Grand Avenue near St. Albans Street. Notice the wrought-iron streetlamp, just one of the elements that instills a sense of place.

Echoes of Greatness, Seeds of Change Along St. Paul’s Grand Avenue

Editor’s note: A version of this post appeared originally in the author’s blog, “Twin Cities Urbanist.”

The neighborhood along Grand Avenue between Dale and Lexington — the eight blocks known as East Grand Avenue — lies close to my heart. The avenue is where I went to my first bicycle advocacy event, where I have gone on many dates, where I always take visitors to show them the best of St. Paul.

I have especially wonderful memories of the food; during my first visit I was impressed by a lunch at Brasa, eaten outside under a warm sun and blue sky. East Grand represents a miniature downtown, a main street for Ward 2’s quaint neighborhoods. It abounds with a particular sense of place, one which is unique and magical — but why? And how? What urbanist traits of Grand Avenue contribute to this? And how might we design the built environment to compound on these traits?

View of businesses inside the historical Studebaker Building on Grand Avenue,
One of the interesting buildings along Grand, now home to Cafe Latte, among other businesses. Photo: Wolfie Browender.

Multimodality underpins one dimension of Grand Avenue’s charm. Provided you are able, it is fully accessible by the Summit Avenue bike lane a block north, which connects in turn to the broader St. Paul bicycle network. Any cyclist who lives south of Interstate 94 and west of downtown could easily reach Grand Avenue by bicycle.

Its walkability, though, is lacking. Walkability requires good land use; the accredited research organization Walk Score identifies a perfect walkable neighborhood as one with all amenities within a 5-minute/0.25-mile walk. East Grand stretches for about 1.5 miles — meaning for a pedestrian at any location along the corridor, most of the district is outside of comfortable walking range. This creates a stronger incentive for the average shopper to drive instead of walk — which means more people drive, solidifying automobility’s dominance along East Grand.

Indeed, if one does choose to relax and stroll down the corridor, they are rewarded with pleasant sights and smells: varied and human-scale architecture, the sight of happy patrons at restaurants, perhaps lounging on patios, and eclectic shops run out of quaint old houses. Walking down Grand is simply a pleasant experience, one that I highly recommend to anyone with time to spare.

Sidewalk view of Grand Avenue of variety of businesses, including St Croix Cleaners and Penzeys Spices. The similar brick facades help lend a sense of cohesion.
Grand Avenue near St. Albans Street. Notice the wrought-iron streetlamp, just one of the elements that instills a sense of place. Photo: Adam Schwalbe.

However, if the user of active transport does not wish to (or cannot) walk or bike, then the bus provides a practical, reliable mode by which to get around. Metro Transit Route 63 forms a key part of Metro Transit’s high-frequency network, lumbering along Grand every 15 minutes. The frequency removes the stress of cross-referencing schedules, and East Grand’s proximity to downtown means the neighborhood is accessible to most transit users in St. Paul. Because of these factors — connectivity and frequency — the 63 represents a tremendously useful line for helping people toward and away from the charming business district of East Grand.

Historic Roots

The linearity of Grand Avenue is an important factor affecting its convenient transportation. All the businesses lie on a single street, stretching for about one and a half miles — a peculiar pattern in the realm of business districts and one borne from streetcar-era roots. The area was first developed during the early 20th century, after a streetcar line was established running from Cleveland Avenue to Downtown St. Paul. The land along the corridor became more valuable, spurring development, and thus its modern footprint was born. The time of the streetcar did not last long, though, and by the mid-20th century the automobile had conquered East Grand.

According to local historian David Lanegran, mechanics and dealerships flourished as the district and city more broadly became geared toward the car. Modern East Grand was born during the 1970s and ’80s, as downtown declined and Grand stepped in to fill the market demand for shopping.

The Tyre Shop on Grand Avenue along with the old streetcar line.
The “Tyre Shop,” one of the auto service stations along Grand Avenue during the boom years of post-World War II. Photo: Ramsey County Historical Society.

Even though eight decades separates today from the widespread introduction of the car, East Grand’s conversion and loyalty to an auto-centric built environment is unmistakable. The street stretches over five lanes (a median, two traffic lanes and two parking lanes), allowing and encouraging drivers to go fast. This creates two externalities for the experience of pedestrians: a grating car-emitted noise and increased physical danger crossing the road.

Grand was not created for the pedestrian — that it is still such a pleasant place to be speaks volumes about its sense of place. It also speaks to the potential of Grand Avenue. Imagine the possibilities if the area had less maladaptive auto-centric infrastructure. Imagine a Grand Avenue lined with trees instead of parking spaces, where cars roll along at a comfortable 15 or 20 miles per hour, and everyone — young and old, physically able or not — could cross the street without fear.

Grand Avenue with cars travelling in either direction and parking on both sides of the road.
Cars, cars and more cars! Photo: Wolfie Browender

In his book Walkable City, Jeff Speck posits several conditions which a place requires to be pedestrian friendly. One of these is the feeling of being “enclosed” by some aspect of the built environment. Think, for instance, of walking down a cozy European street versus a strip mall on the side of a six-lane stroad.

One place near Grand Avenue that nails this principle is St. Albans Street. The road is narrow and quiet. Cars rarely roll through, and the ones that do pass proceed slowly, thereby greatly reducing noise pollution and endowing the street with an unmistakable tranquility. The apartment buildings create the sense of a cohesive environment (as opposed to a sprawling wasteland), and the trees lend a bit of nature to the space. Overall, it is a pleasant place to be and, presumably, to live. These are the kinds of places we should be designing for — cohesive and pleasant environments, nice places to exist and live.

St. Albans Street lined on either side with multistory residential buildings.
St. Albans Street, as seen from the middle of the road. Notice the lack of traffic and the housing density on either side of the road. Photo: Adam Schwalbe.

One of the problems plaguing the Grand Avenue corridor and preventing it from realizing its full potential is the plethora of surface parking lots. This may be the least efficient use of land imaginable — places where a limited number of people can store their private property for no fee. Parking lots have marginal economic benefit, are an eyesore and disrupt East Grand’s sense of place. Furthermore, their entrances represent a hazard to pedestrians and solidify car dominance in the psyche of all. With every car a pedestrian yields to, the walker is reminded that East Grand is a place for the auto, not for the human.

Parking lot on Grand Avenue with an entrance that intersects with the pedestrian sidewalk.
Beautiful “scenery” along Grand Avenue. Photo: Adam Schwalbe

What Is to Be Done?

Grand is a wonderful street but can certainly be improved through implementing some key principles:

  • East Grand should be human-oriented instead of auto-oriented. That means street narrowing, new buildings and businesses along the corridor, and bicycle infrastructure.
    • There should be a stronger sense of place, which would come from more eclectic businesses and creatives, as well as reduced car dependence.
  • Finally, there should be more residences near the neighborhood to fuel the local economy and provide more people with access to East Grand.

One easy zoning fix would be removing the East Grand Overlay District (EGOD). These are a set of special land use regulations unique to the East Grand neighborhood, and which have done much to stifle projects and development. (Movement and advocacy around the EGOD has been discussed at length; I recommend Dan Marshall’s excellent piece and the recent podcast discussing the EGOD.) Loosening the girdle of zoning would unleash the creative and productive forces of the private market to develop the avenue, while keeping the basic elements that make East Grand so grand.

Indeed, new developments are already foretelling what the corridor could be, should its restrictive zoning code be repealed. A relatively new building stands on the corner of St. Albans and Grand (replacing the former Dixie’s), which contributes to the atmosphere of the avenue. An integral part of Grand is its plethora of building styles. It makes the place feel alive, and catches the pedestrian’s eye with new sights every couple of meters. The new building has enough similarities with the rest of the corridor — especially its brick facade — to be cohesive, while still being distinctive in its height and construction. Walking next to it, one gets the sense of Grand Avenue being dynamic and alive, possessing the sense of vitality that so many seek in cities. This feeling of vibrancy along the entirety of the corridor is the potential of Grand Avenue, should we allow these kinds of homes to be built.

Apartment buildings and businesses along Grand Avenue. All show variety through their construction styles but generally share brick as a common element.
Note the diversity of construction styles on Grand Avenue. Photo: Adam Schwalbe

Another improvement would be to remove the bidirectional median and install a grade-separated bike path. True, St. Paul is planning to build one on Summit, just a block north, but I argue that focusing on the Summit Avenue Regional Trail negates the purpose of traveling via bicycle. An integral part of cycling is experiencing the richness of the environment around you. You are far more connected to the environment than you would be in a car or bus, and your journey is made correspondingly more meaningful when you pass through vibrant and eclectic neighborhoods.

The Netherlands is seen (for good reason) to be a mecca for cycle-transportation. One reason why is the environmental wealth and depth which the cyclist experiences — the joy of cozy corridors and sightly alleys enroute to your destination. The cyclist’s goals do not consist purely in getting from point A to B; they also want to experience their surroundings. A grade-separated, fully protected bike path through East Grand Avenue would create a fundamentally different experience.

A cheaper fix, albeit one mutually exclusive from the bike path, would lie in making street parking slanted instead of horizontal. This would solve two problems. First is that of car speed. Due to the current width of the road, cars have the liberty to zoom down Grand Avenue at high speeds. This makes it more dangerous for pedestrians trying to cross the street (which already has a dearth of painted crosswalks at certain stretches), and it exponentially increases the noise pollution, which spills out onto shoppers and diners. If street parking were to be slanted, the lanes would necessarily be more narrow, and by a well-documented phenomenon, speeds would reduce, leading to a reduction in crashes and noise.

The key to the appeal of Grand lies in the past. Unique streetcar-era architecture and spacing means that it is multimodal, at a semi-walkable scale and is alive. Going forward, we must look to the past for ways to improve upon this phenomenal neighborhood — employing design principles prior to the automobile, that destroyer of pleasantness and the human scale. We must champion active mobility — walking and bicycling — as ways to enliven the neighborhood and make people happier and healthier.

Greatness lies in the future, but to accomplish this we must look to the past.