Reading the Highland Villager Op-Ed Extra #10

[Cleveland Ave before picture; dangerous street next to a University.]
Pros and cons of two road projects
By Michael Mischke

Two local road projects -- one all but a done deal and the other just a proposal -- share two common features: the laudatory goal of making the streets safer and the potential to cause serious unintended consequences. Let's examine the pros and cons of each.

Dedicated bike lanes on Cleveland Avenue along the 2.75 mile stretch from Eleanor Avenue in Highland Park to University Avenue in Merriam Park were approved by the St. Paul City Council on March 17. The controversial $362,000 project pitted individual bicyclists and bicycle advocacy groups against local residents and businesses who are concerned about the resulting loss of on-street parking on the narrower stretch of Cleveland north of Randolph Avenue.

In just the most recent battle in the ongoing war between bikes and motor vehicles in St. Paul, the bikes won 5-2 before the City Council. Ramsey County is now expected to give its blessing to the bike lanes. (Cleveland is a county road!)

[This is the only part of the column that annoyed me, the idea that there is a "war" between cars and bikes or that "individual bicyclists and bicycle advocacy groups" were "pitted" against local residents and businesses. 

The reality is the bike plan is part of a much larger movement. For years in Saint Paul there have been people from all over the city working on improving street design, walkability, and bike access for a whole bunch of different reasons including safety, sustainability, livability, personal and public health, and even local business reasons. Highland and Mac-Grove are full of people that want safer streets for bicycling, and there's a lot of local support for better streets and bike lanes that go far beyond the usual bike advocacy suspects. That's one reason that the Council vote was 5-2 in favor of bike lanes, and the Highland District Council vote was 14-0 in favor of the ped medians. 

In my experience, safer streets don't come at the expense of cars. On the contrary, making Snelling safer, and adding bike connections from Highland Village through both Colleges all the way to University Avenue, will improve the  neighborhood in many ways, including making it safer for drivers. Once you stop thinking that convenient parking is the only thing that matters, street design is no longer a zero-sum game.]

There's little doubt that bicycling on Cleveland will be safer and more popular after parking is banned, the bike lanes are striped and the speed limit is reduced from 30 to 25 mph.

There's also little doubt that another north-south designated bike route on the western end of St. Paul is desirable for the growing number of people who are biking for recreational and commuting purposes.

However, the loss of nearly all of the on-street parking for Cleveland Avenue residents and businesses will mean more traffic, and parking congestion on nearby side streets and the real possibility that customers of Cleveland businesses will opt to make their purchases where parking is more convenient and plentiful. There are already 10 resident-only permit parking districts near Cleveland Avenue owing to the presence of St. Thomas and St. Catherine universities. The added parking pressure on streets outside of those districts can be expected to create a push for expanded permit parking districts, thereby compounding the problem.

The Highland District Council has not come up with a plan to construct a series of center medians on Snelling Avenue between Randolph Avenue and Ford Parkway. There too the goal is to create a safer street by slowing down traffic, creating a safe haven for pedestrians crossing the street, and eliminating half of the left turns on to and off of Snelling from and to local side streets.

However, there too the benefits come at a cost beyond the estimated $2.25 million tab for construction. the eight-to-10-food-wide center medians would mean the elimination of nearly of the on-street parking on the east side of Snelling, pushing those vehicles onto local side streets. The elimination of half of the left turns to and from Snellign would force more motorists to use side streets to get where they're going. And access to the parking lots of local businesses would be restricted, further exacerbating parking and traffic congestion in abutting residential areas.

But Snelling serves the parking needs of more than just residents and businesses. The worshipers at three churches along that length of Snelling also use the street for parking, as do the people who attend services at three funeral homes, watch hockey games at the Charles Schulz Highland Arena, and hop buses to the Minnesota state Fair with the satellite shuttle service that operates annually from Gloria Dei Church. Those people too would be forced to find alternative parking elsewhere.

The board of the HDC voted 14-0 on April 7 to recommend going forward with the Snelling medians. The City Council must sign off on the project, as must the Minnesota Department of Transportation because Snelling is a state highway. Construction could begin next year.

Both of these road projects have the potential to improve the quality of life for people living in and traveling through local neighborhoods on these two arterial streets. But they also have the potential to increase parking and traffic in nearby residential areas and adversely affect the business that operate along those streets. A good case can be made that the cons outweigh the pros.

Michael Mischke is the publisher of the Villager.

[Well, I like this editorial because it least Michske lays out the facts in a pretty straightforward way, although his description of the Cleveland Avenue situation differs markedly from my own. The only strange part is the very end of the column, where Michske comes to the conclusion that convenient parking trumps walkability and safety. That's exactly the opposite conclusion that I make.

I think it boils down to a difference in vision for Saint Paul. Michske sees the goal of competing with the suburbs, places (as he says) "where parking is more convenient and plentiful." Presumably Michske's ideal kind of commercial land-use for Saint Paul would be one of the few places where the retail has a distinctly suburban character, like the Midway Shopping Center, the Highland Lunds' strip mall retail area, or maybe the Kowalski's or Trader Joe's stores. All of these buildings place parking front and center, and use a suburban design that values easy parking over walkability, a quality streetscape, or connection to the neighborhood.

Personally, I think the strength of Saint Paul's small businesses comes from creating walkable places without large parking lots in between all the buildings. People don't shop or dine in Saint Paul because its easy to park. They come for the unique neighborhood businesses, the quality public space, and because our streets are beautiful and historic. The more we can entice people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks of Selby, Marshall, Grand, St. Clair, or Cleveland, the more our businesses and communities will thrive. Safer, more walkable, more bikeable streets are a big step in the right direction.

If they are thriving, and as long as parking meters are voted off the island, high-demand areas like Grand or Selby Avenues will always be places where it's rare if you find a parking spot in front of the business. That means that  people will always complain about parking, either because its too expensive or too difficult. The solution isn't to pave more of our city for parking lots, but to create safe and inviting streets that people enjoy. Improving Saint Paul's streets and sidewalks will mean that customers will more gladly walk a few blocks or pay a few bucks. Great streets will make our unique local businesses all the more inviting. That's why, for both these projects, the pros greatly outweigh the cons. In fact, it's no contest.]



Richard Holst said...

I had not really thought about the effect of neighborhood parking permits and businesses until I read this article.

It seems possible the permits areas may make the problem of access to businesses worse.


Rich Holst

PT said...

"Personally, I think the strength of Saint Paul's small businesses comes from creating walkable places without large parking lots in between all the buildings"

Being honest here, I really don't understand the very prevalent attitude that someone other then the business owners know what's best for their businesses. It is truly bizarre to me to see people repeatedly tell business owners they are running their businesses wrong.

Maybe the bike lanes are so important that the loss of parking is the price to be paid for their greatness. Global warming will end. There will be no more fat people etc. But when businesses say I'm concerned about the loss of parking or parking meters or whatever and the response is "well you're wrong"

I'm being deliberately harsh.

Someone wrote one of the best things I've read in a really long time. Going to liberally copy and paste here:

But the more important lesson is that everything is ephemeral, and we can't take our living history for granted. We should try harder to appreciate the places that connect us to our past, that compose the sense of place not merely in a memorial plaque, but in everyday life. The places like Mickey's or Al's or a hundred little bars, caf├ęs, or shops. These places can vanish in an instant, never to return.

I sometimes worry that we've become a culture that devalues its past, where the next new thing or the next cheapest thing inevitably trumps tradition and our weak social ties. The importance of the places and people that root us doesn't strike home until you lose something irreplaceable. Stasny's was that way for me, and today it's being bulldozed. If you lived in the North End, it breaks your heart.

Beautiful stuff. I tip my cap to the author. The first thought I had when I read this was I wish I had been there. The next thought I had was why doesn't this apply to some of the places and businesses involved in the parking bike lanes debates.

Somebody asked a question in the Old St Paul Facebook group about where the Peanuts characters came from at the barber shop. The short answers I got is that Charles Schulz okayed their drawing by a St. Kate's art professor in the '50's because he got his hair cut there. A good story made cooler by the fact I was getting my hair cut (what's left of it) in the same sport that Charles Schulz did. The place is in its 10th decade of being a barber shop with the last 45 years operated by the same person. That's what I see.

Others in this particular debate might wonder why we let a barber shop determine our transportation policy or write lengthy articles that the status quo is not option.

The status quo is always an option. Some of these places are the fabric of the neighborhood and their voices deserve to heard and respected.

Bill Lindeke said...

I appreciate your comment even if I don't quite agree with it. Here's a question: what is "the parking problem"? how do you "solve" it?

Parking, like congestion, is something that few people think about very closely. I have spent years studying data and thinking about these problems, and I think many people get them wrong. It's understandable because some of the lessons can be counter-intuitive. That's why I spend so much of my spare time on this blog thinking publically about specific examples here.

One great way to solve "the parking problem" at a very affordable civic price is to simply develop a culture where walking is normal. If I'm willing to walk across the street or around the block to go to a barber I really love, then we're getting somewhere. If I reinforce the perception that people are unwilling to walk, or If I refuse to go to a store if I can't park directly in front of it, then we're doing real damage to small businesses. This is why I get so frustrated when people complain about parking all the time. It reinforces our dependency, negativity, and our costly capture by the automobile.

In my experience, most business owners are working too hard at margins that are too slim to have much ability to think about the big picture. Bikes, sidewalks, and the public realm are outside the scope of the problems that hard-working business owners deal with on a day-to-day basis. There are exceptions, though, and I've had many positive conversations with small business owners on these topics. You can't paint with a broad brush, and a lot depends on how well businesses are doing economically in the first place.

I'd like to foster a more tolerant and experimental business culture where we think more carefully about the dangers of speed, curb cuts, and incomplete streets for our businesses. One example of how this has worked elsewhere are the bike corrals in Portland OR, where for a little while it was very difficult to get businesses to agree to exchange a prime on-street parking space for a protected 10-stall bike rack. That is, it was difficult until they proved to be immensely popular and good for the bottom line of most places Now Portland can't build them fast enough, and local businesses and small businesses in that town are thriving. See this data for an example: http://streets.mn/2016/04/26/chart-map-of-the-day-us-cities-ranked-by-storefront-index/

The same story could be told for Open Streets in Minneapolis, though Saint Paul hasn't quite figured this out yet.

I'd love to have more positive conversations on the relationship between walkability, street design, and thriving small businesses in the Twin Cities. It's been very difficult, though, and nobody is helped by the extreme negativity that so often appears in public narratives. These histrionics only exacerbate the perceived tension between street safety and local economies, often to the detriment of the very businesses that these spokespeople are trying to help.

PT said...

As soon as I posted this comment, I read on Facebook that ST Paul Revisited is quitting because people are being jerks to the guy/girl and I thought to myself, Bill probably doesn't deserve jerky posts like mine.

I appreciate and read anything you write hear or on streets. Your post on Stasny's was gorgeous. Thank you for writing it. Your perspective is important and while I disagree with specific parts of it, St Paul is better off with you voicing it.

In the end for me, I don't think bike lanes are that important and don't make people who do bike that much safer. You do and by en large the city agrees with you. I think we'll agree to disagree and I'll try to be nicer. You do good work and I appreciate it.

Thanks and sorry for the jerky post