Sidewalk of the Week: Snelling Avenue

(Warning: this post is a bit wonky!)

Snelling Avenue in Saint Paul is a really important street, with really important sidewalks.

First off, its an old main street. Snelling is the only major commercial North-South street in a city that runs East-West and thus it's a major route for traffic, cutting through Saint Paul like a knife through a layer cake.

Plus, it's an old street with a ton of mixed-use building stock, and a bunch of institutions. Hamline University, Macalester College, and the State Fairgrounds all adorn its sidewalks. (Not to mention the fabled Spruce Tree Center.) In between, it has a ton of great old one- and two-story buildings that host a variety of little businesses. There's actually a lot to see and discover on Snelling Avenue.

But today, Snelling Avenue sidewalks do not feel right. Despite the quantity of storefronts, the sidewalks are narrow and uninviting. Today, the street's primarily designed for the huge stream of car traffic that streams constantly along it like a . . . well, like a stream. No, make that a firehose.

Now, usually the Sidewalk of the Week is a sidewalk that's wonderful, designed right, and pleasing to the eye, ear, and foot. This one is a bit different, but I think it nicely illustrates what a difference a good sidewalk can make.

This patch of Snelling Avenue North is almost kitty-corner from Hamline University, and by all rights ought to be crawling with students. Plus, it's in the middle of a very nice, cozy, and relatively affordable Saint Paul neighborhood.

[Lots of old alleys and buildings grace North Snelling, like this one next to the Black Sea, home of the cheapest and most delicious falafel in town (made by a man with a moustache).]

But just past the Hamline campus and the Highway Motel, Snelling morphs into a large elevated freeway that runs for almost a mile over four sets of train tracks, the Pierce Butler Route, Energy Park Drive, and Como Avenue. With no buildings or pedestrians to worry about, cars travel really fast along this open-access, four lane stretch of the avenue. And, despite the sign depicting one's speed, they come zipping into the heart of Saint Paul without much regard for people, businesses, or neighborhood. (It's the kind of place that ought to be a notorious speed trap, but if it is, I've never noticed.) Because of the way the road is designed, there is a real discontinuity between the Snelling Avenue high-speed roadway and the slow-speed walkable side streets. They are really two starkly different sidewalk regimes, two starkly different traffic systems.

The corner of Minnehaha and Snelling is the perfect illustration of the difference. On one side you have Minnehaha Avenue, with its wide trees and grass patches, a very pleasant place for a stroll.

[Walk your dog! Meander! Dance! The sidewalk is your oyster.]

On the other side, Snelling Avenue sidewalks sit, awkwardly clinging to a strip of worn-down storefronts. This pedestrian space is narrowly perched, with no buffer between the street and the buildings save for a few parked cars.

[This sidewalk is half the size of the one on Minnehaha . . . and has nothing much going for it save lots of shop windows and bumpouts for parking.]

Walk on the for a minute and you'll agree: this is no place for a stroll. People dart into and out of the shops along here like they're secret agents being hunted by the KGB. There's panic, and nowhere to sit. Nobody leans on a lamppost, admiring the view. To cross the street, people scurry like rats, rushing to the safety of the other side.

[The coffee house on the corner has done a lot to make their sidewalk inviting, protected, bike-friendly, and pretty . . . at least on one side of the building.]

It's a shame, too, because there are a lot of neat things to see here: Kim's Oriental Grocery, the Black Sea Turkish Restaurant, a cool hardware store, a yarn store, and lots more. At the same time, there are a ton of storefronts here that are underutilized or empty.

[Some of the dingy buildings along Snelling. Look at the piss-poor sidewalk!]

One consequence of the bleak Snelling Avenue sidewalks is that the alleys on this street have become far more important.

For example, at the Gingko coffee shop, a long-time Saint Paul folk hangout, the back alley has become kind of a front door, and there's a really cool space behind all the buildings.

[The back / front entrance of the Gingko Coffee House. It's pleasant, and people sit here in the summertime.]

The silver lining for Snelling Avenue is that there is room for improvement. And I mean that quite literally. There's not really this much need for auto lanes this wide. They could be narrowed down to 10 or 11 feet, and the sidewalks could be widened to make room for pedestrians. In fact, many studies show that narrower car lanes are actually safer than wider lanes, as people exercise more caution when they drive.

[Believe it or not, this street would be safer for both cars and people were it narrower.]

I'm convinced that doing something like this would really spur investment and streetlife along this entire stretch of Snelling Avenue, and might help make the surrounding neighborhoods connect better with each other. One of the reason's why Saint Paul is so segregated is the lack of North-South connectivity.

Sidewalks can make a big difference, and this corner of Snelling and Minnehaha shows you exactly why: it's like night and day on this week's Sidewalk of the Week.

[Aahh . . . Snelling Avenue. I love the smell of getting hit by a car in the morning.]


Reader DL points out the Snelling Avenue median project, over by Macalester College.
Residents of the Mac-Groveland neighborhood east of campus are coming out in support for the proposed installation of a median along Snelling Avenue. The median, which would divide the four-lane state highway, would extend from Grand to St. Clair Avenue. Neighbors cite increased pedestrian safety and aesthetic enhancement of the area as the main benefits the median would provide.

Of course, there's a median on Snelling here. You can see it in the photos. It doesn't do much for the street, though. It's still too wide. (Compare to Lyndale Avenue, which has four lanes of traffic at two-thirds the size.)

DL also points out:
Original plans were for a freeway to extend from I-694 south to a connection with what's now Ayd Mill and onto I-35E. The only portion built as a freeway was the section you reference; the northern section was built as an expressway.


Unknown said...

I would love to see a more pedestrian friendly Snelling Ave - not only in St. Paul, but Roseville as well.

Brian Voerding. said...

The name of the man with the mustache is Ali, and if you eat there once he'll remember you forever. Honest. Although in my Hamline days I was eating there four or five times a week. Nice post. Snelling is one of my favorites.

DI said...

It sounds as if you may not be aware of the Snelling Ave. median project adjacent to Macalester. Mn/DOT recently approved funding their part of the project so it appears that it may actually be built.

Snelling Ave. is a state highway and the only truck route between northbound I-35E and the western part of the city, which is why there is so much truck traffic. Original plans were for a freeway to extend from I-694 south to a connection with what's now Ayd Mill and onto I-35E. The only portion built as a freeway was the section you reference; the northern section was built as an expressway.

justacoolcat said...

ALso, crossing Snelling in the sections without a stop light near is a total nightmare.

I swear some cars speed up in an attempt to keep a person from crossing.

Anonymous said...

its the city. what do you expect?
and good job at taking the pictures right after it rained.
who cares about the sidewalk its the people who are on them that matters. Yeah, you'll meet some weirdos but some of those weirdos will teach you some of lifes hardest lessons.

Bill Lindeke said...

Yes, the people are the important thing.

But my point is also that you could take the same group of people, in the same houses, and they would behave quite differently with different sidewalk arrangements. In other words, just by changing the sidewalks you can make a difference in people's lives.

www.encontactos.com said...

It won't succeed as a matter of fact, that's exactly what I think.