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.)

[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.]


alex said...

Well said Bill. I'd add that the definition of Setback in the St Paul zoning code is as follows: "The distance required to obtain front, side or rear yard open space provisions of this code, measured from the lot line to the above-grade faces of the building." This is of course the standard planning definition, and it is completely irrelevant to spaces within the public right-of-way. If "setbacks" were the official rationale for this decision, then it was without factual merit and should be disregarded by the city council.

Tee and Amy said...

As a resident of Lowertown, I saw the city council saying no to 6th St. sidewalk expansion as the the city saying no to even more construction and I was pleased! My wife and I are moving out of Lowertown soon, so now I'm all for it! :)

Seriously though, Lowertown residents have had to deal with a TON of construction over the last few years, I don't think it would be such a bad idea to scale it back just for awhile. The new ballpark is going to be built in front of our building (and windows), right where we currently park. This is the main reason we are moving out of Lowertown. We can't take more of the endless construction and aren't looking forward to the traffic (foot and car) the new ballpark would bring us.

We chose Downtown Stp over downtown Mpls, because we wanted and quieter, more peaceful down town experience. Aside from the constant construction we got that. It seems though that the entire time we've been here our neighbors (people and businesses) have been excited about Lowertown, hopefully becoming more like downtown Mpls. I don't get that, because if that's what you want, Mpls is minutes away. Clearly loving our quiet downtown puts us in the minority though. :)

Here's a question: What happened to make downtown Stp such a quiet place? When I was a kid (in the 80s and 90s), we went to the Galtier movie theater all the time, my Dad took us to Trick or Treat in the downtown Stp mall every year, my mom's main Dayton's was the one downtown. Schinder's was my favorite store in the world! We ate at the Rudolph's that used to be down here often. It was a pretty happening place my family utilized. Then it seems in the late 90s they just closed everything. Turned the mall into offices, etc. How can a city get rid of so much of what made it vibrant and still expect to be vibrant? It seems as though DT Stp was turned into a deserted place on purpose. Was it? Why?

Now the Subway and Chipotle down here close at like 5/6pm. That gives off the impression that Stp wants people to come here and work, then get out.