If I were given 100+ acres of space to create whatever I wanted, it might not turn out exactly like the Hillcrest Master Plan. But considering a few key factors – who is in charge of shaping the plan, the location of the site, and the financing available – the plan is pretty solid. With the St. Paul Planning Commission set to hold a public hearing on the proposed master plan this week (and the City Council, presumably, to take official action on the plan soon after), let’s dig a little deeper into how the plan looks through the lenses of housing, jobs, and transportation.
Overall, this plan does not prioritize housing, but instead seeks to balance housing with jobs, described succinctly in the plan as “1000 homes and 1000 jobs.” This should not come as a shock, as the plan was coordinated by the St. Paul Port Authority, whose strongest skillset is building short, wide rectangles that pay taxes and sometimes employ local folks.
The good thing is that some moderate density is proposed on the north end of the site (the plan describes it as “high density” but I think we can retire the use of that label for 4-5 story buildings any day now, please). I wish the orange color “medium density” zone were expanded south to take over the cream color “low density” zone, but the zoning code shows – from my admittedly basic reading – that there isn’t really much difference between their respective T1 and T2 zoning in terms of scale. So really it would be nice if the “high density” area were expanded a bit more to the south.
Quotes from Hillcrest advisory committee members have suggested that the idea for the “low density” area is not for townhomes or row homes, as the planning document suggests, but for single family homes. As a gentle reminder, the vast majority of surrounding land (and really all of St Paul) is single family homes. I understand that newer single family homes would provide an option that may not exist in this particular neighborhood. But single family homes are basically [gestures generally in every direction]. In short, when you are building from scratch, you shouldn’t waste the opportunity. When a single family home here and there needs to be torn down because they are unsafe, it provides an opportunity to build a new single family home. Maybe that’s not a frequent occurrence, but it’s certainly more common than 100+ acres being available all at once. We should use these big opportunities to do big things.
I’m also naming here that I won’t really delve into housing affordability much because there are frankly a few too many factors at play that are not dictated by the plan itself. But I will note that the staff memo and plan speak to goals for “rental units affordable to households earning at or below 30% Area Median Income (AMI) and up to 60% AMI, as well as affordable ownership opportunities within reach for households earning at or below 60% AMI and up to 80% AMI.” Creating truly affordable housing for folks to rent and own can be absurdly expensive but it’s also an absolute necessity. So we’ll see which financing tools get utilized to make those affordability goals a reality.
Jobs are good. People getting jobs is a good thing. And, usually, places that create jobs also pay some local property taxes, which is also a good thing. Overall, the “1000 jobs” part of the plan’s subtitle should probably be viewed as generally good. As mentioned before, it also shouldn’t come as a shock given who was leading the planning process: the Saint Paul Port Authority. In general, I think building a few concrete rectangles on this site that happen to pay fairly significant property taxes and hire a significant amount of people will be beneficial – even if this is not how I personally would handle a site that is big enough to really be an entire neighborhood. But if we are going to build some big rectangles, here are two very basic things we should ensure happen: local hiring and onsite clean energy.
If you’ve spent any time reading media coverage of the work the Saint Paul Port Authority does or seen them present to the City Council, you’ve likely heard them talk about how their projects create jobs and grow the tax base. They also do a good job with energy efficiency, environmental clean up, public art, etc., but the core of their work can safely be described as creating jobs and growing the tax base. While growing the tax base is somewhat straight forward (build a new thing that pays more taxes than what was there before), creating jobs should really be talked about with a bit more nuance.
By their own report, Saint Paul Port Authority is typically pretty bad at creating jobs for people in St Paul. Of the employees at their eight projects on the East Side of St. Paul (zip codes 55130, 55106, 55199), approximately 29% were residents of St. Paul and 13% were East Siders. This feels like they have to be doing things actively wrong to get numbers that low. And again, growing the tax base is good. Creating jobs is good. And not everyone needs to work where they live. I know all these things. But an entity that is funded by St. Paul tax payers should be creating jobs that are supporting St. Paul families. Especially if this site is going to sacrifice homes we know would benefit St. Paul families, we should at least have some fairly strict guidelines in place to ensure the job-creating buildings that replace those theoretical homes may also benefit St. Paul families.
In terms of clean energy, the Port actually has a long track record of running what is almost certainly Minnesota’s most successful clean energy financing program (Property Assessed Clean Energy) so they definitely have the chops to make sure the site is as efficient as possible. In terms of onsite clean energy such as solar, however, their track record is fairly mixed. Now, it’s true that not every single roof is designed in a way that allows for a large solar array (due to the weight, electrical connections, shading, etc). But when you are building something from scratch with virtually no shading nearby, there is no excuse for your building not to be solar ready. Considering how much you can save financially by using solar, that nice big solar ready roof should be filled with panels, as shown in the third roof array below. When these buildings go up, not only do they need some solar, they need ALL the solar. Google Maps satellite view will be keeping an eye on you, Port!
Like the plan as a whole, the transportation framework needs to be analyzed with a few caveats in mind. If the site is going to have – as I put it – some very large rectangles on it, members of the public might not be able to bike and walk straight through those privately owned rectangles. So this section will only speak to how the routes that exist on the page could be improved for all modes.
First, in general, while the advisory committee lauded the plan because it “has thoughtful transportation connections to the west, with jogs at Howard Street to discourage cut-through traffic across the site,” I think it’s worth noting how an opposite strategy would look. Creating jogs or fewer ways to cut through the site can also just focus whatever car and truck traffic there is on fewer streets, making those routes even less friendly. I sometimes default to a “more routes are better” mentality where you improve safety through the design of the route itself (curb separation, shorter crossings for pedestrians, etc.) but I understand wanting to discourage dangerous driving, even if methods may differ.
Next, the best thing about the transportation section is that parts of it really seem to get things fairly right. If only those design elements were carried over to more of the routes, I think you get to a good place. For example, some of the streets within each category offer curb separated routes for both bikers and pedestrians. But for some reason – maybe right of way constraint? – those treatments are not carried over to the remainder of the routes. That leaves the kind of gaps bikers and pedestrians are used to seeing throughout the city as our transportation grid is updated, but these really don’t belong in a plan that is starting from scratch. For example, maybe the coolest connection point near the Hillcrest site is the Furness Parkway Trail. But the plan would force folks to use only one connection point rather than simply carrying the trail treatment through more of the east-west connections, which would make the entire site feel bike/walk/rollable to this great asset. Tweaking the plan to make east-west connections the norm, rather than a one route option, would help make it feel more like a traditional street grid. Improving those east-west connections was also the focus of the Planning Commission’s Transportation Committee last month so improvements there should maybe be expected.
One other design element that put a smile on my face is the trade of a sidewalk for a multi-use trail. While I think almost all route options on this site and in St. Paul could afford to remove one lane of parking and use that space for a trail in addition to the standard sidewalks on each side of the street, a multi-use trail can sometimes be the next best thing. If they truly cannot stomach the idea of removing parking, I really believe the option of expanding one sidewalk to be a 10-12 foot multi-use trail (think Lexington Ave north of Minnehaha in northeast Midway, shown below) should be considered on any collector, arterial, or even moderately used route for people who are walking, rolling, or using bicycles.
Review the materials on the Hillcrest Master Plan website
Contact City Council to let them know your thoughts!