I was honored to join the Summit Hill Association, one of Saint Paul's 13 District Councils, the other day to talk about walkability and the future of Grand Avenue. It's always a treat to chat about my favorite topic, and especially when meeting people who live in a part of St. Paul I know very well. I did my best to discuss walkabilty, the history of Grand Avenue and Cathedral Hill, and what the future might hold for the street in a changing urban environment.
A few days later, SHA invited local planning guru Merritt Clapp-Smith on to talk about the history of zoning on Grand Avenue as well. If you want to dive into the details of why Grand Avenue looks the way it does, and how city's legal framework shapes development, you will also enjoy that chat.
Thanks to SHA for doing the important work of hosting community conversations about the details of urban design.
Via Kottke, I happened across this lovely Bayeux Tapestry meme generator. The Bayeux Tapestry is a thousand-year-old illustration of the Norman conquest that was lost and found in England, and offers a charming recounting of historical events.
Anyway, here are my attempts. Check out the Bayeux meme generator and make one for yourself!
[Hamline-Midway, St. Paul.]
|Jon's COVID-19 Preparedness Plan|
[Hamline-Midway, St. Paul.]
TO ENTER THE
[Door. West 7th, St. Paul.]
|Don't panic if your|
items are not
[Wall. Merriam Park, St. Paul.]
[Door. Cedar-Riverside, Minneapolis.]
Due to Fast
Growing COVID 19
|[The existing conditions.]|
Dear Council Member:
I’m writing to urge you to support the appeal of the development proposal at 411 and 417 Lexington Parkway North. There are three reasons why the City Council should let this project go forward.
#1. legal issues
Simply put, the proposal meets every finding in the zoning code. This is a site plan application, which puts the highest possible burden on the City if it wants to legally deny the development. In my opinion, there are no legal findings to support such a denial.
To make matters worse, the Planning Commission did not follow proper procedures in denying this site plan application. Multiple Commissioners, both at the ZC and in the full Commission meetings, cited affordability as grounds for voting against the application, despite the fact that the City Attorney informed the group that affordability is not a legal finding in this case. Furthermore, when making their decisions, many Commissioners cited public comments received outside of the legal public comment period, either in personal communication, via email after public comments were closed, or over phone calls made to members of the Commission. (I also received these calls and emails, though I tried hard to ignore them
I do not think that the discussions at the Planning Commission took place according to the legal findings set in the St. Paul Zoning Code or by the Planning Commission bylaws. I hope that the City Council is more careful about the city’s legal obligations.
#2. market-rate housing
In spite of the legal issues in this case, the Planning Commission discussion centered on the issue of affordability. Specifically, there was a disagreement over the impact market-rate housing has on housing affordability in St. Paul. This is a important discussion about a difficult issue that can be counterintuitive
Recent housing studies show that market-rate projects like this, at worse, have a neutral impact on surrounding housing. In most cases, projects like the one proposed alleviate pressure on the housing market and lower prices, especially when lots of new market-rate housing is built. For this reason, market-rate projects like this one can actually help affordability.
For decades, we have been failing to build enough housing in St. Paul to keep up with increasing demand. There has been no market-rate housing built on University Avenue between South St. Anthony Park and downtown in my lifetime. This shortage is true in may parts of the city, leading to across-the-board pressure on the existing housing stock and raising prices for everyone.
Without massive changes to how we fund and regulate housing in US cities, we need to build market-rate housing in order to keep prices down. Failing to do this will make housing affordability worse for everyone in the city, rich and poor alike. This is why, in my opinion, this market-rate proposal will help affordability in St. Paul and in Frogtown, not harm it.
This vacant lot has been for sale for over ten years, right next to a light-rail station. If the city had approved this project when it was first brought forward — with a grant from the Met Council — it would have provided greater community amenities, and have been built in time to house hundreds of people during a deadly pandemic. The longer we wait to approve market-rate projects on sites like this, the more we turn our backs on people in St. Paul who are looking for decent places to live.
#3 city needs clarity
In my opinion, the worst outcome of this debate was the negativity of the community conversation. Part of the problem is that the city does not have affordable housing or Inclusionary Zoning guidelines on the books that would help guide these kinds of discussions. If we had completed our Inclusionary Zoning study, it would have helped Commissioners and members of the public evaluate these kinds of market-rate proposals with a eye toward what levels of affordability are possible in the current environment.
Striking the balance of regulation is not easy. For example, if St. Paul had Minneapolis’s ordinance, with over half of its units at or below 60% AMI, this project would easily meet its requirements. As the struggles of Portland, Oregon have shown, it’s hard to correctly set requirements for a Inclusionary Zoning policy that increases the overall supply of homes in a city. This is why St. Paul should complete its market study, to ensure that any Inclusionary Zoning and affordable housing discussions take place with everyone having the best information available. I urge the Council to fund this study as soon as you can.
In short, you should support this appeal because it’s a legal application that meets every requirement in the zoning code. On top of that, this project will help affordability in St. Paul and in the surrounding community. The proposed building fills a vacant lot next to a light rail station, meeting long-standing community goals around affordable housing and transit-oriented development. Finally, this situation points to the work we have to do as a city to find solutions to the ongoing housing crisis. To solve this crisis, we need to build more subsidized and market-rate housing in all parts of St. Paul.
Supporting this appeal, and completing the Inclusionary Zoning study, are a good start toward reaching our housing goals. I urge your support.
The pandemic has really eviscerated my urban lifestyle and I miss the sounds of the city. I also miss the last trip I took before the pandemic, to many different cities in Japan. Instead of tooling about the city, enjoying the sounds of people, I've been holed in my house.
Luckily, I happened across some ambient cityscapes on Youtube and have been playing them in the background of my day through the long COVID winter.
I'm still looking for a good ambient background that captures the feeling of multiple trains traveling through it constantly, like the scene out of my hotel room in Kyoto (pictured above). I haven't found one!
But here are some of my favorites, if you'd like to pretend you're in a city for a little while.
Cool cyberpunk market street in the rain with sounds of conversation, sirens, dogs
Cool cyberpunk apartment with city street sounds in the background
Cool unintelligible cafe sounds with crickets
Cool sounds of a lots of people chatting in a public square with traffic noise
Cool NYC street sounds from a high-rise apartment window (actual recording)
Cool old city sounds clopping horses, footsteps, fire, crows, and clock tower bells
Cool sounds of the sea, seagulls, vague voices, wood ships, and bouy bells
The Hexagon Bar was unique, a small weird oasis on the concrete streets of the Seward neighborhood. Its loss marks another minor absence for the city’s music scene, and the disappearance of small weird venues like the nearby Triple Rock and the 400 Bar.
For music, the Hexagon Bar was always cover-free. It was the kind of place you could just pop your head into as you were passing through South Minneapolis, to see who was playing, with little commitment, and whether it sucked or not. There was often a flock of hipsters, crusty punks, U students, and/or random South Minneapolis bozos hanging around outside the door. Late at night, the fenced-in patio was like a petting zoo where people fed each other American Spirit cigarettes.
At other times, the Hexagon Bar was a classic dive, if there wasn’t a show, you’d find a maybe a dozen regulars drinking out of plastic cups, staring blankly at the claw machine, passing time in a place that slowly changed around them.
I wrote of the place's mercurial nature, back in the 2nd Guide Booklet:
The gritty wedding of dives and music is perfectly suited to another dive characteristic, the daily pattern of regulars, drunks, workers, and the late-night young. Any good dive in an urban area will have a distinct rhythm to the day, a stride and pace of alcoholic progression that mirrors its social reach and the neighborhood around it. In a way, this is like how Jane Jacobs described the “urban ballet,” the passage of a New York sidewalk through the hours, of streets through the day and night. Some dives begin their days in old age, with the retired or hopeless, weary men escaping loneliness, reading the paper, complaining. As the night wears on, years fall off the faces, a time-lapse in reverse. The old man in the olive jacket is replaced by a 30-something in plaid, then again by a black shirted groupie straight out of college. Midnight is for the young and restless and the music takes over the bar, pouring out of the adjacent room like a spilled Grain Belt, impossible to ignore. If you’re here, why would you want to?
The Hub of Hell, also known as Hell’s Half-Acre, was its own special place, where the Puffer-Hubbard gang (from the nearby foundry) was just as likely to police social norms as the actual Minneapolis police.
The Hexagon Bar sat on the seam that separated the factories and warehouses of Seward from the working-class homes to the north and east. In those days, there were a lot of industrial facilities in the area, like the Milwaukee Road rail yards, which employed hundreds of working stiffs; Minneapolis-Moline, a farm implement factory; or Flour City Ornamental Iron Works Company, a foundry that crafted large, decorative railings, gates, and doorways. The railroad tracks through the neighborhood were lined with smokestacks and the streets full of men roving around and looking for work and fun.
Heck I’ve been writing odes to the Hexagon Bar for almost ten years now. I think the second ever dive bar bike tour wound up there, back in 2013. Since then, I wrote about the Hexagon Bar in my South Minneapolis Dive guide booklet, researched it as part of work I did on the history of the Seward Neighborhood, and then again included it in my book Closing Time.
I didn’t know it when I was going to shows, but music at the Hexagon Bar was part of a long tradition. Researching the bar book, I dug into an audio history archive from the 1990s that included a colorful interview with the bar’s long-time owner, Aurelea Hupp. Her story is fascinating, but includes this description of the bar in mid-century:
It was mostly truck drivers. . . . There would be fights in the bar, because we had a hexagon-shaped bar and there only was the one room. We had the oom-pa band there in the corner, three fellas playing, and they’d be four deep at the bar on a Friday or Saturday. The fellas would be arguing, you know, and my husband, who was a friendly guy, he and Jack Reilly would have to stop these fights.
Hupp’s husband inherited the place from his stepdad, who had opened it up after prohibition in 1935. She passed it along to her kids, and apart from losing the original hexagonal shaped bar, it didn’t change all that much. (I put an extended rough transcription of the Hupp interview below.)
The bar was torched during the unrest this summer. The demolition of the ruins this week mark the end of the real Hub of Hell bars that once defined the Seward neighborhood.. Most of them were demolished intentionally through city-led projects, aimed at changing the area, reducing crime, and getting rid of the old bars. While the bowling alley and the Eagles club remain, and though I love them both, neither is really a traditional bar. It’s a bit sad to see the Hex go this way, because I think it had made it through the hardest years of the 1990s and early 2000s.
RIP Hexagon Bar. You had a good run.
The band would be on 20 minutes and the girl would be on 20 minutes, and the girl only lasted two weeks.
|[Illustration from 1917 Aronovici housing report about St. Paul.]|
The St. Paul City Council is soon voting on whether or not to cut "definition of family" rules from the City Code.
Here is my letter to the Council on that topic:
I've been studying the history of planning in St. Paul and US cities for many years. I wanted to share my thoughts with you about the use of the "definition of family" in City Code as a policy and zoning tool.
The definition of family policy comes from the intersection of two problematic historical social realities. The first is a set of patriarchal assumptions about gender norms and how people should live. Victorian-era thinkers created powerful ideological constraints around gender and families. Through a set of religious, class-based, and moralistic social codes, influential people created expectations about how and where families should live, including that women should remain in the home, and that good “Christian” people required these kinds of heteronormative environments in order to avoid immorality.
The flip side of this ideology was that people who lived in diverse, complex urban spaces were morally inferior. Meanwhile, many forms of social castigation applied to women who resisted the confines of this value system. Many early assumptions about city life, in particular the supposed superiority of single-family neighborhoods, stemmed from this oppressive cultural tradition, which was baked into the zoning code in numerous ways. The definition of family — which for decades excluded domestic servants — was the most explicit expression of this moralistic zoning .
The other historical origin of this rule is even worse: anti-immigrant racism. Typically, people who arrived in cities like St. Paul brought with them cultures and traditions that relied on complex family and community ties for many different forms of mutual support. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and acquaintances often formed larger communities of solidarity, or these ties were forged in diverse communities in their new country. Together, as a “family,” people would pitch in to purchase property, take care of chores or improvement projects, help with child care, provide cultural connections, and many other things besides.
You can trace family definition policies directly to the racist worldview that saw immigrant communities and traditions as problematic and inferior. Anti-immigrant racism, which was quite prevalent throughout the 20th century, led to the widespread adoption of the definition of family as a way to limit the options of immigrants, people of color, and other groups. In fact, in St. Paul, keeping immigrants out of the certain neighborhoods, and away from the city as a whole, was an explicit goal stated openly in city planning documents as recently as the late 1950s. While that language has thankfully been exorcised from city documents, the definition of family, which comes from many of the same motives, is still on the books.
Moralistic assumptions about what constitutes a “family” have no place in our City Code. There is no excuse for a city like St. Paul, that purports to be working toward building an anti-racist society, to keep these kinds of rules on the books. Please get rid of it.
|[Invocation of "family" in an early 20th c. St. Paul housing study.]|
Again, I ask myself the question: how does that statement feel if you replace one group of people with another? What happens if you put in a racial or religious category there, instead of “non-homestead” or “student rentals”?This isn’t to say that these claims or comments are incorrect, misguided, racist, or anything like that. In fact, these claims might be factually accurate and may be sound in many ways.But I still think it’s important to put things in an historical perspective. I try hard to remember that the history of United States housing policy is extremely racist. For example, it used to be commonplace to put into one’s mortgage racially restrictive covenants about who could purchase homes. Similarly, historical claims about impacts of groups of people on property values, or troubling assumptions about behavior, led to huge problems around race and housing.
Now that the Planning Commission voted 8-7 to reject the site plan for a mixed-use development proposal near Lexington and University, I'll share some of my thoughts. Stay tuned for a much longer post on this topic soon. in the meantime, this is a slightly longer version of what I said at last Friday's Planning Commission meeting.
for a bit o context, the City Attorney has repeatedly made it clear that Comprehensive Plan as a basis for decisions on a site plan was not a legally. That was the motion on the table.
I agree with many of the comments from the community expressing concerns about affordability in this area and with this project. We have a huge need for deeply affordable housing in Saint Paul, and this would be a great place for it. But whether we like it or not, the owner of this property wants to develop this land as market-rate housing and that’s the application before us.
But I also have to say that almost none of the arguments raised in opposition to this application are relevant. Once an applicant decides what they want to do, the Planning Commission has a clear role: we use the requirements in the zoning code to evaluate the site plan. And we treat every applicant in Saint Paul equally, no matter who they are or what block it is or who runs the nonprofit.
Unfortunately for us today, there is nothing about affordability in the Saint Paul zoning code. We don’t have any regulations about rents. Even if we might want to, we can’t legally create rules about rents by pointing to the Comprehensive Plan because the Comprehensive Plan is not a legal document.
Because we don’t have any rules about rents or affordability in the zoning code, if we deny this application and the City Council does not overturn our decision it, I think it will end in a lawsuit and Saint Paul will lose.
I also think that if we pretend we can vote yes or no on developments in Saint Paul because of affordability concerns, we will be misleading people, because we can’t. We should not give the impression to activists working for equity and social justice that we have that kind of power over development in Saint Paul when the zoning code that does not do that.
If we want to put rules on affordability into the Saint Paul zoning code, it will require a difficult conversation about how to best translate our values and goals into the legal details of regulation. If we want to make affordability policies, we could look at Minneapolis, where they have adopted inclusionary zoning and are now looking at passing rent stabilization with a ballot measure. Rules like that won’t be silver bullets that solve the problem, but they are the kinds of things we can do as a Planning Commission.
Today, though, this application meets every requirement in the Saint Paul Zoning Code and we should approve it for that reason. Rejecting this application would be to mislead people about our role, would likely lose in court, and will not move us toward solutions for the housing crisis.
I am voting for this project the zoning requirements, whether I like it or not. I hope my colleagues do the same.
I have a lot more to say about this case, and stay tuned for more on this complex housing debate soon.
|[Pioneer Press photo of the scene of the crime.]|
I hate writing these, but there was another predictable tragedy on a Saint Paul death road. Per Mara Gottfried in the Pioneer Press, here’s what happened on at 6pm last Friday:
On Friday, those who found her said they wished they could have done more and that they couldn’t believe someone could have driven away after striking her with a van in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood.
“That could have been anybody’s grandma or mom,” said Sarah Reeves, who stopped with her husband to help Harlan. “How do you just leave them there like that?”
Harlan, who lived in the area, was the kind of person who was “always in a happy, good mood,” said her brother, Bradley Harlan. She loved painting and used to be a commercial artist.
“She’s a wonderful person,” he said. “She would do anything for anybody.”
Because the street is so badly designed, and encourages drivers to ignore the sidewalks and neighborhood, most people kept speeding past the body laying on the asphalt.
Again, from the article [emphasis is mine]:
Bronwyn Harper Smith, of St. Paul, was driving home on East Seventh Street — on the stretch between Arcade Street and Mounds Boulevard — when she noticed a couple of cars ahead of her going around something in the road. She figured they were avoiding a stopped car, but as she approached she saw it was a person lying in the road.
“That was the thing I got mad about right away. I was thinking, ‘Why are these people not stopping?'” said Harper Smith. “You go into that fight or flight, like, ‘Oh, my God,’ so I pulled over and told my kids to wait in the car because I had to go make sure someone was OK.”
It was about 6 p.m., and she called 911 as she walked toward the woman. She didn’t know what happened to Harlan, but she noticed the woman wasn’t wearing shoes and there were a pair down the road. Reeves thought it looked like Harlan was thrown by the force of the collision.
The Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood around East 7th Street has a lot of issues. For one thing, the street is steep and separated from downtown Saint Paul by lots of train tracks and more than one freeway. It runs at an angle, creating odd intersections with sometimes difficult sight lines. And the East 7th neighborhoods here struggle with poverty, inequality, a lack of jobs, and other issues that are difficult to solve.
|[A classically deadly street design.]|
|[Around 18,000 cars a day pass by here, well within the new safety parameters for a three-lane road.]|
One critical, solvable problem is its main street, East 7th. For decades it’s been a deadly “four-lane death road” (with little-used parking) that encourages 20,000 drivers a day to speed and weave past each other in the heart of a walkable, working class commercial district. Eons ago, this route was designated as US highway 61 for a key stretch, from downtown to Arcade, which meant it was designed by the state DOT to be primarily a highway, with minimal consideration for people on foot, bike, bus, or living nearby.
|[Looking up East 7th Street, aka US Highway 61, back in 1988.]|
On a street like East 7th, a horrible crash like the one that killed Susan Harlan is predictable. I’ve wiled away countless hours in the Swede Hollow Cafe, a block from this spot, where I go up to the second floor with my laptop and stare out the window at the street below.
I don’t know why I go to watch the street. The quiche is good, but I'm drawn there like a gawker. there's something terrible and sublime about the pull of this street, the riveting view of the city's skyline juxtaposed against a street that relentlessly hurtles drivers into a neighborhood full of people.
This is all common knowledge to an East Sider. About a year ago, the city got the money together to a grant to bring in a place-maker team to think about how to improve and redesign the street using temporary and art-based measures. It was a rather awkward stab at improving the street, and it was lovely for an hour or two. Within two days there wasn’t a remaining trace of the temporary traffic calming measures.
Last year, the crosswalk was improved at great expense ($500,000?) so that now, if you press the button, lights flash and for a second it seems like you’re on stage at a First Avenue show. Even then, drivers don’t always stop for people to walk across the street. And if you’re a block or two away, as was the case for Susan Harlan, shouldn’t you also be able to safely cross 7th Street?
|[If you squint, you can just make out the expensive HAWK safety crosswalk behind the memorial balloon that says "You're So Special".]|
It’s worth pointing out that East 7th is a great “turnback” candidate, where the state DOT would “give” the street back to the City of Saint Paul in perpetuity, removing its state highway status and making more meaningful safety improvements possible. This can’t happen soon enough, though there needs to also be some funding provided by MnDOT to reconstruct the street and add safety measures. If they just “turn back” the street as-is, the city would be on the hook for millions of dollars in safety changes to un-do the widening that occurred for the US highway.
There’s no reason that East 7th should be four-lanes wide. The design encourages speeding and dangerous driving in the heart of a working-class, historic neighborhood full of 19th century buildings, affordable housing, shelters for unhoused people, a blue-collar university, a whole bunch of good restaurants and stores, and thousands of people trying to get around. A traffic island median would have solved the problem at a fraction of the cost of the expensive HAWK beacon, and much more effectively. But to do that, the road would have to be reduced in size, and that is surely a step too far for MnDOT.
We need to finally change this critical Saint Paul street. It’s too late for Susan Harlan, but it might not be too late for the next person who will fall victim to this deadly street.
|[Minneapolis alley skyway.]|
99 Percent Invisible has long been one of my favorite podcasts, and its founder and host, Roman Mars, even shares my love of city flags. (Get yours today!)
Needless to say, I was pretty thrilled when the wonderful Katie Thornton, who crafted the excellent radio documentaries on the South Minneapolis preemie hospital and women in bars (among other work), reached out to discuss Minneapolis skyways for the show. We blabbed about it for hours during the pandemic, recording in my closet buried in sound-muffling blankets, and she somehow managed to turn all that audio into a very compelling story about architecture, segregation, and urban life in downtown Minneapolis. I remain wowed with her skill at editing and storytelling.
So check it out! Hear Roman Mars say my name way too many times, including the best quip: "the lonely life of Bill Lindeke."
(BRB, turn that into my ringtone.)
I've written about skyways more times than I can count, given a half-dozen second-story tours, and realize by now that it's a very difficult story to tell. Check these out if you want to learn more:
- Happy 50th Birthday to the Minneapolis Skyway
- Four Skyway Improvements
- Stuck with the Skyways
- Minneapolis, St Paul Separating on Skyways
- Climate as Proxy for Capital in the Minneapolis Skyway System
- Minnpost: Nicollet Mall: As in the 80s, redo saw a need for skyway-street connection...
- Minnpost: Skyway arrest video leads to talk about race...
- Minnpost: St. Paul's skyway issues are ongoing and unsolved
Thanks so much to Katie for this amazing thing!
Oh my. I think, I'm going to listen to it again...
PS. I've got the blog on hold these days, as the pandemic has gutted my usual urban flâneurie. C'est dommage. I'll get back to it someday soon, when the sidewalks fill once more with action and coffee shops come back to life.