to offer and generally affords its residents a very high quality of life. I still plan to stay on top of urbanism/housing/transportation developments in St. Paul (and remain a regular reader of streets.mn). Who knows, I might end up back here one day! I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to that idea.
This is a great review of St. Paul. Thanks for writing it. I am hopeful we can retire the ludicrous “most livable city” moniker once and for all. That phrase in particular often used as a code for all kinds of problematic stuff.
Nice article, however, I do disagree with the skyway piece. I don’t consider myself to be a “winter weather wimp”, the option for traveling through downtown and staying warm is very appealing. This also allows me to visit interesting shops that due to poor parking I may otherwise not. Skyways also provide many of these shops a space. Who knows where some of them would be if the Skyways were eliminated over time as you suggest.
This was really nice to read. I too moved to St. Paul just a year ago and have really liked it but also recognize many of the issues you point out, especially the Capitol area. I lived in Madison, WI for years and I can attest that the Minnesota Capitol area is terrible by comparison. I disagree a little bit with your view of the skyways but I still see your point and think either access should be improved to/from the street or they could be removed over time. Having worked downtown though it was nice to be able to walk casually to get a lunch at the food court or simply use the skyway system to commute to another restaurant.
Unfortunately have to second the Capitol comparison. Despite being locked on a narrow isthmus (whose idea was that?) without a lot of parking available, the WI Capitol grounds are a community meeting place that is full every weekend for a very vibrant and diverse “people’s/farmers market” of sorts. Our Capitol building is beautiful inside and out, but who ever is tempted to go there unless you’re protesting or you work there?
Not sure how to fix it, but replacing, say, the closed Sears store with still more boring squat office or governmental buildings doesn’t seem promising.
There seem to be a lot of people who think that removing the skyways would be some magic way to get people outside. I suspect a lot of people are like me who would be much less inclined to venture out for lunch downtown without the skyway system. I don’t want to have to put on a parka, hat, and gloves just to walk two blocks for lunch. I also don’t want to come back covered in sweat on a hot humid day.
Compliments to Sam Burgess. He’s acquired an impressive knowledge of St. Paul in only one year. Let me echo a sentiment he expresses in his bio. One of the biggest factors in urban quality-of-life considerations is noise pollution. Especially when it’s noise that is wholly unnecessary and is used as an attention-grabbing device by its perpetrators. I’m referring primarily to motorcycle and car owners who have modified their mufflers in flagrant violation of state statute. As near as I can determine, the City of St. Paul makes no effort to enforce its own muffler-noise ordinance or the relevant state statutes. I would like to be proven wrong.
Have to agree that the people that are so rude and inconsiderate of others that they illegally modify their exhaust should have the book thrown at them. Problem is that something like a tag light, you can just see if it is or is not working. Loud exhaust you’d have to equip squad cars with decibel meters, and then probably have a program to make sure that they’re periodically checked and calibrated just like we do with speed radar.
I want to take exception to some of the content of the writer’s segment “The skyway system is an eyesore and kills street life in downtown St. Paul…”
After retiring 15 years ago, my wife and I chose to move to downtown St Paul, primarily for the cultural scene, good restaurants etc. We chose to live in a building on the skyway system, which provides easy access to entertainment venues, restaurants, doctors and dentists, library and public transportation…particularly for us as senior citizens, and others with mobility issues. We consider the skyway to be a major advantage to living in downtown St Paul
I recognize that the St Paul skyway system has had issues, some of which have been addressed and some still needing improvement. However, the writer’s perspective…having lived here for a year during which the pandemic has closed down most cultural and commercial activity…is severely limited.
Downtown St Paul is experiencing a re-purposing of a large amount of commercial office floor space into apartments, 465 of them currently in construction in buildings on the skyway. Given the uncertainty of the return-to-the-office work environment, this trend may continue. Future skyway use may be more oriented to the needs of residents than workers.
Tearing down the skyways is not the right answer. To quote the comment in the 99 PI interview, “The other option is to make the skyways work – rethink their accessibility and use their strengths to reshape the Twins Cities for the better”
People in both St. Paul and Minneapolis have been trying to “rethink their accessibility” for decades. The problem is that making them inaccessible and illegible is a feature not a bug. The moment anyone proposes easy access points for skyways, property owners and (yes) residents get very upset, because keeping “those people” out of the skyway is often the point of the whole infrastructure. This debate has really come to a head during COVID, and the skyways have not gotten more equitable or public. I fear they are well beyond redemption as public space.
Disappointing that you are discarding the “make the skyways work” option. The Covid thing has thrown everything into disarray. As you point out, accessibility has been an issue for decades…at least two that I have witnessed. At least St Paul has regular open and closing hours for the skyway. Minneapolis seems to be at the owner’s option. Building owners in St Paul would love to have the skyways close at 5PM… when they and their minions retreat to their suburban gated communities. Because of Covid, hours were rolled back from 12 Midnight to 7PM and recently relaxed to 8PM. Hopefully the return of shows, concerts, hockey, and restaurants will warrant the return of late hour access.
And just a word about street access, particularly after normal working hours. There are numerous public access points in parking ramps like the Victory, Lawson, River Center, Capitol City, Union Depot and others plus direct access at Central Station, which have access all during skyway hours. The problem is that the city hasn’t agreed to put skyway signs on them so people are aware.
Improvements in security measures were made before Covid, and others were being developed. Let’s wait until we get back to “normal” before deciding the skyways’ fate
This is only scratching the surface. I’d be curious what you think after listening to the 99PI episode.
I had read the article prior to my previous response, but had not listened to the audio version. It was a nice retrospective of the evolution of the skyways and the decline of downtowns. But, I don’t agree that removing the skyways will rejuvenate the street scene as it was in the good old days. While the skyways no longer draw the suburban shoppers, they still have utility for the downtown residents and workers, and the businesses that serve them. I understand the concerns stemming from equity perceptions. My experience is mainly in St Paul, but I’m not aware of efforts to exclude certain types of people from the skyways, which are are considered public access during the hours they are uniformly open.
There are a host of issues to be discussed, but the future of the skyways may be decided by the demographic shift facilitated by the pandemic and function of the downtowns. In St Paul the downtown resident population is destined to double over ten years from2014 to 2023…some of it within converted office buildings on the skyways, but much of it outside the skyway realm. The evolution of shopping to online vs on-site and working at home and potentially less dependence on skyways may just relegate them to obsolescence…or not.
I guess I don’t consider myself “wimpy” for making use of progress we’ve made as society in protecting ourselves from the elements whether it’s not walking out in the cold and rain when there’s a skyway available, or not sitting outside and eating dinner in the cold and rain on a patio when there’s an indoor dining room available. Maybe instead we need a term for those that choose the latter.
As a 17 year downtown resident, I would also like to comment about the skyways. They don’t kill the street level business activity…there is just not enough street level activity, period. They do provide more safe and stable walking for people who have difficulty navigating curbs, broken sidewalks, ice and even heat. Just as you may not like that streets have been built for car traffic, the skyways should not be viewed from one point of view. They do serve a population that is not necessarily able to bike and hike the streets. I agree with earlier comment…look at these downtown features and design an environment that works…stop blaming them.
My husband and I have lived in downtown St. Paul for over 40 years, the last 25+ in Lowertown. Steven uses a wheelchair, St.Paul has hills, Lowertown is downhill from the businesses and cultural venues we need and enjoy. The skyways are the best and safest way to get around. WInter can be cold, true. But poor snow removal kills winter access in a wheelchair. We use and depend on our skyway system.
One reason there’s such bad snow removal on sidewalks is that many/most of the wealthiest people downtown use the skyways. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation.
So building owners are deciding not to shovel well because only poor people use the sidewalks?
The Johnson Pkwy bike path is doable at a slow pace that enables the likely possibility that you will have to stop, maneuver around, or shout to gain the attention of a motorist at one of the many intersections. Anyone who thinks it works as a rapid route, where motorists strictly obey the stop signs and studiously scan the path before getting on or off Johnson Pkwy, risks getting creamed.
Great article. Historically, skyways were not built for cold or weather. They were built for pedestrian safety in the Twin Cities. Both cities were plagued with a glut of pedestrians being killed by cars. The goal was to give pedestrians and drivers a safer grid to meander. They worked, and quite well. Car v pedestrian accidents are extremely rare in both downtowns. I cannot remember the last time there was a fatality in either city during the business day. Before urban sprawl decimated downtown St. Paul there were thousands of more pedestrians coming down for all sorts of reasons. As recently as the 1980’s downtown St. Paul was packed every day from 7am – 7pm with workers, shoppers, walkers and visitors. Present day the skyways may seem lime a blight. But they saved numerous lives and lived up to the purpose.
Correction, I do recall a Metro Transit bus hopped a curb and crushed a pedestrian approximately 4-5 years ago in downtown MPLS during a rush hour afternoon. Again, one of the reasons they were built. Taking them down is interesting goal. Finding a way to bring those business down to street level in their current spaces would be an expensive task.
Boy your research is way off. I was hit by a car that was turning right at a stoplight. I was in a pedestrian crosswalk. I had obeyed the laws.
Even though I was found under the car the police officer did not even write a warning. My report said there was no injury. As I was taken to the hospital by ambulance.
The point is the accidents are not being reported. My doctor said in the same year over 20 serious or fatal pedestrian/ car accidents had occurred in police records.
My concussion and injuries were thought of as not life threatening so no record shows.
It’s worse in mpls.
I’d say more but enuf!
The assertion that the better off-street trails in town rarely connect to important job clusters and/or retail destinations is spot-on. So is the assertion that thoroughfares like West 7th are notoriously hazardous to biking and walking. As such, opportunities to secure off-street rights of way that actually do – or will – connect such activity centers cannot be left to pass. This would include the so-called CP Spur, that unused 3.5 mile rail freight pathway connecting the Randolph/Keg & Case complex on the east with the promising Highland Bridge development on the west via the strategically important and centrally located Sibley Plaza area and the logistically promising Lexington/I-35E/Montreal neighborhood. Four developing activity centers in the population centroid of the Metro area, three of which are within walking distance of West 7th, if not on West 7th, and the fourth on the cusp of becoming one of the most dense, livable, mixed use developments in the region, if not the nation. The spur connects these without exposing users – walkers, bikers and potentially transit riders – to the hazards of West 7th. You can live near Randolph and West 7th, bike to work at a Highland Bridge job source in 20 minutes – and live to tell about it. (In the not-to-distant future, you can also bike to the soccer match at Allianz completely off-street using the extended Ayd Mill trail.).
But readers need to remain vigilant that indifferent railroad operatives and distracted public servants would allow the trail to be sold off piecemeal to adjacent property owners and repurposed away from the common good. Let your state and local politicians know that potential public gems like the CP Spur come along but rarely and that the time is now to strike on behalf of the citizenry.
Thank you for sharing
The author lived here for one year? So ostensibly experienced two winters at most. S/he doesn’t have the history with horrendous amounts of snow, ice and cold. Skyways are a not especially pretty, but they sure are a help to people who live downtown and can’t get around. Note: LIVE downtown. Having a mix of business and residences makes for a more vibrant downtown. Further, some of the most fun new little shops started out in the skyways. Removing them would be expensive and foolish. Instead, spend that money improving bikeways and adding parks to the north side, or work on better affordable housing. Other than that, some good observations. St. Paul isn’t perfect by a long shot, and I wouldn’t call it “the most livable city in the US,” but it has its charms.
As someone who grew up in the twin cities and only recently moved away, I mostly think this is a great article, however:
You’ll find few people who agree with you on the skyways. Most people from the cities view them with pride–they’re something that makes the twin cities unique–and they get a lot of use when there isn’t a pandemic going on. I’m not sure why you would support tearing down pedestrian infrastructure as opposed to making it more accessible from the street level (I agree that this is an issue).
Saying that Minnesotans are wimpy when it comes to the cold comes across as extremely condescending and out-of-touch, especially from someone who’s from the coast and only experienced one winter here. MNSP literally has the coldest winters of any metropolitan area in the US, so while I’m not sure where else you have lived (Quebec, maybe? It’s the only city I can think of that has comparably cold winters), MNSP is objectively very cold. Sure, it’s not particularly snowy, but the cold in it of itself can be a barrier–there are some times when it literally gets so cold that it’s dangerous to go outside (usually a windchill of below -45, which induced frostbite in less than 5 minutes), although this seldom happens more than a few days every winter. On these days, schools are canceled–this degree of extreme cold is not common in most of the US so perhaps people from other areas aren’t as aware of just how hazardous extreme cold can be. In normal non-hazardous winter conditions, people in the twin cities love to complain about the cold, but I’ve never noticed any real reluctance to go outside in cold weather, and winter activities like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and ice fishing are super popular there, even when it’s very cold (especially cross country skiing, I did this all the time back home and the trails were often super crowded). I think it’s kind of like how people in New York love to complain about the subway but everyone still uses it.
I suspect the real reason people were reluctant to go outside last year was because of the pandemic.
to add on: looking at the data, it seems last year was an unusually warm winter, with only 15 days that temperatures dropped below 0, and a mean minimum of 16 degrees (!) in January (extremely high, almost twice the average), per DNR data.
Last winter was quite warm in November and December. I did a huge outdoor project in November and December last year. I dug a trench around Thanksgiving that would have been impossible most years due to frost. I literally finished my outdoor project on the morning of Dec 23rd when it was around 40 degrees before the temperatures dropped significantly and a winter storm hit by early afternoon.
There’s a real good reason MSP is the only metro area of any consequence in the lower 48 that features outdoor hockey boards. Can’t even find them in Buffalo or Boston. Not quite cold enough. But it is – or at least was – here. Makes this place truly unique and Minnesotans unusually clannish with outdoor winter sports basically outside one’s door.
As for the skyways, grade separating pedestrians from street traffic made for a huge safety upgrade. It also upgraded the ability of the street network to process cars and, what may matter most to these pages, transit, by enabling much more street-friendly traffic signal cycles and progressions. You could often scoot down West 7th all the way from the warehouses on the north end of the CBD to the Rock Island freight yard to the south – where the stadium is today. It was quite an efficient people and vehicle moving setup.
Great post. I agree that the skyways are awful for street life, but folks here seem to love them. So much so that they pretty much ignored everthing else in your post. 🙂
Another positive: St. Paul has done a very good job of preserving beautiful and historic buildings downtown. The exception happens to be the center of downtown.
Also, I think St. Paul’s connection to the river is surprisingly meh. It’s shocking that the Shephard Road freeway remains in place even though I35E runs nearby. The West Side south of downtown should be a thriving neighborhood, but remains a weird industrial area/ airport.
Finally, freeways have cut off the downtown from surrounding neighborhoods even more than most cities making it feel like an island. Despite some population growth the downtown has relatively few people living there and there’s so little density in adjacent neighborhoods.