The Three Fiefdoms of Saint Paul

[Map here.]
People tend to think that Saint Paul is Saint Paul, by which I mean that land and space within the borders of the city of Saint Paul are, in some real way, controlled or shaped or regulated by the city government.

Well, that's true sort of. For the vast majority of the city's territory, the local government can do things like use police, charge taxes, design the streets (sometimes!), regulate the buildings and how people use land, and other things like that.

However! There are three exceptions, places where Saint Paul has very little power even within its own boundaries. These are the mini-kingdoms in our midst, places where Public Works or the assessor or the zoning code dares not tread.

#1: The State Fair (230 acres)

So, yeah, what city is the State Fair in anyway?

Most people would say Falcon Heights, but they are sort of not even in Falcon Heights either. They are their own government.

Como Avenue at the south edge of the Fairground is technically part of Saint Paul, however every year for two weeks the powers that be at the State Fair just do whatever they want to the street, without so much as consulting or maybe even informing the City. Often that means erasing the bike lane, even if cars don't use the extra traffic lane.

Basically, the State Fair does whatever it wants with their land and is accountable to nobody. Falcon Heights has no say over the Fair either. They are controlled by a shadowy cult, and nobody can criticize them lest they be declared un-Minnesotan and banished.

#2: The University of Minnesota (.62 square miles)

As any administrator will quickly tell you, the University of Minnesota is older than the state itself and they basically do whatever they want with their two campuses. They have their own police force, their own transit system, and their own private street (the "transitway") which they control. They also have vast sums of money with which to buy up property around their campuses.

God help the poor planner who has to reach out to anyone within the University's Byzantine bureaucratic administration if they want to coordinate on something like street changes, a bike lane, or anything else. They do whatever they want, and the best that a city hosting the U can do is to pray for their favor.

#3: The State Capitol Area (.5 square miles)

Back in the late 1960s, the State Government and the City of Saint Paul agreed to bequeath a large portion of the city on the northwest edge of downtown into the hands of a state government committee called the Capital Area Architectural and Planning Board. This extends, by the way, into downtown proper and all the way over to the Cathedral doorstep. From that point on, the vast majority of the land became parking lots, grey office buildings connected by tunnels, and empty green grass with statues in them.

There's nothing the city of Saint Paul can do about it either. Huge areas like the Rice Street Sears site are simply out of the hands of city planners. Historic buildings like the Ford Building are prone the whims of administrators who work in a brutalist structure accountable to some Greater Minnesota  legislators and maybe, if you're lucky, the Lieutenant Governor.

In Conclusion

These are the three fiefdoms of Saint Paul, parts of the city that play by their own rules, where the city staff or mayor's office can only beg for favor. There are smaller less-powerful or contiguous kingdoms and duchies as well, like the University of St. Thomas, Bill McGuire, the Metropolitan Airports Commission, the Mississippi River Critical Area, the Ford Motor Company, the Mancini family, or the Canada Pacific railyards.

One only hopes that the nameless rulers of these vast swaths will be beneficent.


Notable Quotes #19: Fred Kent on Minneapolis Skyways, c. 1986

Skywalks should be severely limited, and if I had my way, I'd tear them down.

I can't believe how internalized this city had gotten. You want to reinforce Nicollet as a main street, but if you put in more skyways, no one's going to be on Nicollet.

I'd feel like an undesirable waiting for a bus in your city. I don't think there's one piece of furniture on the Nicollet Mall that should remain, and there's not a building on the Nicollet Mall that does not need to be redone.

Your buildings are not related to the street; they're monuments to the architects who built them.

You have one popcorn stand; that's sort of your token vendor. Any how about newsstands instead of those crazy news boxes?

The city is void of interests for people to come downtown, except as a place to work .... It's a business community, not a family place.

[Fred Kent is an urban designer and public space designer who visited downtown Minneapolis in 1986 to provide feedback on the downtown streetscape. Here are the highlights from his visit, where he told downtown leaders what he really thought.]


After 58 Years, J.W. Hulme Disappears from West 7th and St. Clair

[The old West 7th factory.]
Last year, I was happy to finally lead a bike tour of "factories" along St. Clair Avenue, which I'd been thinking about for quite a while. It's a street that boasts a surprising number of manufacturing institutions, both large and small, and it was fun to visit a bunch of these places in an evening.

Well as sometimes happens with my tours, they can be a bit of a "kiss of death." Businesses, bars, or institutions occasionally disappear right after I bring a group to visit them. In the case of the St. Clair tour, it was J. W. Hulme, a leather bag manufacturer that had been on the corner of West 7th and St. Clair since 1960. They announced they'd be closing their factory last October, right after the tour. They stayed open for a few more months, but the building has been in mothballs for the last half a year.

Here is some info about J.W. Hulme that I'd found out in my research:

  • The company was named after John Willis Hulme, who started his first business in 1905 in downtown Saint Paul making a bunch of different canvas items. The company specialized in canvas awnings and tents. 
  • The building on West 7th was built in 1960 when J.W. Hulme expanded. As a publicity stunt to celebrate the new factory the to camp out on the roof of the building for a weekend using Hulme material whenever possible. 
  • In 1988 a bookkeeper “swindled”  $33K from the company. 
  • In the 1990s through the early 2010s, Hulme specialized in high-end canvas and hunting gear that was made specifically for Orvis, the fly-fishing brand.
  • J.W. Hulme was bought by an awning and canvas company guy named Gary Buermann in 2002. In 2005, a new CEO named Jen Guarino a former brand manager turned around the company. They received a boost when a couple of very influential people promoted the bags, and they were sold at places like Barneys Department Store in New York. With lots of debt, a private equity firm bailed them out in ’09.
  • As recently as last year, they employed dozens of highly-skilled sewers making their leather goods.

Sad to see a Saint Paul business close! It was a good run for J. W. Hulme, though. You can still visit their retail location on Grand Avenue, though their bags are now made elsewhere.

[Historic clippings follow.]

[Want ad, 1954.]
[c. 1960.]

[Want ad, 1978.]

[Want ad, 1998.]

[Ad for Orvis equipment, c. 1990s.]
[Current Grand Avenue shop.]


My Study on Public Space in the Rondo Neighborhood is Now Available

By now, you might have heard of the Rondo land bridge project, the efforts by people in Saint Paul's historic Rondo community to build political momentum, and raise funds, for a one-mile-long "freeway cap" over I-94 in the central part of Saint Paul.

Thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation, I was able to put together a study of how the I-94 freeway has affected public space in the Rondo Community, and how a land bridge might change the neighborhood. It took me quite a long time to gather historical information, present-day quantitative data about things like noise and air pollution, and to write up the report, but I finally am able to share it with you. I'm happy with how it turned out.

The report has dozens of historic and present-day photos of public space in the Rondo community, some analysis of what public space is and why it's important, lots of historic info about the neighborhood, and some thoughts and data points about how public space might be impacted with any future changes to the freeway.

I'm excerpting the introduction, and you can download the entire thing at the link below.

[Introduction follows.]

Chapter 1: Introduction 

Who’s street?  
On the evening of Friday June 17th, 2017, a group of people gathered at the edge of Saint Paul’s historic Rondo Avenue neighborhood made a collective decision that challenged social assumptions about public space in Saint Paul. Protesting the police shooting of Saint Paul resident and school worker Philando Castile, a group of demonstrators marched down the Dale Street onramp and onto the Interstate 94 right-of-way, “blocking” the movement of cars traveling through Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood for a few hours.  
In a bit of tragic irony, the controversial demonstration on the freeway that evening took place on precisely the land that was once old Rondo Avenue, the diverse heart of Saint Paul’s African-American neighborhood. Decades prior to that night, the contested ground for the demonstration was literally seized for “public purposes” during the freeway construction era of the 1950s and 1960s, when thousands of people were forcibly removed from their homes and businesses in the heart of Saint Paul.  

Apart from raising awareness about systemic police brutality, the demonstration, which led to a police stand-off and criminal charges that were later dismissed, illuminated key questions about the relationship between free- ways and public space:  
What exactly is the difference between a public sidewalk, a public street and a public freeway? Do governments and public institutions have responsibility to redress the wrongs of the past?  
These questions lie at the heart of the issue of public space in the United States. Everywhere in American cities, freeways have blended into the background of everyday life. These infrastructures allow thousands of cars to speed past the homes, businesses, walls, and trees of historic urban communities. The effects of the freeway blur into a vague urban landscape. For many people, these massive pieces of public infrastructure become almost invisible, the sounds of the cars almost inaudible, the speeding traffic to and from the freeway ramps almost insensible. And yet the presence of freeways, frontage roads, noise walls, pedestrian bridges, on- and off-ramps, and tens of thousands of cars that rely on them, continue to make a material difference in the lives of people who live near them every day.  
As always in urban life, individual and collective well-being rely on quality public spaces for sociality, mobility, and recreation. In an era when governments are beginning to examine freeway infrastructure more closely, look- ing at impacts on public space should be an important step in the process of reconsidering and rethinking the historical and present-day relationship between freeways and nearby communities.  
This study uses public space as a lens to think about the past, present, and possible future relationship between freeway infrastructure and public space. As government and institutions weigh the costs and benefits of potential changes to freeways for future generations of city dwellers, it is important to consider how changes might impact the parks, playgrounds, streets, and sidewalks on which communities rely. The focus here is on describing the importance of public space for a community, examining narrowly the 1.25 square mile historic Rondo community surrounding the Interstate 94 corridor in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The goal of the study is to look at the size and quality of public space within the study area, both before and after the construction of the freeway that dramatically and irrevocably transformed the neighborhood over 50 years ago.  
Chapter 2 describes the overall purpose and methodological approach. This part of the study focuses on key reasons why public space is important for neighborhoods, outlining the connection between quality public space and physical, mental, and social health. Secondly, this chapter describes the mixed qualitative and quantitative methods that are used in this study to examine public space, both in the past and in the present-day.  
Chapter 3 describes in general terms how this study defines public space. Here it describes the typology of categories, the difference between formal and informal public spaces, and the fundamental role that streets and sidewalks play in the landscape of public space for an urban neighborhood like Rondo.  
Chapter 4 looks specifically at the historic landscape of the Rondo Community Study Area (RCSA), how public space might have existed before the freeway construction period radically transformed the neighborhood. Drawing on historic documents and accounts, this part of the report describes the different types of public space that might have existed in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Much of this public space landscape was informal in nature and, in many cases, relied on bottom-up institutions such as social clubs, businesses, or individuals to fill important roles in the community. Meanwhile, streets and sidewalks were largely oriented towards local uses, as opposed to regional users and traffic patterns that emerged after the freeway was built.  
Chapter 5 examines the neighborhood’s public spaces in the present day, specifically focusing on size, type, and some specific measurable qualities. These include noise pollution, air pollution, and a basic proxy for safety and comfort along the street and sidewalks within the area.  
Finally, Chapter 6 offers a few conclusions based on potential changes to the freeway infrastructure. Here, the study attempts to think about how changes to the 94 freeway corridor might affect public spaces in the future, largely in positive ways.  
The goal of this report is to focus closely on the role that public space plays for the health and well-being of a community. Specifically, this study tries to look at the how construction of the I-94 freeway system and related changes that occurred during the construction years impacted everyday public spaces. Using public space as lens, it is compelling to think about the past, present, and future of public space, and the history of stability and change in the historic Rondo Community. Hopefully this report is the beginning of a larger conversation around the relationship between urban communities, historical inequity, and publicly-owned freeway infrastructure. No matter what happens next, no matter the future of the historic Rondo community and the freeway that divides it, public space will play a critical role. 

I hope you enjoy the full report.


Open Letter to the Saint Paul City Council about Ayd Mill Road

[Rendering of one possible design for Ayd Mill Road, from the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition.]

As someone who grew up next to Ayd Mill Road, and have been using it my entire life, I was thrilled to hear that Mayor Carter and the city’s Public Works Department are going to commit to reduce and reconfigure Ayd Mill Road when they repave it this year. I believe this decision reinforces and reaffirms many of the city’s values, puts Saint Paul in a better place fiscally, and will not create major traffic problems on Saint Paul’s streets.

For those reasons, I think you should support this decision.

First, a key criteria for deciding the future of Ayd Mill Road has to be costs versus benefits. Ayd Mill Road is a 100% city-owned street, and city taxpayers are on the hook for any long-term maintenance of this infrastructure. This makes it very different than other freeways or major traffic arterials, and for a sixty-year-old road with deteriorating surface conditions, we should think carefully about how best to spend precious city dollars.

As you know, the long-term maintenance picture for Saint Paul streets is a bleak one, and when opportunities arise to downsize overbuilt streets and roads, we should seize that chance. This unique street, a four-lane divided roadway that connects with walkable city streets on one end and a freeway on the other, is a the most obvious of these kinds of projects. Reducing the road’s footprint will save the city millions of dollars in both the long- and short-terms.

Second, I believe the traffic impacts will be minimal. A grade-separated two-lane road with few intersections can actually handle a lot of daily traffic, and in cases like these, reducing lanes affects speed more than overall volume. The problem with Ayd Mill Road has always been its intersections with the regular street grid, rather than any congestion problems on the road itself. I would encourage you to keep an open mind about how this transition might work out well for all parties involved.

Finally, this decision reflects our shared values, especially those in the draft Climate Action Plan. Facing the existential problem of climate change, the Climate Action Plan lays out the ambitious goal of reducing city vehicle miles traveled by 2.5% each year. If we hope to achieve meaningful action on climate change, reducing and reprioritizing space given to roadways is an absolutely necessary step. 

Ayd Mill Road is a decades-long saga, the kind of “third rail” that few political leaders want to address. Debates over the road began in the 1940s and continued vehemently throughout many lifetimes of political leaders, neighbors, and advocates. In 2002, the decision to “connect” the road to 35E was done as a “test” by then-Mayor Kelley with very little public input. On the other hand, the most recent Council action was the 2009 vote to adopt the current proposed configuration.

This is to say that Mayor Carter’s bold action on Ayd Mill Road reflects a long-process of deliberation and indecision over the future of this valley. I am thrilled that, at long last, the City of Saint Paul will be taking steps to transform this polluting liability into a public space that reflects and amplifies our shared values.

Please support this process as it moves forward this fall.

Bill Lindeke
Chair, Transportation Committee of the Planning Commission


Twin City Lampposts #21


 [South St. Anthony Park, St. Paul.]

 [Milwaukee, WI.]

 [Milwaukee, WI.]


 [Nicollet Avenue, Minneapolis.]

 [Washington, DC.]

 [Washington, DC.]


Signs of the Times #157


[Sidewalk. West Bank, Minneapolis.]

 I might have some
Mail for you

[Door. Baltimore, MD.]

 bdé ote

[Path. Downtown, Minneapolis.]

 10 out of 10 Teds agree

[Window. Baltimore, MD.]


[Fence. Baltimore, MD.]

the whole damn system is corrupt as hell!

[Rooftop. Baltimore, MD.]

 CROWN Don't Run Lot If you
Park there and Don't Pay the $5
Your Car will get towed.

Thank you

[Window. Baltimore, MD.]

across Street
310 Park AVe
Thanks Cookie

[Door. Baltimore, MD.]


Reading the Highland Villager #240

[Villagers find a sunbeam.]
[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. Until this newspaper goes online, sidewalk information must be set free. See also: Three Reasons Why I Re-Blog the Highland Villager.]

Headline: Highland, Mac-Grove committees consider proposed Starbucks; Drive-thru coffee shop planned for corner of Randolph-Hamline
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: A chain coffee place wants to make a drive-thru coffee building at the site of a former gas station. There was a public meeting. Article includes a reference to "Carbucks." Neighbors are concerned about traffic and pedestrian safety. Quote from neighbor: "Regardless of what your traffic studies say, it's going to be a mess." It requires a conditional-use permit. Quote from a guy who owns a nearby coffee shop without a drive-thru: "I would guess this is a done deal."

Headline: Coast-to-coast trip is latest in long line of family's bicycling adventures
Author: Anne Murphy

Short short version: A family is bike touring. [They seem nice. Their kids are 13 and 16. Let's make this more normal.]

Headline: St. Paul struggling with street maintenance costs; Public Works study detects $1 billion backlog in upkeep
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Article about how far behind the city is on paying for roads. It should cost $51 million for 20 years to fix all the roads up to where they should be. Article mentions the city-wide PCI. Article mentions how much more money they have for this in Minneapolis. Quote from CM Noecker: "I don't think we can rely on the general fund." Quote from CM Tolbert about a state gas tax increase. [What is needed is a reprioritization across the city away from so much car-first infrastructure, and brainstorming about funding. That means both things like parking meters and not spending millions on projects like Ayd Mill Road or parking ramps or other big projects like that that exacerbate street costs.] Article includes some context about sewer separation and the history of street funding. [Does not include the "terrible twenty" thing with Mayor Coleman, though. Nor does it mention the non-profit maintenance issue.]

Headline: County budgets for improved racial equity
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The County is going to try and send more money on helping address racial equity. Specific ideas include "health service models", changing how the County has its offices, housing, and how it does hiring. They will also close a golf course, future use of the land TBD. [Not subsidizing golf would seem in character with improved equity.] However they are spending millions on other golf courses. [Whoops. Looks like a whole bunch of money for old well-off white people after all.]

Headline: Rail Authority eyes 14% increase in transit levy
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The Rail Authority is going to get more money from people's property taxes to fund things like the Gold Line and Riverview streetcar. [One of which is legitimately useful.]

Headline: Speaking of impacts; Highland council raises concerns about the toxins in old Ford dump
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Neighbors are concerned about what might be down by the river, referred to as "so-called Area C." [I see an X Files episode here.] Quote from developer: "it's an encapsulated dump." ["Encapsulated: 1. to express the essential features of something succinctly; 2. to enclose something in or as if in a capsule." Wait, isn't is what I do every two weeks with the Highland Villager? If so, it's a fitting metaphor!] Article references "paint sludge" and "scrap metal" and a list of chemicals which includes: antinomy, barium, chromium, and cadmium. [Yikes.]

Headline: Police chief takes aim at funding for tracking gunshots in St. Paul
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The SPPD is trying to get money to get technology to detect where guns go off, like they have in Minneapolis. There is . grant from the Feds for this, but Congresswoman McCollum is mad that they used the light rail line to justify the request. [The transit = crime thing does parrot MN GOP talking points, so yeah. Good work Rep. McCollum.]

Headline: Council signs agreement for Midway stormwater district
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The City will allow the soccer team and others to collect and filter stormwater around the stadium site.

PS: There's a lovely profile of local blogger and sci-fi writer Naomi Kritzer as well!


Twin City Doorways #51

 [Milwaukee, WI.]

  [Milwaukee, WI.]

  [Milwaukee, WI.]

  [Milwaukee, WI.]

  [Milwaukee, WI.]

  [Milwaukee, WI.]

  [Milwaukee, WI.]

 [Milwaukee, WI.]


Twin City Bike Parking #39

 [Milwaukee, WI.]

 [West Side, Saint Paul.]

 [Milwaukee, WI.]

 [Milwaukee, WI.]

 [Location forgotten. Downtown, Saint Paul.]

 [West Bank, Minneapolis.]

 [Somewhere in University Avenue, Saint Paul.]

[West Bank, Minneapolis.]