Discussions on the ‘Decline of the Midway’

Last summer, I read a guest column in a neighborhood newspaper — the Midway-Como-Frogtown Monitor — titled “The Decline of the Midway.” Author Tom Goldstein, a Midway resident, bemoans the condition of the stretch of University Avenue in St. Paul generally between Lexington and Cleveland avenues, named for its approximate location “mid-way” between the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis. One could also view the Midway as the areas within about a 10-minute walk from three stations on the Metro Green Line: Lexington, Hamline and Fairview.

As another resident of the Midway, I generally agree with Goldstein’s points: The empty lots and surface parking throughout the area are travesties, as is the garbage that dots the area. Businesses have been demolished, only to be replaced by nothing, squandering opportunities for transit-oriented connections at the intersection of the Metro A Line and Green Line.

The Midway today is a far cry from the “Midwest version of the Champs-Elysées” once imagined by the City of Saint Paul in the late 1800s, or the “vibrant commercial center” of “corporate headquarters, retail stores, community services, local businesses, residential development, and cultural and entertainment destinations — all structured within a pattern of streets, blocks and green gathering spaces” imagined by 2030 in a 2008 plan for the area around the Snelling light rail station.

However, a few arguments in Goldstein’s article gave me pause:

Claim 1: “Outside investment is primarily coming from deep-pocketed developers, seeking to capitalize on the citywide housing shortage and the multi-billion-dollar taxpayer-funded light rail system.”

How else should a housing shortage be addressed, and empty and under-utilized lots be filled in around the area, other than by building additional housing? Furthermore, shouldn’t additional development be concentrated along the light rail, so that people can take advantage of our city’s infrastructure and engage in commerce in St. Paul, while reducing their impacts on congestion and pollution from driving?

As a concession, developers often should be treated with a degree of skepticism — the fitful development (or lack thereof) at the United Village area at Snelling and University, and the demolition of potentially viable storefronts in 2021, only for the land to then lay fallow for years, is case in point — but I also recognize that “overthrow capitalism” is not a realistic policy proposal to meet the immediate needs of the Midway.

Claim 2: “While several housing projects have been recently completed along University Avenue in the past year, who really benefits from those projects — the investors or local residents?”

The question at hand here seems to be who meets the definition of a “local resident”, and the degree to which the residents of these new buildings meet that qualification. I am of the perspective that anyone who lives in the Midway should be considered a resident, regardless of how long they have lived here. More people in the neighborhood means more workers, more customers at local stores, and more “eyes on the street” as people go to and from their daily activities. The latter was famously noted by urban theorist Jane Jacobs to be an integral part of public safety in cities, as people looking around for one another — neighbors, shopkeepers, pedestrians — both create possibilities for people to help each other out and naturally deters antisocial behaviors.

By removing the residents of these new buildings from the equation, “investors or local residents” becomes a false dichotomy that necessarily precludes what is needed to reverse the “decline of the Midway” — some order of new and outside investment to replace what has been lost over the years, whether that be new buildings, resources, residents or a combination thereof. Furthermore, the recently completed apartments along University Avenue that the author mentions — presumably the Morrow apartments at University and Fairview avenues — replaced abandoned structures and surface parking lots, exactly the kind of poor conditions that the author bemoans throughout his article.

Data on housing unit counts shows that the number of housing units in the Midway and surrounding neighborhoods has largely remained stagnant, or even declined somewhat, for several decades, sometimes even going back to the 1940s. New apartment buildings built in this decade are merely compensating for houses torn down to make way for Interstate 94 in the 1960s. Stagnant housing unit counts — paired with declining household size, going back centuries — suggests a declining population overall in the Midway, and by extension, fewer customers at local businesses and eyes on the street throughout the neighborhood.

Claim 3: “Nearly all of these buildings feature market-rate units, targeted at a more affluent demographic, which does nothing to lower the overall cost of housing or meet the dire need for affordable housing throughout St. Paul.”

While increases in the quantity of housing alone are generally insufficient to significantly reduce housing prices, it is simply incorrect to say that it has no impact at all; the counterpoint can be found immediately to the west, in Minneapolis. Amid robust construction of new housing since the late 2010s in Minneapolis, aided by policies such as eliminating mandatory parking requirements, encouraging the construction of apartments on commercial and public transit corridors, reducing minimum lot sizes, and allowing duplexes and triplexes to be built across the city by-right, average rent in Minneapolis has remained markedly stable.

From an article by Pew on the topic:

“From 2017 to 2022, Minneapolis increased its housing stock by 12% while rents grew by just 1%. Over the same period, the rest of Minnesota added only 4% to its housing stock while rents went up by 14% … Both Minneapolis and the rest of the state experienced population growth (1% and 3%, respectively) and household growth (10% and 7%, respectively), but despite increased demand, Minneapolis was able to limit rent growth by building more housing.”

Courtesy of the Financial Times, “Repeat after me: building any new homes reduces housing costs for all”

Although it is true that increasing opportunities for private housing development has a positive effect in mediating housing costs, it is not sufficient on its own to fully deal with all aspects of the housing crisis, especially given the immediacy of the issue and the social need for deeply affordable housing, which is unlikely to be met by for-profit private development alone.

An idea I find intriguing is the notion of a countercyclical public housing developer. Following the lead of places like Singapore, it means state and local governments build housing themselves, without having to fiddle with tax credits, financing deals and other incentives to convince the private sector to meet the social and environmental needs of building affordable infill housing in urban areas. Furthermore, public development could act in a countercyclical manner, maintaining building capacity and employment even in economic downturns when private developers cannot or do not want to build. Interestingly, the grandiose nature of the Saint Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse result from this tendency, as both labor and material costs fell during the Great Depression (How such a public development scheme might work best in St. Paul today is best left to a future article.)

It is naturally easier to identify current faults with a place than to proactively identify future pathways beyond those faults. But if a significant issue with the Midway has been alternating states of stagnation and decline for several decades — as evidenced by the panoply of vacant lots where homes and storefronts once stood — then we should be less quick to castigate recent construction that has created new homes for new residents to live in the Midway, walk along its sidewalks, frequent its businesses and ultimately contribute to what, at its core, makes a neighborhood — its people.

Photos by Austin Wu, unless otherwise noted