Sixteen Ways of Fixing Saint Paul's Tax Base (That Aren't Raising Taxes)

[As a "religion", Scientologists pay no taxes on their downtown buildings!]
You all know the problem… Saint Paul has a $32M budget hole that make even its potholes look small! The way the story is told: there is a big percentage of non-taxable land – like parks! – and, more importantly, non-taxed organizations in the city. These include the non-profits, schools, churches, and state governments that do not contribute to the property tax rolls. It places an extra burden on the tax-paying properties.

That’s why, about 15 years ago, the city developed a system where these institutions would pay for road maintenance. But the city screwed it up, got sued and lost, and now has to do without $32m in revenue. Thus the “taxes going up by 25%” headlines that you might have seen…

Meanwhile, important things are being left by the wayside, like street paving, streetscape improvements, street safety, basic maintenance, and rec centers, etc.

I am nothing like an expert in city budgeting and revenue policy. I’m barely knowledgeable, but I recently read an entire book about how cities can rethink how they raise money. (I didn’t learn much from it, and instead spent $10 to “purchase” the book as a .pdf.) But I might have some good ideas anyway, having been around a while and listening to people talk about taxes and economic development and being sorta intelligint.

That said, take these with grains of salt. I don't even endorse these, necessarily. It's just what I could brainstorm. The point is that if Saint Paul wants to fix its revenue problems without raising taxes, these are some ways to do that.

[Flashback: East Side, 1975.]
1.    Property Tax Assessment Reform

[Dig around in here and see for yourself.]
fiscal impact: large
time horizon: short

I was recently digging around a bit in the Ramsey County tax database, looking at property tax bills. I was struck repeatedly by how disparate assessments can be for houses that are in every other way similar. (I have also heard this from others, who shall remain nameless.)

In other words, if you have two relatively identical houses, one might pay many times the property taxes of the other depending on when it had most recently been sold. Partly this is because assessors are very conservative, and don’t look at home interiors or even speculate on potential values until they are sold.

It would be possible to assess properties at least partly based on their potential value (see also: a land tax) instead of their last-having-been-sold value. The downside is that the proverbial little old lady would have to pay more in taxes. The upside would be a far more accurate and fair valuation of property, especially between generations and between newer and older housing stock. This would thus de-incentivize things like vacant lots and/or surface parking lots.

2.    Reduction of Parking Minimums

fiscal impact: medium
time horizon: medium

I wrote a whole post on this kind of thing a while ago at streets.mn, the effect of parking and especially parking requirements on the tax base. There is no less valuable land than the land used for car storage. Requiring businesses, homes, schools, etc. to build un-valuable parking lots is a bad move, fiscally speaking. This goes double when many of these lots could be developed into actual space for people, rather than empty cars or (worse) just sitting there without even empty cars!

3.   Boosting and Expanding Downtown Density

[Potentially valuable land next to downtown on the West Side flats.]
fiscal impact: large
time horizon: medium

Downtowns are the cash cows for any city, as a whole bunch of value-per-acre analysis from smart people shows. I’m sure that policy people are trying to do this – see the recent marketing of the former West Publishing site, for example – but growing Downtown Saint Paul needs to be a top priority for the city’s bottom line. Downtown could and should be a lot more valuable, and could and should generate many more tax dollars for the city. Growing downtown should be a huge priority, and this means up and out.

One interesting angle is “growing out.” Stay tuned for a future article on this topic, but downtown needs to be geographically larger. That means that we need downtown-like development on the West Side Flats, the former Lafayette Park area and Railroad Island, by the Rice Street Sears, and along West 7th. All of these parts of the city should be huge boons to the city’s bottom line, part of a “downtown Saint Paul” full of people, jobs, and diverse activity.

4.    Teardowns (yikes tho! …)

[New home in Mac-Groveland.]
fiscal impact: medium 
time horizon: short

Teardowns are are hugely unpopular, but from a tax-base perspective, they are a big boost for the city for reasons that are similar to Point #1 above. I mean, if you want a larger tax-base, building fancy homes in fancy neighborhoods is a way to do it! The alternative -- not building larger more expensive homes in fancy neighborhoods -- is a recipe for tax base stagnation.

I’m not saying Saint Paul should encourage teardowns, but I am saying that people concerned about revenue growth and fiscal sustainability should think carefully about things like moratoriums or strict regulations on teardowns. These kinds of policies absolutely impact the city’s bottom line.

5.    Public Works fee structure

fiscal impact: small
time horizon: short

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the legal opinion about now-defunct street maintenance fee was that it lacked specific ties between the fee structure and city services. There was a debate about whether to shift all or part of the fee-based system over to the regular property tax, only paid by non-non-profit properties.

Well, I’d be curious to see just how much of the Public Works budget could be set up as a strictly fee-for-service model, which would presumably be legal and would allow the city to have non-profits pay for street maintenance. I am quite skeptical that the pilot PILOT program will amount to much, and there might be a kind of transparency in having a simple street fee model in place that would allow the city to charge governments, schools, Scientologists, etc. for snowplowing, curbs, street sweeping, or basically anything that it does in a transparent manner.  PS. I am not a lawyer.

6.    Charging for parking at Como Park (and maybe other places)

[Fixing this sign at Como Park comes out of the general fund.]
fiscal impact: small
time horizon: short

I was at Como Park the other weekend, and what a mess! What percentage of people are driving around looking for free parking while simultaneously blocking the road for others? How much money is the city leaving on the table by refusing to charge a basic small fee for parking at a basically-free regional museum, where many thousands of non-Saint Paul residents visit all the time? How much money is the city spending doing things like building new parking lots and subsidizing a little-used shuttle when it could have a larger impact by simply creating incentives?

Minneapolis charges for parking at its parks (especially Wirth and Minnehaha, its two massive regional parks) and it works fine.

Charging a basic fee for parking is a fair and also environmentally and fiscally sustainable practice. This is true downtown, and also when setting up a fee structure for a popular parks, especially the regional ones.  The way it would work seems fair to me: the parks are free, but you have to pay if you want to drive yourself there and store your car on valuable land… that’s eminently reasonable, and what a city that actually cared about climate change would do.

7.    General Infill and Density

[New buildings, finally, along East 7th Street.]
fiscal impact: medium
time horizon: medium

Swapping out a vacant lot, surface parking, or a half-empty strip mall for mixed-use density is a huge improvement for the tax base. The city should be supportive of these kinds of infill developments as much as possible, if it wants to build a strong tax base. TN-type rezoning, as with the recent changes to Snelling Avenue, are a great kind of policy. I’d love to see Saint Paul get more aggressive about working with neighborhoods to get more of the city re-zoned with its TN zoning. Huge parts of town -- like the West Side or Payne Avenue, just to name two – are still zoned using the antiquated and fiscally unsound R- and B- districts.

8.    Promoting walking to help small businesses

[Payne Avenue: great sidewalks.]
fiscal impact: medium
time horizon: long

The more that people walk, the easier it is to do the kinds of things listed above, especially the points listed above: growing downtown, charging for parking, reducing minimums, and promoting denser infill. Also, the nicer the sidewalks, the more valuable the businesses are, generally speaking.

There are probably other tax-base benefits to great sidewalks, like fewer crashes, better public safety, etc. This is one that has a lot of secondary effects, but is hard to make a direct case.

9.    Riverfront Development

fiscal impact: large
time horizon: long

I wrote about this before, but Saint Paul is not taking advantage of its riverfront. Think about great the Upper Landing homes are, or the new City House café. If we had more riverfront development on the West Side or elsewhere along the Mississippi corridor, it would certainly be an easy way to help the tax base. Saint Paul is way behind on this. I am thinking about things like building the "riverfront balcony," reducing Shepard/Warner road to a boulevard-type footprint through downtown, etc.

10.    Getting rid of / developing part of Ayd Mill Road 

[Fixing this street will cost a fortune AND devalue St. Paul land.]
fiscal impact: medium
time horizon: long

I wrote about this before, but Ayd Mill Road is a big drain on city resources already, and spending any city dollars to rebuild it would be a mammoth mistake. It would be possible to turn this from a space that devalues the surrounding neighborhoods into one that could be partially developed

11.    Organizing Garbage (and maybe other things)

fiscal impact: medium
time horizon: long

I’m glad the city is doing this, and saving money by reducing road maintenance is the big reason why.

(Q: Are there other opportunities like this sitting out there?)

12.    TIF Reform
[Pretty sure the Schmidt is still in a TIF district.]

fiscal impact: medium

time horizon: medium

I think cities should absolutely use TIFs, but with a thriving tax base, a city like Saint Paul might not have to rely so heavily on this funding model. It’d be awfully nice to phase out a TIF ahead of schedule sometime. Instead, they tend to stay around a long time after their initial purpose has been achieved.

13.    Downtown parking lot sales

fiscal impact: medium

time horizon: short

The city of Saint Paul owns a bunch of downtown parking lots. If subsidizing parking was a great economic development strategy, downtown Saint Paul would be thriving today. Instead, it’s way behind its peers.

Why not get these lots into the hands of the private sector? Subsidizing parking is not the way to create a thriving downtown. Let the market handle that.

14.    Expand parking meters / direct fund for “property tax relief”

[Pasadena parking revenue is tied to local business improvements.]
fiscal impact: mediumtime horizon: short

Just sayin’.

What if we created a neighborhood parking fund and said all the revenue would go directly toward property tax relief? Or, perhaps a mix of property tax relief and some sort of NRP-type fund that could be spent in whatever way a neighborhood group / district council might like?

In a place like Grand Avenue,  essentially you’d have people from all over the metro area coming, paying a small fee to more conveniently park, and then helping local folk pay less in taxes and/or have nice things. If done well, this could be a great fund for neighborhoods that also promote sustainable transportation.

15.    Sell / develop golf courses

fiscal impact: medium
time horizon: short

I wrote about this before, but golf is not as popular as it used to be and uses a tremendous amount of valuable land. I have written about this before, but it seems like the writing is on the wall for Saint Paul’s lesser-used golf courses. Someday, they will be losing so much money each year, someone will have to do something.

Why not rip the band-aid right off? Golf courses occupy valuable land that could be a mix of parks and tax-base-boosting mixed-use.

16. Great bike lanes downtown

fiscal impact: medium
time horizon: medium

It turns out, attractive employers love this kind of thing. Saint Paul started but hasn't finished the job.

In Conclusion, this is why the Ford Site is Great

I am not saying any or all of these things are good or that Saint Paul leaders should do them. Just that these are the kinds of things that a city like Saint Paul can do if it wants to solve some of its recurring problems. Along with straight-up raising taxes, these are the choices it has.

And a lot is at stake, because the list of great projects that the city could fund it it had more money is a long one. Each year or so, the CIB committee ranks everything and has all the great ideas in the city (and some bad ones) compete for a small amount of funding. Lots of great stuff does not make the cut.

That's why the Ford Site is such a basic litmus test of one's understanding of urban fiscal policy. People that are against higher property taxes but also against the Ford Site plans confuse me. People that claim to be concerned about the tax base but are against the Ford Site plans also confuse me. It’s not often that you get the chance to solve so many problems in one fell swoop, at so little perceived cost. The Ford site checks a lot of these boxes and is a great opportunity to fill another big hole in the city’s tax base

The Ford Site is a one example of a big project that will, in one fell swoop, boost the city’s tax base without stepping on anybody's toes. The Snelling/University site (if we can move past the horrid “surface parking lot” phase), the Hillcrest golf course, and the long-vacant West Side Flats are three other large opportunities for tax-base-boosting development.

Supporting dense mixed-use development - hopefully with jobs! - at these sites is critical to Saint Paul’s fiscal sustainability and its ability to act in accordance with other shared principles. These are some of the alternatives, and not many of them are easy to accomplish, because they often come at the expense of easy driving or perceptions about “neighborhood character.”

And yet, some of them are very worthwhile policy changes that would move Saint Paul toward a fiscally sustainable future.

[Penfield generates about $1M a year in property taxes.]


Reading the Highland Villager #190

[A couple Villagers lurking in the periodicals.]
[Basically the problem is that the best source of Saint Paul streets & sidewalks news is the Highland Villager, a very fine and historical newspaper. This wouldn't be a problem, except that its not available online. You basically have to live in or frequent Saint Paul to read it. Until this newspaper goes online, sidewalk information must be set free. See also: Three Reasons Why I Re-Blog the Highland Villager.]

Headline: Council is poised to rezone Snelling for higher density; Change raises concern about congestion, pedestrian safety [Pedestrian safety?]
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: There was a study to change the zoning of properties along Snelling Avenue from 70s-era single-use zoning to mixed-use TN zoning [which is much better at improving pedestrian safety, by the way]. More density would be permitted. There was a hearing at the City Council. Neighbors are concerned about traffic and pedestrian safety. There is a aBRT transit line along Snelling now. There would be a mix of densities allowed. Neighborhood groups and the Planning Commission support the plan. Some people think Saint Paul needs more housing. Others thing that TN zoning will “lead to increased traffic congestion … greater hazards for pedestrians and non-motorized vehicles and the loss of the neighborhoods’ character.” [More density is good for pedestrian safety. Dangerous places are ones that are completely auto-oriented and encourage speeding.] One man said he wanted it all to be TN3 [the highest density zoning]. A woman in a wheelchair liked the plan also. One man is worried that Snelling has no medians. [This is fairly true! Also it has little to do with the zoning.] One man is worried about speeding on side streets. [Lots of solutions for that! Note: it passed on a 6-1 vote with CM Thao voting against, for some reason.]

Headline: Controversy over Ford site plan coming to a head
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The City Council will finally take up the Ford site zoning and public realm plan. There will be testimony at Council Chambers. There was a meeting at a church, and there were both red and green signs.  CM Tolbert got an amendment passed to reduce some heights, probably. Neighbors are concerned about traffic. One man quoted saying: “I don’t know how many of you pay rent, but it keeps going up.” [This is true.] Others are happy with the planned-for parks, or would like even more parks, depending. Quote from one woman against the plan: “It’s like frosting a cake before you bake it.” [Cake metaphor! Only cake metaphors from here on out, please. "Cake eaters." "Let them eat cake." "If I knew you were coming I'd have baked a cake."  "Three-layer cakes." "Can't make a cake without breaking a few eggs." "That's a-spicy cake-ball!" "There is no 'I' in C-A-K-E." &c.]

Headline: Bike-pedestrian trail plan progresses; New trails would provide a safe link to parks and trails in West End and Highland Park
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: An unused railroad spur could become a bike/ped trail. There will be drawings. More study is happening. There might be transit on the corridor also. The trail corridor is sometimes wide but sometimes not as wide.

Headline: BZA denies variances for 19th unit at Sannah’s apartments on Grand
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The Board of Zoning Appeals said that a guy who owns an apartment, and who used to play soccer, can have a parking variance but cannot add one more unit to it because he could not “prove practical difficulties.” [What about impractical difficulties?] If the property had TN zoning, it would be another story. [This is an example of why the Snelling rezoning seems wise.]

Headline: Council looks at midnight closing, other changes for city’s skyways
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The City Council is debating whether or not to let skyways closer to the public earlier. There was a public hearing. There is a list of new rules about what you cannot do in the skyways, which includes a lot of things that were probably already against the rules. Quotes CM Noecker: “We really need to raise the bar in our skyways.” People with disabilities are upset. People who own buildings are also upset but for different reasons. Quote from one owner: “The absurdity of the plan is breathtaking. It won’t work.” He would like more police in the skyways instead of security guards. One owner is locking their doors even though they are not supposed to. Young people hang out by the train station. There is a debate about whether “leaning”, “lounging”, or “kneeling” should be against the rules, or whether only "laying on the floor" should. [Oof da. These property owner quotes are not good. This is a truly depressing situation. Do the building owners simply want to privatize the skyways like in Minneapolis? Probably they do. That seems wrong given the public funding. I still would prefer having the skyways systematically and gradually removed. I would like this whole issue to go away and be replaced by one that had centered on the improving of actual public spaces. The new rules passed 5-2, IIRC.]

Headline: St. Paul seeks to restrict menthol tobacco sales
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The city might ban sales of flavored and menthol smokes like they just did in Minneapolis. Guy who owns a Frogtown gas station is upset. There is a coalition of convenience stores and gas stations that is upset also. [This is right up there with the all-powerful plastic bag lobby, except they are not all-powerful. When I was on Hennepin Avenue earlier this summer I saw this same group handing out fliers at the gas station with city council phone numbers listed on it. It had no effect.]

Headline: Selby-Victoria, Selby-Milton mixed-use projects gain support
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A group is going to try and build buildings on the long-vacant lots on Selby now. Neighbors are concerned about parking. Two restaurants opened up recently near there that are popular. The new building has a parking variance but whether it is needed depends on whether the building develops as “live/work” or not.

Headline: Committee discusses options for revitalizing Selby’s streetscape
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: There is some money for trying to improve the street along Selby between Dale and Lexington.There will be renderings. Ideas include lighting, murals, rain gardens, hanging baskets, spaces for the jazz fest. [Seems good. But meanwhile a few blocks away neighbors are concerned about parking.]

Headline: Planning begins for new play areas at Expo, Obama schools
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Two schools will get some new playgrounds.

Headline: Work finally set to begin this fall on Snelling Ave. medians
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Snelling will get medians between Randolph and Ford Parkway. [See also, crossing the street on Snelling Avenue.] They will be 8’ wide, and be done by spring. A funeral home will get a turn lane / curb cut. [I bet the guy who runs the other funeral home that did NOT get a curb cut by the Charles Avenue bikeway median is pissed.]

Headline: UPDC requests zoning study of Marshall west of Snelling
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A neighborhood group wants to look at zoning on Marshall because they are worried about “the loss of historic homes and the development of taller infill buildings.” [Personally, I am not aware of much / any Marshall development except for right along the river? And those buildings seem great.] Some people want a development moratorium. CM Stark has to make the request.

Headline: Council approves license for Alchemy health, fitness club
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A person can open a health club on Cleveland Avenue now. Neighbors are concerned about parking, noise and vibrations. [Like people grunting really loudly?]

Headline: City strives to renovate its rental stock by offering no-interest loans
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The city is going to create a loan fund for fixing up rental properties, from single-family to four-plex. Many small rental properties are run down. The program comes with a commitment from the landlord that they will keep the buildings affordable for the next ten years. [This is a good example of the paradox around affordable rental housing. Fixing up buildings is simultaneously bad because it leads to rent increases and good because it is obviously better. This seems like a program that gets around that dilemma.] 

Headline: Cinema’s on a roll; Renovated Trylon foresees growing interest in Hollywood movies of old
Author: Bob Gilbert

Short short version: Trylon is expanding and will re-open in any day now! [I remember with such fondness the old days of art cinema in Minneapolis, watching movies at Oak Street for example. Trylon is doing exactly that. They are great. Go there and watch movies you’ve never heard of. Now with comfy seats!]


Once Upon a Time in Saint Paul #1: Alley 29

It was a leftover space, a sort of light court formed by the backs of surrounding buildings which faces downtown Saint Paul streets of Fifth, Wabasha, Sixth and Cedar, with a sliver of passage space connecting this twenty by forty foot space to Fifth Street. Today the shiny Osborne Building stands there, but before that, this micro area, which nobody apologized for calling ‘quaint’ was know as Alley 29.

In 1961, the owner of the alley’s surrounding buildings, Jim Barwise, conceived of the idea of borrowing the back spaces of the flanking buildings and converting them into small shops and tiny workspaces. George Raffferty of Progressive Design Associates (Now Rafferty, Rafferty, Tollefson, Lindeke Architects) took advantage of the older patina brick three story high walls surrounding the courtyard, added granite paver cobblestones and modest but distinctive signage. That carefully restrained design effort of this small space seemed to be a bit of bohemia, but many downtown people remarked, “This is what Saint Paul is all about.”

The retail spaces consisted of the Twin Cities first Japanese cafe, a bookstore, an art supply store, a tailor, a picture frame shop as well as Progressive Design Associates first offices. Barwise was pleased with his effort that came into place before the boutique retail trend.

But downtown Saint Paul saw progress as their objective. Although a City of Saint Paul 1965 planning document’s techno-utopian language envisioned “intimate environment space,” the latter pages of the document presaged high intensity development on that block, replete with office towers, parking ramps and skyway-accessible retail stores.

That was the kind of progress that made the demise of Alley 29.

Was Alley 29 considered in its time to possess any historical merit? As George Rafferty observed, “It lived during a time when that type of history wasn’t of particular value.”

[From Preservation Matters, November 1986 issue, published by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, written by Bob Roscoe.]

[Alley 29 in 1962.]


Saint Paul Walkability Hell Trek: a DIY Walking Tour

In honor of Saint Paul hosting the National Walking Summit, I have prepared a self-guided walking tour for summit-goers.

By the way, I love Saint Paul! I think there are some great walkable parts of my city. I could easily come up with a tour of the best possible five-mile walk through Saint Paul.

But I also think there are some real design tragedies that keep Saint Paul from being its most walkable, pleasant, and compelling self.

So, here you go! The walk is about 5 miles long, and takes you from the West Side to Rice Park. Give yourself about two hours, though you might go faster than that as you'll often be running from speeding cars.

[Link to step-by-step directions is here.]

Point of Interest #1. You begin your journey on the West Side Flats, on Robert Street, one of the worst streets anywhere in the East Metro.

Back in the early 1960s, this was a working class neighborhood with a tight street grid and small, walkable blocks. Shops and buildings and homes were all around you.

Today it is an industrial park in the shadow of downtown, and the sidewalks of Robert Street are noteworthy for being particularly narrow and horrid. In fact, when this street was first designed great light poles were placed directly in the middle of the sidewalks. At some point, an embarrassed engineer added tiny brick extensions to the sidewalk at each pole.

All around you are parking lots, empty falling apart buildings, and vacant lots. The smell of industry and blood lingers in the air. And you can see downtown!

(Note: biking here is borderline suicidal.)

Point of Interest #2. Proceed towards downtown. You will notice that as you reach the 1920s-era Robert Street bridge, for some reason the street goes from two lanes in each direction to three (!) northbound lanes. It’s the age-old answer to the question: can it get any worse?

(A: yes it can, yes it can.)

Cross the lovely bridge and enjoy the view of the Mississippi. Savor this moment before you reach the dangerous porkchop island-laden intersection of Robert and Kellogg. Back in the early 1930s, Kellogg Boulevard was widened to accommodate more car traffic, and today it’s not very pleasant.

But lo! Ahead of you is downtown Saint Paul, full of historic buildings and walkable sidewalks. It looks great! It is almost seductive.

Don’t worry… we’re not going that way.

Turn down Kellogg Boulevard and proceed along the narrow sidewalk under the tracks of the lovely 1920s-era Union Depot train station.

Enjoy your walk through Lowertown while you can. It’s lovely!

[This sign is epically stupid and nobody pays attention to it.]

Point of Interest #3. OK You’ve reached the point where Lowertown turns into a freeway on-ramp. Here is where the walkability ends.

(At some point someone even installed a pillar to mark the occasion!)

Tread carefully, for cars speed off of the freeway here and will run you down in a heartbeat.

Approaching East 7th street, which is a US / state highway, note the first ever Super America gas station. How historic!

Also note that this is one off the only streets that connect downtown Saint Paul to the East Side, a huge part of the city that’s full of history, diversity, and no little poverty.

Also note that there’s no sidewalk on one side of the street. How is that even possible? Thanks Minnesota Department of Transportation!

You are now entering the “East Side death mile” portion of the tour.

["Oof da": the Scandinavian phrase meaning, "you can't walk here but will try anyway."]
Here's the challenge. Somehow you have to get from here up to the East Side without being hit by a car. Good luck. You might try running across East 7th during a rare break in speeding traffic. You risk being flatted by cars entering Highway 52, another huge freeway built in this area of Saint Paul during the 1960s.

Honestly, I have no advice for you. I hope you are athletic.

[Desire paths used by the poor.]

Point of Interest #4. OK You’ve reached Payne and East 7th! How'd you do it?

Anyway, good job. Look up the hill along East 7th and imagine trying to get there on foot. How’s it look?

Let’s take a left instead and walk around on Railroad Island, so-called because a century ago it was surrounded on all sides by railroad tracks. Today, it’s also surrounded by high-speed roads!

But there is hope. See the construction here? That’s a legit pedestrian improvement project underway. Thank you City of Saint Paul! They're realigning the previously-horrible intersection of Payne and East 7th to be kinda somewhat OK in the future, hopefully.

Walk along Railroad Island and enjoy the lovely old working class homes. This is a great part of the city!

Point of Interest #5. Welcome to Tedesco Street, one of the very few ways on and off "Railroad Island." Prepare for another horrible experience! This is a low-traffic street with four lanes and a narrow sidewalk on one side only.

Lafayette Road, so named for an old Victorian park that was once here but then demolished for a surface parking lot, is also terribly unwalkable. Plus thousands of government employees work here, surrounded by parking lots and high speed roads. As is the case with many of the government buildings in Saint Paul, there is no economic development anywhere near here, pretty much nowhere to eat lunch or walk to. Kind of sad, really.

Continue along University Avenue. Elsewhere, this is one of the main streets in the Twin Cities, lined with shops and a compelling sidewalks.

Here, it’s an empty windswept industrial unnecessarily-wide street full of speeding cars. Let’s walk to Capitol Heights!

Capitol Heights is another old residential neighborhood that’s been sorely neglected over the last century. Enjoy the neat old buildings and actual topography. There are some good views.

[Sadly, Central Park is not on the tour.]

Point of Interest #7. OK You’ve reached Rice Street, an utterly bleak and dangerous county road. This is also the center of the state government and state capitol area. Enjoy your walk along Rice Street, which has four and even five lanes at certain points.

Back in the late 1950s, this was a working class / African-American neighborhood with small blocks and lots of shops. Today this entire area is controlled by the state legislature, and they “improved” it in the 60s by bulldozing just about everything for parking lots and wide roads.

Hey, look to the left. It's the state DOT headquarters! Check out the high-viz crosswalks and heavy-handed signage. It’s almost safe to cross Rice Street here!

(Of course, lots of government workers and others use a “desire path” crossing at mid-block in either direction instead, scampering across the five lanes like well-dressed gazelles.)

[The MnDOT building crosswalk.]

To your right is a classic early 60s modernist Sears building surrounded by a massive typically-empty parking lot. It’s most famous for having a Department of Motor Vehicles office inside. Cool!

[The Sears parking lot.]

[Good view of the Cathedral.]
Point of Interest #8. OK you’ve reached John Ireland Boulevard, named for a famous Catholic bishop. It’s really wide! They widened it back when they tore down most of the old neighborhood here to build massive “green spaces” filled with statues and a whole bunch of freeways. More importantly for our walk, they also built really huge and dangerous roads all through there. John Ireland is the best of them. Check out Marion Street and our old friend Kellogg Boulevard.

Fun fact: Did you know that, just a block to the right, Kellogg has 14’ wide lanes? It’s true! 

OK. Here we are at the Mulberrry Street crosswalk, which connects some major attractions like the History Center behind you and the Cathedral ahead of you. The corner has recently been marginally improved because, just over a year ago, a young woman was killed here while trying help her mother cross the street. It was terrible!

[The deadly crosswalk.]

Point of Interest #10. Continue down Kellogg, trying not to get hit by cars turning onto and off of Interstate 35E.

You’re almost to the really walkable part of Saint Paul!

There are a few remnants of the old city left around you. Cool stuff but you can't get there from here, so just take my word for it.

Turn right at the hockey arena. Keep going!

[You can almost see the walkable parts of downtown from here.]

Rice Park, how lovely. I mean that sincerely. The nicest park in town. A great place for strolling around.


An Open Letter to Charles Hathaway

[This is in response to a letter to the editor in the most recent Villager, pictured at right.]

Dear Charles:

We've never met, but I read with a mix of interest and anxiety your recent letter in the Highland Villager. In it, you castigate a "small group" of younger people who "jeered" at "what these old people built" during a recent meeting on the Ford site.

As a obsessive student of Saint Paul history, I was initially put off by your condescending tone. As I have done many times during the Ford site debate, I rolled my eyes and looked away.

Yet later I realized we might have something in common. Despite the fact that we disagree on the merit of the city's plans for the Ford Site  -- I have called them "the best thing I've ever seen Saint Paul propose, anywhere" -- I see common ground.

In your letter, you describe the rich social connections that people have built over the years. You list things like PTA meetings, coaching baseball, gardening, attending funerals, and donating used clothing to frame what you see as a lack respect for older folks living in Saint Paul.

I, too, value of these kinds of social connections. When I think of the word "community", it is precisely these sorts of relationships that spring to mind. I love the weak ties of recognition that come from knowing one's neighbor, and I value the strong ties of kinship that come from sharing institutions like schools, churches, libraries, or even the neighborhood bar. (There are too few of these in Highland, by the way, but that's another story!)

However, I think there's something important that you might not yet recognize. I'm guessing you're in my parents' generation, born sometime in the mid-1950s, give or take a few years. That was right in the midst of the post-war baby boom generation when Saint Paul, and indeed all US cities, experienced rapid change.

Memories are a fickle thing, but in my research over the years, I am always amazed when I'm reminded how much denser and more populated Saint Paul used to be. In the 50s and 60s, our city was much more full of people. Streets were narrower. Higher percentages of folks took transit every day. People walked a lot more! And on average, every house in Highland -- and all through the city -- housed more people than they do today. Instead of 1, 2, or 3 people living in a single-family home, when you were born, there might have been 2, 4, or 6 people sharing the same space.

Just like you, I look back on those times (weirdly, before I was born) and think fond thoughts. I like to imagine Cleveland Avenue, Saint Clair Avenue, or a dozen other streets when there were a hundred local shops, foot traffic all day, and a rich world of street life. That seems wonderful to me!

The problem is that, since the 60s, public space in our cities has eroded. Instead of homes and shops, we have parking lots. Instead of big families, we have houses with only one or two people (and their pets, of course). Much of the time, instead of connecting, people watch TV, or stare at their phones. (See? I sound like an old crank!) The point is that the social propinquity that we both value has been changing for a long time.

What do we do?

On this we likely won't agree, but for me, a big culprit of this change is urban design.

I've talked about this before, but when we're swallowed up by private homes or driving around in our private cars, stuck in traffic or speeding past, we become the least common denominator of our social selves. In our cars, we have little way of communicating apart from a honking horn, a revved engine, or a turn signal. In our disconnected homes, with their quiet front yards, we have little way to engage apart from lawn signs. (Witness Highland these days!)

Instead, we spend our time inside private bubbles, driving or holed up in dens. We listen to private soundtracks or (worse) some idiot ranting about "garage logic." Meanwhile, Saint Paul's sidewalks, shops, and public spaces are frayed by vast parking lots, speeding cars, and the march of privatization. Meanwhile, Saint Paul continues to lose the density and social connection that made it a vital place.

If you don't believe me on this last point, I'd urge you to check out the sociologist Robert Putnam's book "Bowling Alone", about the what he calls "the decline of social capital."  Putnam's social capital is precisely the kinds of relationships you describe in your letter. He shows that, since the World War Two generation (your parents), it's been disappearing. And one of the main culprits is our driving habit.

Putnam summarizes the causes for the decline like this [emphasis mine]:
First, pressures of time and money, including the special pressures on two-career families, contributed measurably to the diminution of our social and community involvement... Second, suburbanization, commuting, and sprawl also played a supporting role... Third, the effect of electronic entertainment - above all, television - in privatizing our leisure time has been substantial... Fourth and most important, generational change - the slow steady, and ineluctable replacement of the long civic generation by their less involved children and grandchildren - has been a very powerful factor.
I encourage you to read the whole thing, or at least skim through the charts about picnics and Shriners' clubs. And by the way, it might surprise you to read some of the data on the Millennial generation. They are more interested in civic engagement and social connection than anyone has been in a long time.

The point is that I believe the city's plan for the Ford site matches our future needs and will strengthen the social fabric in Saint Paul. If Putnam is right, we need less "privatized space" and more everyday public space in which people can connect. If we want to keep the kinds of social ties and connections that you and I both value, we need less orientation toward cars and more social forms of transit and transportation. We need opportunities to walk around and encounter the diversity that Saint Paul has to offer. And most importantly, we need better housing accommodation for smaller households. Only then will we welcome the people who will become the next generation of PTO members, community gardeners, soccer coaches, and urban stewards.

In short, Saint Paul needs density. Building a neighborhood for the future can help Highland return to to the rich and dynamic social fabric that it had back when you were growing up.

Given how poisonous the debate has been over the Ford site plans so far -- I had to walk out of the recent church meeting because I could not tolerate the hostility coming from many of the "Say No" people -- I don't expect you to agree. I only hope others might read this with open minds and hearts. I hope Saint Paul might see a possible future for people of all backgrounds. I hope we can value what walkable streets, fewer cars, and more diverse kinds of homes might offer for our community.

I want to see our cities change, but I'm not trying to erase the past. On the contrary, in many ways, I want to return to it. I want those relationships we both value to thrive. I want a city where gardening, volunteerism, civic involvement, and small businesses flourish. I want a city where traditions are both honored and created anew, transformed for a future that includes the full diversity of Saint Paul's children. In the city to come, they will accomplish things greater than either of us can imagine.