St. Paul and the Problem of Arterial-Only Housing Development

Recently, Portland, Oregon housing advocate Aaron Brown noticed that yet another new apartment building in Portland was going up next to a freeway. This is a real problem for the future residents of those apartments, who must deal with the air pollution, noise pollution and disruption to the urban fabric that a freeway creates. 

More broadly, it seems like a lot of housing gets built on all kinds of busy streets, which bear the same downsides (if less severe) as freeways. A year ago, Slate columnist Henry Grabar argued that we must “upzone the side streets,” pointing out that most American cities only zone for dense construction on the main arterial streets, restricting apartment-dwellers to some of the worst streets to live on.

St. Paul is no exception. Large swaths of the city are zoned only for single-unit detached housing. More heavily-trafficked streets carve through these quieter residential areas, and they are almost always the only corridors zoned for more dense forms of housing. In the primarily single-family neighborhood where I live in St. Paul, new (mostly rental) multifamily housing does get built, but primarily on streets like Snelling and Marshall avenues. Meanwhile, it’s rare to see any new housing going up on the side streets. 

So I took Brown up on his request for a more precise analysis of this question, taking a look at St. Paul. The Metropolitan Council has an open-access dataset on all of the housing permits built in our seven-county metropolitan area from 2009 to 2018. They also have a dataset on roads in the metro area, classifying different roads by their level of traffic intensity. With a bit of GIS work, we can figure out just how much housing is getting built near our major streets and freeways.

In my analysis, I classified a building as near a major street if it was within 100 meters of a street classified as principal arterial, minor augmentor or minor reliever. This includes some of St. Paul’s most busy streets, like I-94 and University Avenue, as well as other large traffic corridors like Lexington Parkway and Kellogg Boulevard. It’s not immediately apparent that most of our housing is built on these streets when we look at the number of developments; from 2009 to 2018, 27.86% of housing projects in St. Paul were built along major streets.

However, this isn’t representative of where most housing units were built, which is the more relevant statistic for understanding where St. Paulites live. As is visible in the above map, larger apartment buildings are far more likely to be built along major roads. Because such a large share of units are coming from multifamily housing projects, the majority of units (61.98%) are actually built within 100 meters of a major road. 

The chart below shows that nearly all of the units that are near busy streets are those in larger apartment buildings. This suggests that much of the problem comes from our policy of arterial-only zoning for large multifamily housing.

Another way to slice this is to look only at highways, but extend the buffer to a larger distance. I looked at how much housing was within 300 meters of highways, reflecting their more severe levels of pollution — a recent L.A. Times report showed air pollution from highways regularly traveling upwards of 1,000 feet (~300 meters). 

Just over 50% of dwelling units from 2009 to 2018 were within 300 meters of a freeway. And, once again, this is mostly due to the distribution of units from larger apartments. Visible in the map above and the second graph below, it is the units from large apartments that primarily end up next to freeways. 

Returning to Henry Grabar’s argument, this is an injustice. It’s good to see new housing being built, but relegating those new residents to busy streets is what Daniel Oleksiuk calls “A Devil’s Bargain.” When we primarily build our new multifamily housing on main vehicle routes, we are ensuring that people who move into St. Paul’s newer and more energy-efficient housing — which is also much more likely to be rental housing — are also going to live on streets where the quality of life is worse. Along these busy streets, the air is dirtier, noise pollution is incessant, and the streets are dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. The resulting impacts can be severe: highways cut locals’ access to amenities, while traffic-caused air pollution shortens life spans; traffic-caused noise pollution increases chances of developing various health problems, and busy intersections lead to dozens of deaths each decade in St. Paul.

Half of the problem is that so much car traffic guts through St. Paul. Our arterial street-centric multifamily zoning wouldn’t be so much of a problem if such streets had fewer cars going through their centers. With better transportation policies, we could reduce air and noise pollution, and living on busy streets near transit and amenities might become more desirable. Take I-94, for example: Living next to the huge freeway is a real problem, but living next to the Twin Cities Boulevard might not be so bad. 

But we should push for change on multiple fronts and move beyond this system of shoving apartments onto main streets. Policies that end single-family zoning are a start, but widespread triplex or townhome legalization isn’t likely to substantially shift the composition and spatial distribution of housing units because most housing units come from very large buildings. To truly address this problem, we would need to allow for denser forms of housing across our cities — not just in downtown, and not just on main streets.

And ideally, supporting more density across St. Paul could create a virtuous cycle, moving residents away from main corridors while providing the enabling conditions for better transit service and shorter trips for work and errands, which would further reduce the harms created by traffic corridors.

Such changes are urgent. Until we can improve our roads and disperse our housing, we are confining thousands of residents to substantial reductions in their quality of life.

Photo at top: A rendering of a development on Snelling Avenue near Allianz Field, courtesy of Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal

About Zak Yudhishthu

Zak is a student at Macalester College studying economics and music. He's interested in all kinds of urban politics and policy, and is the student representative for the Macalester-Groveland Neighborhood Council.

16 thoughts on “St. Paul and the Problem of Arterial-Only Housing Development

  1. Eric

    While I appreciate the analysis and time committed to this project, I part ways with the author’s analysis. In brief, painting arterial development inherently “bad” because of pollution and noise (real and meaningful concerns) fails to also take into account the positive aspects of living at or near busy streets and nodes. These can often include quick and easy access to transit, greater ability to walk to retail/commercial activity and meaningful progress toward creating the density the author wants to see across the city. Some people may also safe time by living near freeways that get them to and from their employment, loved ones or healthcare efficiently. Not all busy streets are identical as the author points out, “Living next to the huge freeway is a real problem, but living next to the Twin Cities Boulevard might not be so bad.”

    One of the things that makes cities great is they create lots of different kinds of development and neighborhoods to allow individuals to choose the best fit for their needs and lifestyles. We have single family homes, small multi-family units, large multi-family units, quiet neighborhoods, vibrant/loud neighborhoods etc. Each of these options has trade offs and none is ideal for everyone. Some are more expensive/some less; some dense/some less; some great for you/some great for me. Of the many issues facing housing development in the City of St. Paul, I’m not sure development along busy corridors ranks among the top priorities I want our scarce public dollars and time focused on.

    1. Zak Yudhishthu Moderator   Post author

      I do agree with you about the other beneficial amenities that busier streets support, namely access to transit and commercial activity. People should be able to make their own decisions regarding these tradeoffs. And I also agree that cities are great for their ability to have many kinds of development and lifestyle options.

      However, I still see important problems with our zoning code for only allowing denser development on major roads. Take, for example, Snelling Avenue, which has the A Line Rapid Bus. A Line stops are located about 450-600 meters (1500-2000 feet) apart from each other, so someone in between two stops might be 300 meters away from the bus stop. Yet the zoning still only allows for denser development directly on Snelling, and not on the parcels 200 meters away from the bus stop in the direction of the side streets. I will also add that I don’t think it makes sense for retail to only exist along major streets, for reasons this article (https://streets.mn/2022/11/30/zoning-matters-chickens-canines-cafes-and-commerce/) lays out.

      So ultimately, I am with you about the importance of supporting choice. But the problem is that we are actually restricting choice, where it’s more like having only two options: live in a bigger apartment but only only on the major streets, or live in a single-family house separate from that.

  2. Bill Mantis

    On the other hand, as EVs become more popular, both air pollution and vehicle noise pollution along arterial routes will decrease. Not to mention the fact that both would decrease faster if enforcement were more rigorous.

    1. Zak Yudhishthu Moderator   Post author

      I agree that EVs would be a very substantial improvement, but I still have some concerns about their pollutive effects, for example because of tire wear and particulate matter: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0048969722048598 .

      Also, they don’t solve the problems of traffic injuries and accidents, or the disamenity of living next to a full tear in the urban fabric: https://direct.mit.edu/rest/article-abstract/doi/10.1162/rest_a_01244/113170/Freeway-Revolts-The-Quality-of-Life-Effects-of?redirectedFrom=fulltext

  3. Sheldon Gitis

    The problems with the enormously-expensive apartment building projects go far beyond their dispersal.

    While there may be a reasonable argument for allowing triplexes and additional small dwellings on all residential streets, there may be an even better argument for not allowing any more 259-unit Five15 on the Park monstrosities anywhere.
    https://www.startribune.com/cedar-riverside-apartment-residents-besieged-by-break-ins/600237906/

    It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out there’s already more than enough of the density on steroids corporate welfare. You can bet those who pocket the millions of dollars of development and management fees and tax-exempt investor interest that the hideous projects generate are not living in one of their “workforce” housing units.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      What is it about that building that you think causes the problems those quotes attribute to non-residents? And that building is right next to existing high-density housing and a light rail line. You’re just against apartment buildings anywhere?

      1. Bennett Ackerberg

        One has to conclude from his comment history that he literally is. Developers are in an evil conspiracy against the public and anything denser than repurposed SFH-plexes are a blight. Lol @ the implication that the crime problem in Cedar-Riverside is apparently caused by apartment buildings. As we all know, the North Loop is now a total hellhole since its redevelopment.

        That said, since he brought up the topic of apartment monstrosities in Cedar, I am obligated to vent about Rapson’s brutalist middle finger to the city. Something about WW2 evidently broke the brains of architects for the succeeding few decades, who I can only imagine all spent their formative years in the Soviet Union.

  4. paddy

    Wasn’t like the point of the green line to spur development like apartments?

    And changing the zoning on say Marshall? The homes for sale are advertised as tear down conversions to apartments.

    This seems half-baked to me.

  5. Roger T Goerke

    I have just one observation that appears to have been overlooked. When you build apartments on “non-busy” roads they will inevitably become more busy to support the traffic going to and from the apartments. The residents and delivery vehicles will create the traffic that you were so desperately trying to avoid and destroy the road that was not built for that traffic.

  6. Luke

    I like the angle of this analysis and use of some public data sets, but am not convinced it says what the author indicates. A 100m buffer extends 1/2 to 2/3 down most side streets, muddling the data, are all of these developments on arterials or are some on nearby side streets? A smaller buffer would be more informative.

    The LA Times report is focused on freeways with 100,000 cars+ per day. St. Paul’s arterials etc. typically have less than 20,000 cars per day, so they aren’t likely to have the same health impacts as a freeway. Good data on air pollution is also very difficult to get and is clouded by lots of minutiae, such as time of year, winds, temperature, building elevations, type of pollution, and on and on. The extent of pollution is highly specific to local conditions, as the referenced LA Times report states, so what was found in LA applies to LA and not necessarily to St. Paul. The reference to traffic related deaths (in PLOS One) combines data from major and minor highways, without defining what that means. It is not clear the information in the referenced study is relevant to any streets in St. Paul.

    The article also misses a couple of other key points about new construction. The new buildings are the most likely to have better noise dampening materials than the older buildings they replace, thus effects from noise will differ from the references in the article. The HVAC is newer, often with improved filtration ability, so pollution within the units are likely to be lower than in other, older buildings.

    It’s also simply easier to develop on major roads due to the economics. Lots sizes on arterials, augmentors, and relievers are typically larger than on residential roads. Meaning a developer only has to convince one or two owners to sell, rather than numerous home owners. And larger projects are more economically viable because there are economies of scale for design, labor, and material costs. More than anything else, most affordable housing is only built if the economics make sense.

    This article would be more convincing if it focused on buildings within the 300 m interstate buffer and addressed some of these other points, rather than moving on to insufficiently supported statements about development along transit corridors that has numerous upsides, as other commenters have said.

    1. Zak Yudhishthu Moderator   Post author

      Thanks for the thoughtful response, Luke. In retrospect, I agree that a more precise analysis would put a distinction between being directly on an arterial street versus 100m from an arterial.

      Glad you raised those points about new construction. That’s worth adding to the conversation, but to my mind it doesn’t remove the fact that living directly on arterial is worse than not living along an arterial. And to the point about transit corridors — I will just copy and paste what I wrote in an above comments: Take, for example, Snelling Avenue, which has the A Line Rapid Bus. A Line stops are located about 450-600 meters (1500-2000 feet) apart from each other, so someone on Snelling in between two stops might be 300 meters away from the bus stop. Yet the zoning still only allows for denser development directly on Snelling, and not on the parcels 200 meters away from the bus stop in the direction of the side streets.

      So I would stand by the argumentative thrust of this piece. But the details that you’ve added are pretty useful context on this topic, so thanks for sharing them.

  7. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I think Zach makes great points; one option would be to transform arterial roads like Snelling and University, enacting something like the proposed South Hennepin plan (vetoed by Frey). If anyone wants to discuss this further, I’d be happy to meet them at one of the sidewalk cafés on Snelling Avenue.

  8. Sheldon Gitis

    The most recent transformation of University Avenue into a 40-yard wide strip of concrete with an LRT line shoehorned down the middle, happened not long ago. How would you transform University Avenue? After just spending a billion dollars building the hideous concrete project, are you proposing the same idiots that built it un-build it?

  9. Mike

    Across the river in Mpls, as the 2040 plan was assembled, city leaders were crystal clear that high density restricted/focused to transit corridors was a feature, not a bug. They did not want to put high density housing in locations that might lead residents to want/need cars. I think access to transit and amenities is an underrecognized benefit to locating these developments on corridors.

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