31.1.13

What Could Be More Historic Than Street Life?

[St Paul's pre-war 6th Street. Note the presence of people.]
Historic preservation can be a two-way street. In his hit-and-miss book, Triumph of the City, Ed Glaeser definitely comes out on as an opponent of widespread historic preservation mandates. He's of the opinion that cities should be more open to change, willing to sacrifice some of their older urban fabric if it means increasing density with new construction.

Personally, I tend to lean slightly in the other direction. Given the destructive history of US postwar planning, looking to save what little historic fabric is left in our cities is important to me. The other advantage is that many of these pre-war buildings were designed really well. They have all the architectural features you look for in a walkable, rewarding urban environment: things like cornices, windows, and detailed brickwork that you just won't find in 60s era modernist schlock. (Preserving post-war architecture is another matter, and there it depends more on what kind of relationship the place or building has with the pedestrian realm. I actually like Nicollet Mall's Peavy Plaza, for instance, and would support remodeling and preserving it.)

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[The hotly contested 6th St sidewalk. Note its narrow width.]
But that said, there are surely times when historic preservation (or heritage preservation) efforts go too far, and seem to conceal ulterior motives. (E.g. turning your neighborhood into a historic district in order to restrict density or development.) One such moment occurred last week during the debate over the widening of the sidewalk along 6th Street outside Mears Park in downtown St Paul.

The story is pretty simple. There's a great park in Lowertown St Paul, and its one of the few 'hot spots' downtown, one of the few places where new businesses are opening up and new residential development is taking place. This block along Mears Park, in particular, has become a spot with two or three thriving restaurants (all with names that start with 'b' for some reason). The owners of the two buildings along here would like to install sidewalk cafés during the (6!) warmer months, and are offering to foot 100% of the assessment for the city to remove their on-street parking and install a much larger sidewalk along the park. It's a rare moment when businesses volunteer both to give up on-street parking, and pay for improvements to the pedestrian realm.

The plan has met opposition from an influential and cantankerous former downtown developer, and from the farmer's market (located 2 blocks away) due to concerns about the loss of parking. The arguments, particularly the ones about financial loss to the city, are pretty specious (and I may write about them someday). The Planning Commission decided that they didn't even want to decide on this issue, becuase it was a property rights matter. But then, last week, the city Heritage Preservation Commission voted overwhelmingly against the plan, due to issues around setbacks. Here's how the commission explained it:
“HPC staff, they are more concerned about the visual impacts,” said Heritage Preservation Commission chair Richard Laffin, who did not cast a vote (he typically only votes when there’s a tie). “There’s a very strong set of setbacks throughout Lowertown that this would encroach upon. It’s all those odds and ends that would project eight feet further as you look down 6th street — trees, light standards, bus stops. Lowertown, the aesthetics are characterized by consistency.”

The question of setbacks seems like an odd rationale to me. For one thing, nobody is suggesting touching one atom of either of the two historic buildings. The existing sidewalk rights-of-way will still be there, only there will be even more space for pedestrians, etc. If I remember correctly, the plan isn't even going to move any street trees, just make more space on the far side of them, nearer the park, for sidewalk dining: tables, chairs, people eating and enjoying the fresh air of Lowertown. In a way, it's a lot like the plaza expansions that New York City has been building over the last few years. Transforming space for cars into space for people doesn't change setbacks; it simply reallocates some of the public space along the street. It increases the quality of street life at the (marginal) expense of making people walk a few more blocks to park their car. Given that back in the early 20th century, downtown St Paul was absolutely filled with people at all hours of the day and night, what could be more historic than catalyzing downtown street life?

[An example of a historically acceptable plaza expansion from New York.]
 
Extreme Historic Preservation


[The plaza outside St Paul's remodeled Union Depot.]
Sometimes, focusing on perfectly re-creating the precise form of "the past" can become a preoccupation that limits our ability to relive the spirit of an older era. St Paul's Union Depot is a great example of this.

As you probably know, the city got a large Federal grant to completely remodel the Lowertown St Paul train station. In fact, the money was tied to a historic preservation mandate, so that everything about the remodeled station had to conform precisely to its 1928 specs. (This includes the plaza outside, which can contain no "permanent" structures, and currently feels a bit empty.) Spending time in the Union Depot today feels eerie precisely because the historic preservation is done so well, except for one big difference: there are zero people inside. You can sit in the giant waiting room for hours and you'll only glimpse an occasional wanderer, a few sneaker-shod "mall walkers", and the guy with the floor polisher going endlessly back and forth around the huge room. They've preserved the space so well that there isn't any room for actual 21st century people, or so it seems. It's like the station has been embalmed.

(I'm very hopeful that this will change once the once-a-day train starts running through here a year from now. I'm hopeful, too, that the plaza outside will get some street furniture, café opportunities, and a food truck or four to liven it up. There's a management company hired to run the plaza and services in the depot. But currently, none of those things have happened. Sitting in the building feels like a being swallowed by a ghost whale.)


Historically, Cities Were Filled With People

[Pre-war 6th Street. Again with the people thing.]
Downtown St Paul in the 20s and 30s was a different experience than it is today. Not only were there many department stores ruthlessly competing with each other, but the sidewalks were crowded, teeming with people at all hours of the day. Storefronts were active, the buildings were used in many different ways. It would have been noisy and interesting and clamorous and parking a car at the Farmer's Market would likely have been even more difficult, and people would have walked with their vegetables to their streetcars or apartments nearby. The city's parks would have had ten times the number of users, and the downtown would have been seamlessly integrated into the surrounding neighborhoods, surrounded not by a moat of freeways but by dense blocks of apartment housing that no longer exist today.

A real effort at preserving the heritage of Lowertown would think about this context, and try to bring back some of the streetlife that made this part of the city so vibrant in the past. Rather than embalming our cities, we should be bringing them to life. We should apply the defibrillator thingies, shout "Clear!" and shock our soporific sidewalks into action. 

[More people on 6th Street, walking and stuff.]
The other factor to consider is that this project has clear merit from a straightforward walkability and public space standpoint. Wider sidewalks increase the comfort and safety of people on foot, providing space for things beyond mere trudging to and from the bus stop. As it is, this sidewalk is pretty narrow and cramped, and doesn't really provide the kind of 'urban room' feeling that Jeff Speck describes in his recent book Walkable City. This is a case where expanding the sidewalk works on a few different levels.

The final irony of the situation is that cities around the country are clamoring for opportunities to add sidewalk cafés, to turn US streets into places more like Paris, lined with tables of people sipping coffee watching others enjoy the park across the street. Mayor Coleman gave a speech just yesterday about how he wants St Paul to be more relevant, that the city should "no longer be flyover land" (as he put it). This is the perfect opportunity to add a much needed quality public space to our downtown, and at almost zero cost to the city. Years from now, if this passes through the City Council, these sidewalk cafés will be on every list of "best places to eat" in every magazine in the Twin Cities. In my opinion, to let this project get derailed due to misguided concerns over historic setbacks would be a real shame. It would be missing the lively forest for the petrified trees.


[6th Street along Mears Park back in the early 20th century, w/ people &c. All imgs fm MNHS.]

30.1.13

Sidewalk Game #14: Marathon Tag

Play tag. One player is "it" until he or she tags someone else in the game. 

Continue for 23 years.

 

Sidewalk Game #13: The Address Book

Find someone's address book on the ground. (Today, it would probably be a cell phone.) Instead of returning it, get all the contact information and arrange to meet the people listed one by one, to interrogate them about the owner of the book.

Just like this:
“Thus, I will get to know this man through his friends and acquaintances,” she wrote in her first column for the paper. “I will try to discover who he is without ever meeting him, and I will try to produce a portrait of him over an undetermined length of time that will depend on the willingness of his friends to talk about him—and on the turns taken by the events.”

Keep a detailed account of your encounters. Wait until the owner of the book (or phone) dies, and then publish your account.



Sidewalk Game #12: Invasion!

The city is under occupation by intelligent microbes, Martian bodysnatchers, mind control rays – you can’t tell the resisters from the wholly invaded. Do not attract attention to yourself. Choose routes where the least number of people will see you. Use alleys and back paths. Walk calmly through crowds. Show no emotion. Ignore commodities. Hide your hunger.

[fm. Mythogeography.] 



Reblog: Sidewalk of the Week: Rice Park

[This is from two years ago, but it's happening again!] 

There are only two things you can count on in this world of Twin Cities' sidewalks, only two certainties in this pedestrian life.

No, they're not death and taxes. Rather, the two rules of thumb: nobody walks around on the sidewalks in the wintertime, and nobody walks around in downtown Saint Paul.

In both cases, you can count on the fact that the streets will be deserted, that if you choose to take an stroll or an amble, you'll find yourself lonelier than a Utah barista.

But I suppose that for every rule, there's an exception. And, despite all the Vulcan misogyny and beer-addled firetruck destruction, despite the hokey mythology and the mafia-esque back room culture, the Saint Paul Winter Carnival manages to do the impossible and get people to stroll around downtown Saint Paul in the wintertime. It's like going to vote and finding out there's more than one gay black Republican on the ballot.

You'll find the sidewalks of Rice Park undergo a magical transition for this brief week of the year, becoming a fairyland of ice mystery and snowy phase transitions. And most folks that aren't necessarily into seeing Klondike Kates or wandering around parks early in the morning searching for a tiny disc, go to the Winter Carnival purely for the ice.

You see, ice is made out of water, that most mercurial of elements.* Ice forms in the winter time, when somehow, through the magic of molecular chemistry, water not only freezes at a reasonable temperature, but expands when it does so, creating the most interesting and dynamic potholes and artistic opportunities. Ice becomes larger, solid, and transparent, an impossible trifecta that leads to eerie glimmers and barely perceptible glances when combined with colored lights and numb wintertime cheeks and Victorian architecture in the crepuscular night.

The magic of ice means that Rice Park becomes a Midwestern Narnia people'd with magic wells and animals and dancing mythological beestes who hide amidst trees, whose crystal outlines are just glimpsed in reflections and bending light.


["What is that, you ask yourself," as you squint to make out the outline of a leaping stag or a god or a wishing well with a pail just perched on its edge.]


And what's more, the sidewalk across from the Ordway changes too, growing a six-foot wall of icy history on its side, light shining through bricks and blocks framing smiling black and white Saint Paul people. Its like Mancini's crossed with Maxwell's after that February fire if all the old Herb Brooks photos had been frozen.

[A Rice Park passerby wonders to himself how many years the Winter Carnival has been around.]



There's even an ice bar on which you can lean your elbow and a pair of icy thrones. Somehow nothing feels more satisfying than standing or sitting or resting on solid ice. Perhaps its the knowledge that, if only it were a bit warmer, this ice would be water and you'd be swimming? Perhaps this explains the appeal of ice fishing, which has long been for me rather a mystery (apart from the beer drinking).

But for whatever reason, for this mid-winter moment the Saint Paul streets are people'd with ice and statues and the breath of a hundred wandering visitors just learning how to skate.



[An ice bear on the sidewalks of Saint Paul's icy Rice Park.]


* Note: water is not an element. Also, mercury is probably the most mercurial of elements.

Twin City Shop Windows #5

[Location forgotten. (Rice Street?)]


[Corner store. Frogtown, St Paul.]


[Janitor store. Downtown, St Paul.]


[Chinese restaurant. Marshall Avenue, St Paul.]


[Antiques mall. Selby Avenue, St Paul.]


[Abandoned computer repair store. 38th Street, Minneapolis.]


[Clothing store. Selby Avenue, St Paul.]


[Arts studio. Chicago Avenue, Minneapolis.]


[Book store. Dinkytown, Minneapolis.]


 [Liquor store. Broadway Avenue, Minneapolis.]

Today on Streets.mn: Three Easy Steps Toward Walkability

[A driver on a phone while turning right on red. Portland Ave, Mpls.]
I put up a post yesterday on Streets.mn called "Three Ways to Improve Walkability Without Touching the Street." The three steps are red light cameras, 'no turn on red' signs, and a ban on cell phones while driving. Here's the key point:
Most everyone likes to say they support traffic calming, promoting walking, and increasing safety. Doing any or all of these three things would make immediate progress on those goals at minimal cost to the city. They are all steps that begin to change the culture of automobile dominance on our streets, the kind of attitudes that allow people to creep through the crosswalk, honk at bicycles taking the lane, treat speed limits signs as minimums, or drive blindly through the curb cut out of the parking ramp downtown. (“Caution! Car approaching!“)
At some point, as a society, we have to ask whether saving an extra few seconds on a car trip is worth making all of our crosswalks and sidewalks dangerous. We have to ask whether or not that phone call is worth getting someone killed. Maybe next time one of our political leaders says that they we want to make walking a priority, they could actually do it. The tools are there. They’re not expensive, and they don’t have to involve re-making the street (though that would be nice). All of these tactics are the equivalent of “calling the bluff.
The article fits a theme I've been mulling for a bit this year. I am thinking through a sort of political triage: what kinds of things can we prioritize to improve our streets for walking and biking? Last time I wrote about road diets, because I think those are the simplest, most effective way to change our urban priorities. This time, I was focusing on what some of the alternatives might look like if we can't agree to spend the money on bumpouts or new lane paint.

Apart from the 'no turn on red' signs, none of these ideas are very likely. Our institutions are still to geared toward a mentality that prioritizes traffic flow at all costs. These ideas, rather than being large revolutionary projects, are cheap, somewhat effective fixes to the large problem of taming traffic. One of the commenters actually improved my argument with a bunch more easy regulatory changes, things like signal timing. Here are some of his ideas:
The cheapest and easiest way to make the pedestrian environment better is to lower speed limits to 20 mph, 15 mph on local residential and business streets. Lower speed limits might not immediately lower the actual speed of traffic, but over time people would become accustomed to much lower speeds. At that point, they will slow down because 30 mph or 40 mph feels unsafe for them. [...]
Shorten traffic cycles so that pedestrians don’t need to wait more than 20 seconds to cross the street after pushing the button for a walk signal. Give pedestrians an automatic walk signal in every cycle. On intersections where the green cycle only occurs when traffic is present, don’t make pedestrians wait for non-existent traffic by activating a don’t walk cycle across the street. Set traffic cycles to provide reasonable times for pedestrians to slowly cross the street.

The point of this conversation is to help biking and walking advocates wrangle with cities. Not every step forward has to involve a big engineering project. Sometimes small changes can add up to a big difference. Next time you're in a conversation with an engineer, politician, or a neighbor concerned about speeding traffic, why not mention one or two of these tweaks. You never know what might work.

Sidewalk Poetry #31



[Boston University and the Charles River, 1962.]
 

29.1.13

All I Really Need To Know about Dinkytown, I Learned in Al's Breakfast

For a small place, there’s a lot happening in Dinkytown these days. The old high school that's been sitting behind the commercial area, serving as a business incubator and parking lot, is being redeveloped into a large mixed-use multi-story building. And there's a proposal to put up another big mixed-use apartment building on the mostly vacant North side of neighborhood's key block. The block currently houses a bunch of surface parking lots, two run-down homes being used for retail, and the 60s era one-story building housing the House of Hanson (a corner store) and The Book House. The proposals have sparked a lot of debate and opposition by the local neighborhood group and the area's business association.

I have been pondering this debate for a few weeks, thinking about how we might weigh the changes in the area. I was thinking about it so much that I went to Al's Breakfast last week. It was a cold day, so I got a seat right away. And that's when I realized that Al's Breakfast was the answer to all of my questions. I've written before about Al's unique social geography and opaque rules. Maybe Al's can teach us a thing or three about how to design a city.


[Save this historic parking lot!]


Lesson #1: Density is Good

Al's Breakfast is rightly famous for being the smallest restaurant in the Twin Cities. The history of the spot is suitably complex, as Wikipedia describes:
The restaurant as it is today came into being in 1950 when Al Bergstrom parted ways with another neighborhood restaurateur. Bergstrom had gained experience at the griddle and in kitchen management in the 1940s while working for John L. "Jack" Robinson during summers at a popular Minnesota State Fair cafeteria. The Dinkytown building he purchased dates back to 1937 when a neighboring hardware store erected a shed in the alleyway to hold sheet metal and plumbing parts. This was eventually rented out and was a Hunky Dory hamburger stand by the time Bergstrom took it over. The new owner renamed the diner to Al's Café and first opened the doors on May 15. Initially, he produced three meals a day, seven days a week, but scaled back the operation to simply be a breakfast outlet after one year

At only ten feet wide, Al's Breakfast consists of 14 stools crammed into a tiny alleyway with a roof and a tiny kitchens in the front and back. There are series of rules about how to eat there (more on that below), and while the food is good, the experience is the real treat. (Picture eating the same food in a spacious strip mall Denny's. Oh, that's terrible. Stop!) So, on the one hand, Al's Breakfast proves that smaller can be better, that less is more.

On the other hand, Al's Breakfast also shows that more is more. The main take away from Al's Breakfast is that density is good for cities. If someone today were to suggest turning an alleyway into a breakfast café, they'd likely be met with all sorts of opposition. I'm sure that the building doesn't meet any code requirements, and it's likely that the alley would be a crucial access for something for someone. I doubt it'd get built. But back in 1937, these kinds of rules weren't so important. Dinkytown has always been a place where every last square foot of space came at a premium.

Al's is a good example of how you can turn nothing into something. There are all kinds of similar opportunities in the Twin Cities, places you might put granny flats, or places to park a food truck. Minneapolis is chock full of underused spaces waiting for a good idea. Density is a good thing for cities. It keeps the streetscape alive and interesting, rewards them for walking. Let's fill those parking lots and remnant grassy knolls with more buildings and carts and pop-up action. Density is what makes a city worth visiting. 

 

Lesson #2: People Will Do Almost Anything for a Unique Experience

Q: How much money do you think Al's Breakfast spends on advertising every year?

A: Yeah right. The last thing they want is more people coming into their door. (Although, they do have a Facebook page.)

Going to Al's is tricky because you are continually placing your morning into the hands of a stranger. (I once tried to take a friend to Al's before his flight out of town. That is living dangerously, friend.) You have no idea before you head to Dinkytown whether or not Al's is going to have four open seats or a line out the door.  But this just shows you that Al's proves that people will do just about anything for the right kind of urban experience. And people do.

The way that Al's works is that once the 14 bar stools fill up, folks begin standing in line, queuing up in the tiny space behind the stools. It's like a crowded bus with food. The patient queue (who must move all the way down) stand behind the people eating, and watch the backs of their heads until the right number of seats opens up. (Sometimes this requires one of the famous Al's Breakfast "shifts", where some of the people move up or down the bar stools to consolidate empty bar stools.)

The point here is that people will do just about anything to eat at Al's. They'll endure waits and discomforts that Perkins can only dream about. (St Paul's Blue Door Pub is a similar packed 'stand and wait forever' example.)

People waiting at Al's is just like people parking and walking to an interesting part of the city. If you focus on making your city or neighborhood exciting and unique, filled with activity and density, then people will go out of their way to travel there. If you make a neighborhood interesting and alive, people will park and walk for significant distances to arrive there. They'll pay more, work harder, and commit themselves just to be somewhere truly urban. People waiting for a half-hour standing behind stools at Al's don't really get bored, because there's so much to see, and so much free eavesdropping available. In the same way, people strolling down a vibrant urban street because they parked six blocks away won't get upset as long as that street is truly alive, interesting, and has quality pedestrian space.


Lesson #3: Population Trumps Parking

[Someone using Dinkytown's new dynamic parking meters.]
So many city battles are fought about parking spaces, particularly on-street spaces in front of stores. What's interesting to me about Al's Breakfast and Dinkytown is that the on-street parking spaces are usually available. The meters here still charge only $1.25 / hour, which is very cheap for a precious spot on one of the city's most in-demand corners. The reason why on-street parking isn't a big deal here is that the majority of the market doesn't drive. There are thousands of people who live nearby, and Al's Breakfast is rarely short of customers. Most of the people who eat there walk or take the bus, and the last thing that Al's needs is off-street parking.

The first thing to note here is that Al's independence from parking can be an example for other areas. Anytime a city trades a surface parking lot for housing units, you're exchanging a flexible commodity (parking) for a fixed population of future customers, people for whom your store or business will be the first stop out the door. Provided you've invested in comfortable interesting sidewalks, the more density you get in your neighborhood, the more business you'll have. A good example is the development going up on Snelling and Selby Avenues in St Paul. A large off-street parking lot is being replaced by over 300 new apartments. If you think that each of them will have one or two people, that's hundreds of new customers for the corner, people who will spend lots of time and money in the area. I wish area businesses would look at this in a positive light. Instead of seeing a new development as a loss of parking, why not see it as a gain of local customers (the most loyal clientele anyone could want).

The second part of the parking situation has to do with off-street parking requirements. One of the main problems with any new developer building in Dinkytown is that the University area has onerous parking requirements. While commercial businesses in the area don't have to provide minimum off-street parking (it's in a pedestrian overlay district), any new residential unit has to have off-street parking spaces on a per-bedroom basis, rather than a per-unit basis. Basically, what these parking minimums do is drive up the cost for students trying to find housing, while providing space for cars far beyond the actual demand. Most students don't have cars, but if you provide them with a mandatory parking space, they might be more tempted to get one.

For example, here's a flier I saw on a campus bus stop the other day, advertising an apartment in one of the new Dinkytown area buildings. (It's the new building that houses the re-located Purple Onion.) The flier had been hilariously "graded" by undergrads.

Here's the important part:


Forcing students to pay for parking in the most walkable part of the city, where you least need a car, is not a good idea. The University / Dinkytown area parking requirements  incentivize driving in the area, making traffic problems worse for everyone. There are plenty of parking ramps all around the U. If on-street spaces were priced appropriately, maybe people would start using those ramps. My  advice would be to focus on the streetscape and the vitality of the neighborhood, use smart pricing, and parking will take care of itself.


Change is a Sign of Life


I went to the U of MN for a year back in 1996 as a post-secondary enrollment student. I remember the Dinkytown from those days, with the divey Purple Onion on the corner, filled with smoke, seeming like the coolest place on Earth. Years later, one of my first memories of going out to see a show in Minneapolis was at the Dinkytowner, a basement bar if there ever was one. The bar was actually padded, so that your forearm wouldn't get sore as you sat there and drank all day. They had an intimate stage, and I have fond memories of going there to "watch movies" and drink pitchers of beer.

The thing is, in retrospect, neither of these businesses was unique or irreplaceable. Both were unkempt holes in the wall, and both got the boot by the ever competitive market economy. And that's the thing about Dinkytown. This tiny little corner of the city is a hotspot of demand, practically off the charts. There are literally tens of thousands of customers walking and biking and taking the bus through this area every day. That's not something you can say about anywhere else in the city, outside a few corners in downtown Minneapolis.

But Dinkytown might be the future of Minneapolis. More and more people are living like students: living alone, demanding smaller apartment units, not owning or not driving cars. Demographics, economics, and cultural shifts mean that the kinds of developments in Dinkytown are a sign of things to come. Replacing a surface parking lot with a multi-story apartment building is a win-win situation for everyone.

I believe that if more of our city was like Al's Breakfast, we'd all be happier. I was there last week, and got the corned beef hash with poached eggs on top. ("I need CBH over here!" shouted the cook.) I would have stood in line for a half hour for the chance. It was delicious, but the real treat was the urban experience. That's priceless.

[Best poached eggs in town.]

27.1.13

Reading the Highland Villager #76

[A Villager that stuck its tongue to the flagpole.]
[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. That's why I'm reading the Highland Villager so that you don't have to. Until this newspaper goes online, sidewalk information must be set free.]


Headline: University merchants take stock of damages of light rail
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: Story on how business owners don't think that the supplemental EIS about the construction phase of the University Avenue light rail accurately captured their economic and psychological misery. The EIS reports that businesses losses ranged from 2 - 84 percent, averaging 30. [That range suggests why there are a few really pissed off people, and many who don't care all that much.] It includes the story of a man who had to close his used car lot and his car wash. [Isn't that the point? Our main commercial street and center of city's urban density shouldn't have used car lots on it. That's the point of this whole investment and rezoning.] Article includes story of a salon owner in tears. [OK, that does sounds sad.]

Headline: New Union Park initiative seeks justice for all; Students offered a chance to atone for bad behavior by sitting down with neighbors
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: Misbehaving college students [read "Tommies"] who get a misdemeanor can opt for a new "restorative justice" program, where they  [To my mind, this is the kind of solution that will actually solve neighbor problems around UST. This kind of program is a far better solution than banning or restricting students (good or bad) from living in certain areas, discriminating against young people, and raising their cost of living. Here, you're actually having people sit down with each other, and that almost always lowers tensions. -Ed.] The kids pick up trash or work for nonprofits in the area, and then meet the people who they disturbed or vandalized.

Headline: Love Doctor threatens to sue after council denies sign variance
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: The City Council voted to support the appeal of the variance for the sign on the wall of the building of the store that sells supposedly sexy predominantly red items on University Avenue next to the Turf Club. The owner of the shop is pissed, and threatening to sue. He claims that the presence of the light rail stop prevents people in cars from seeing his store, thus the need for a visible sign. [Look, he probably doesn't know that a full 35% of the Hiawatha LRT traffic is going to and from Augie's in downtown Minneapolis. That's why they put the Warehouse District stop where they did. The vast majority of adult industry shopping commuters prefer transit for some reason. -Ed.] Article includes this semi-amusing quote from the director of a local neighborhood group: "We value the Love Doctor as part of the mix of businesses along this stretch of the central corridor." Article also includes many references to the term, "visually cluttered." [It's hard for me to care much about this one, folks.]

Headline: City gets $1M to clean up Lowertown site
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: the State Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) gave the city a million dollars for [sharks with freakin' laser beams attached to their heads] cleaning up the site where the Saints stadium will soon be.

Headline: Snelling-Selby braces for change
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: Article about the new development at the corner of Snelling and Selby and how the loss of the surface parking lot, and its replacement with real urban density, will change everything. Article includes quote from a neighbor: "Gosh, parking is going to be crazy." Also, quote from Dan O'Gara: "We're obviously concerned about the loss of parking." Quote from Photographer's Guild guy: "We need parking wherever we can get it." Article continues with nine more paragraphs about parking.

Headline: Parking concerns aired over Ramsey Hill project
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: A developer on Marshall Avenue is trying to build a new 10-unit apartment building between St Paul College and the Cathedral. Neighbors are concerned about parking. [I really with I hadn't just read Donald Shoup's book. My brain hurts.] The building plan also has some issues with site coverage and setbacks. The local neighborhood group recommended approving all the variances except the one about parking.

Headline: St. Paul set to remove more ashes in battle against borer
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: Ash trees along Cleveland and Griggs will be cut down. [In order to save them? Makes sense to me!]

Headline: Minature gold course eyed for portion of old Schmidt Brewery
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: [Just in case you had lost hope in St Paul's development potential, thinking we'd be pigeon-holed as the capitol of light brite sculptures] There will be a 36-hole mini golf course as part of the Schmidt Brewery redevelopment. The holes will be "artistic." [I actually love mini golf, especially the Big Stone course out in Mound. They should make it a maxi-mini-golf course and use some of that old building, like hole #10 out in Mound (the sunflower spiral one) which is the best mini-golf hole in the world.]

Headline: Proposed 6th Street sidewalk expansion is laid over to Feb. 6
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: The City Council decided to vote on the [no brainer] sidewalk expansion next time, instead of this time. [The Heritage Preservation Commission (for some reason) decided that the sidewalk expansion didn't fit with building setbacks. This, despite the fact that the building isn't moving one micron from its current position, that the sidewalk space will be expanded directly abutting a park? I don't understand that at all.]

Headline: Request for front-yard garage is denied by the zoning board
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: A man who wants to build a garage in his front yard in the Summit Hill area won't get to.

Headline: Workshops to explore development scenarios in Mac-Grove
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: The Mac-Groveland neighborhood groups are working on updating their district plan and trying to figure out where and how development might take place along the area [which is under a development moratorium, at present]. Of particular concern are the corners of Snelling and St Clair, Grand and Cleveland, and Grand and Finn. [I imagine these workshops being debates over how much amber to pour on the area, in order to preserve it properly.]

Headline: 'B-Dubs' looks to spread its wings to Cheapo Discs spot on Snelling [Should I be amazed that Jane McClure knows that 'B-Dubs' refers to?]
Reporter: Jane McClure

Short short version: Buffalo Wild Wings wants to build on the old Cheapo Discs site on Snelling Avenue. The site plan doesn't need any approval, but their liquor license will.

Headline: Upgraded Howe Elementary scheduled to reopen this fall
Reporter: Kevin Driscoll

Short short version: The elementary school at 43rd and 38th in Minneapolis [!] was remodeled.


26.1.13

Reblog: Red Bull Gives You Crowds

[I wrote this last year, and it seems like the time has come to post this again.]


[Tongue contraption extending from the Catholics to the Interstate.]
I hang out around the St. Paul Cathedral a lot, and a few weeks back I noticed the strange construction occurring on Summit Avenue. I guess I didn't think much about it, but it turns out its part of this event called Red Bull Crashed Ice, a semi-crazy skating / luge race that started in Sweden and is sponsored by Red Bull.

Apparently, Red Bull's marketing approach is to have these huge crazy events set in various cities around the world. And its a great thing for cities! A year and a half ago, Red Bull brought their "Flugtag" contest to the riverfront in downtown St Paul, and I have never in my life seen such crowds in my Midwestern small city. It was great fun.

And now Red Bull is back with another huge Rube Goldberg event. I'm glad they like St. Paul so much. Maybe repeated association with Red Bull will help us re-brand our quiet town. Until this point, I've always considered St Paul to be "the city that sleeps."

Massive crowds are expected (75,000 people). And so everyone who's anyone in downtown or Cathedral Hill is talking about the Crashed Ice (Especially those in the restaurant industry.) It's quite the exceptional moment!

[Just an average day in downtown St Paul in 1935.]
For me, though, an event like this is a rare chance to glimpse what downtown life was like back when downtowns had high densities on a regular basis.

As I mentioned after the Flugtag, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and every city in America used to be able to generate crowds on a regular basis. This amount of foot traffic was semi-normal. This amount of people wanting food and drink, strolling around the city, and clustering on the Cathedral steps was not that unusual. It's one reason why so many department stores, shops, and cafés were located downtown. 

If you happen to find yourself in St Paul for the Crashed Ice spectacle, pause for a moment and imagine a world with downtown density. Imagine what St. Paul would be like if the streets were filled with people. I'm not saying that downtowns were always packed and crowded. They weren't. But crowds that today seem shockingly large wouldn't have been out of the ordinary in the pre-suburbanized city. Even in a place as seemingly average as St. Paul, Minnesota.

 [A large crowd gathered on the steps of the St Paul Cathedral to watch the 1938 Winter Carnival parade. Img. MNHS.]


24.1.13

*** Sidewalk Weekend ***

Sidewalk Rating: Frigid

The true Paris is by nature a dark, miry, malodorous city, confined within its narrow lanes…. swarming with blind alleys, culs-de-sac, and mysterious passages, with labyrinths that lead you to the devil; a city where the pointed roofs of the somber houses join together up there near the clouds and thus begrudge you the bit of blue which the northern sky would give in alms to the great capital…. The true Paris is full of freak shows, repositories at three centimes a night for unheard-of beings and human phantasmagorias… There, in a cloud of ammoniac vapor,… and on beds that have not been made since the Creation, reposing side by side are hundreds, thousands, of charlatans, of match sellers, of accordion players, of hunchbacks, of the blind and the lame; of dwarfs, legless cripples, and men whose noses were bitten off in quarrels, of rubber-jointed men, clowns making a comeback, and sword swallowers; of jugglers who balance a greasy pole on the tips of their teeth…; children with four legs, Basque giants and other kinds, Tom Thumb in his twentieth reincarnation, plant-people whose hand or arm is the soil of a living tree, which sprouts each year its crown of branches and leaves; walking skeletons, transparent humans made of light… and whose faint voice can make itself heard to an attentive ear…; orangutans with human intelligence; monsters who speak French.
[from Paul-Ernest de Rattier, Paris n’existe pas 1857. quoted in The Arcades Project.]
[The view from the Wabasha Street Bridge at night during a St Paul winter.]




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The wind slices through my pants, I feel the front of my thighs chapping in real time. The top of my head hurts, as does the little exposed skin between my hairline and forehead muff.

It is brutal out.

I try to stay on the sunny side of the street, but the shadows are now even longer than before. The sun is behind me, and I make a dash across the street just before the light changes — no way am I waiting there again. A quick left then a right and a short block to the corner, then another left — there is the hotel.

[this.]

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