The Univeristy United Zoning Proposal

Take a careful read of this story in that appeared in the Pioneer Press this weekend, about a neighborhood group’s zoning proposal along University Avenue. It’s an interesting article, and it’ll probably be the kind of debate we’re going to see on university Avenue in the next couple of (pre-LRT) years. I came to a number of conclusions, which I’ll go over one by one.

The PiPress doesn’t’ like activists, loves the Chamber of Commerce (duh!)

I am an admirer of Brian McMahon and University United (the University Avenue transit and walkability community group and lobbying outfit) though they might be a tad too idealistic for their own good. The article is a report on their new initiative, a short-term zoning ordinance aimed at limiting auto-centric development along University Avenue until the city of Saint Paul completes its new zoning overlay.

Unfortunately, the Pioneer Press article explaining the proposal kind of booted the story. And, on top of that, they quoted Saint Paul City Council reactionary Debbie Montgomery, who shows herself to be pretty out of touch.
Emboldened by a new limit on development on the eastern end of Grand Avenue, neighborhood activists are now hoping to redraw land-use rules for St. Paul's less trendy commercial corridor […] planning group University United is asking district councils and city leaders to back a plan that would at least temporarily ban new drive-through facilities and auto-related businesses — hallmarks of the thoroughfare that still typify it today.

Neither use, say community activists, belongs on the future route of the Central Corridor light-rail line between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis.

First of all, the University Avenue has little in common with the Grand Avenue proposal apart from timing. They have different purposes, time-limits, and targets.

Second, the Pioneer Press story doesn’t really explain much about why McMahon and University United want the ordinance, instead giving lots of column space to Chamber of Commerce VP Ellen Walters and Commerce (and ex-mayor Kelly) supporter CouncilMember Debbie Montgomery. The paper doesn't stop and weigh the economic impact of a used-car lot or a big box store. The paper doesn’t take the time to explain that Saint Paul is working on a new zoning overlay that would guide development along University Avenue toward its future as a light rail corridor, and that the University United proposal would be a stop-gap measure. That's why the newspaper’s characterization of the plan as being “at least temporary” is dead wrong. What does "at least temporary" even mean? Is that the same as "non-untemporary"?

As the University United press release makes clear, the proposal is temporary.

The Pioneer Press has a deserved reputation for being in the pocket of the Chamber of Commerce, which is maybe why the keep losing city circulation to their river-side neighbor. Not to mention the fact that the Chamber of Commerce is responsible for the vacant office space in a dead downtown...

CouncilMember Montgomery loves The Man, big boxes
"The people who live here, they need to be the ones working on a plan," said 1st Ward City Council Member Debbie Montgomery.

New design standards are important, Montgomery added, but they can stand in the way of business.

She alluded to last year's negotiations to bring Best Buy and Lowe's to a long-vacant Metro Transit bus-garage site at Snelling Avenue and Interstate 94. The companies were willing to construct the stores with sustainable building principles and give the locations a "two-story look," Montgomery said, but community activists weren't satisfied because the companies wouldn't build a costly multi-level parking ramp or offer union-paying jobs.

The project, which would have required a complicated land swap involving the Metropolitan Council, lost momentum in part because of neighborhood concerns.

"Nothing seems to be enough," Montgomery said.

Somebody needs to tell Montgomery that there’s a difference between a “two-story look” and two stories (e.g. the "two-story" CVS pharmacy on Snelling and University).

That Montgomery would be defending last year’s ill-fated Best Buy/Lowe’s development tells you a lot about where she’s coming from. I still don’t know what’s going to happen to the Snelling bus barn site, but the city dodged a bullet when that they didn’t turn it into another suburban big box.

Montgomery also confuses University United with labor unions that are pissed off because the City of Saint Paul hasn’t followed through on their promised living wage ordinance.

Admittedly, Montgomery is old … but she seems really out of touch to me. I attended last year’s meeting about with the new Super Target development near University and Hamline, (and here’s my write-up of the meeting). At the meeting I saw Montgomery coddling the two Target P.R. men (both of whom were named Bob), and badmouthing the District Council people who like the University United plan. She said things like “they don’t understand that there’s no money,” which is true, but she clearly didn’t like neighborhood groups opposing new business development.

The Central Corridor project is fraught with racial tension

In the article, Montgomery also makes the comment that “the people who live here, they need to be the one’s deciding on a plan.” It seems like she’s playing the race card with that comment, as if Brian McMahon or University United board member Randy Schubring don’t live close enough to University Avenue to have a say in what happens there. Is she suggesting that we put Lucky Rosenboom in charge of zoning?

But, really, Montgomery is just re-fighting the old Rondo Avenue battle all over again. (Here is Peter Bell’s defense of the LRT corridor vs. what happened to Rondo when I-94 went in.) The Central Corridor isn’t another Rondo, it’s the anti-Rondo. No buildings are going to be leveled because of the train, but people in the poor neighborhoods along the corridor will get much better transit service and see their neighborhoods improve economically, aesthetically, and it’ll be safe to walk down the street at night again.

But, even though Montgomery is out of touch, her logic meshes with a lot of things I’ve heard from African-American and Asian-American people who live in the neighborhood. This is just another gentrification battle, andfFrankly, even if gentrification was a real phenomenon, University Avenue is probably fifty years from being gentrified. The only thing minority business owners need to fear is the year-long construction period.

How much influence do District Councils have in Saint Paul?

While Mayor Chris Coleman doesn’t really owe anybody for his huge victory over Randy Kelly, he’s been quite friendly to the District Councils since he’s taken office. Just like in Minneapolis, it seemed that neighborhood groups were starting to have some influence down at city hall, at least when it came to development issues. Coleman has held a number of successful community meetings, involved the public, and been a strong supporter of the popular smoking ban.

But the recent middling decision on a Grand Avenue zoning ordinance, and Coleman’s (and the City Council’s) waffling on a living wage ordinance, has made it seem like Saint Paul’s grassroots momentum is slowing down.

I’m not sure yet if all parts of the University United plan are a good idea (more on this later), or whether (once again) the group is advocating for pies in the sky. But in this debate we can see the power dynamics of the capital city at work.


Andrew said...

Great post, I especially like the slam against the Chamber of Commerce and the demise of downtown St. Paul :-D

Yo said...

I agree with almost everything said, except that I don't think that this particular reporter is at all in anybody's pocket...Laura Yuen is about the best reporter the Pi Press has.

The prolific Chamber quotes I think emphasize Debbie Montgomery's reasons for opposing making these developments better. I may think Montgomery's stance is ill-advised, both on the issue itself as well as politically. But the Chamber's voice (and bankrolling of candidates) is likely the major reason Montgomery has felt comfortable staking out this ground.

And she's not visionary.

* * *

The subtext you didn't hit on is the political subtext. Debbie Montgomery represents Ward 1, the second most liberal in St. Paul. It's also a very diverse ward...maybe (just a guess) a third African-American, a third Asian American and a third white. Last election, with the DFL endorsement, she squeaked out a win against Bao Vang. This time, many doubt that she'll be so lucky.

There is a cultural element to the politics in this ward, but the district councils, if they have spoken, have been pretty clear in their support for transit-oriented development. As has the Mayor. And Jay Benanav, who represents the north/western half of the Avenue.

So what you also see here are the battle lines being drawn for what (along with Ward 5) are likely to be the two most heated political contests in the city between the Chamber/conservative side of the City and the neighborhood/grassroots progressive base that has won significant victories in the last Council and Mayoral election.

That Montgomery would join forces with those interests speaks to the lack of vision she has about her own career arc.

Polymander said...

Given that University United does seem to be composed of "people who live here," it does certainly sound like Montgomery is playing the race card--which, frankly, is often appropriate in this neighborhood, particularly since I think gentrification can be a surprisingly rapid process. But I don't know much about University United--would you say that they are pretty much a white organization? I know that at least one of their members, the ASANDC, is not.

Anonymous said...

I live in Midway, and no one in any of the discussions about the University United Zoning Propoals has addressed the major issue behind why light rail is an enhancement to urban community life. The University/Snelling intersection has the worst air quality in the entire state of Minnesota. We absolutely must address this if the quality of life for families in the Midway are to be preserved, which is the minimum standard. Our homes are perfect "starter homes" for young families--close to public transportation, within walking distance of supermarkets, drug stores, and department stores. If we do not address the air quality issue, the reasons for light rail are simply commercial.