Monday, August 07, 2006

St. Paul Riverfront

MNObserved commented in my previous post on cycling in St. Paul that I must be crazed to suggest industrial vacancies along the riverfront in Minnesota's fairer city. Respectfully, I dissent.

If you were to venture past the High Bridge, down around the Randolph Avenue area, you will notice a landscape utterly devoid of forward-thinking urban planning. The argument here is not whether there are industrial vacancies or not (though I beg you to witness a brand-new "light industrial" complex sitting completely empty, having no particular reason to exist other than to take up space), it's why the riverfront continues to exist in the state that it is.

You are correct that there's a new Science Museum, Eagle Street park, etc. etc. There's even the new condo/apartment buildings (Soviet-style, as you mentioned) that have cropped up. St. Paul has done a fine job reconstructing about three blocks of the riverfront. But the city has the wonderful advantage of having miles of riverfront that it has for decades squandered. Yes, there are logistical reasons for some of that development. But there are no reasons (that I can see) why that sort of development (heavy industrial) has to exist side-by-side with high-density residential around the city's greatest natural resource. The river would be better left as a nature sanctuary than to continue to delapidate in the state that it's in.

And, yes, there are train tracks. But there are myriad places that have train tracks without detracting substantially from the beauty of a natural landscape.

Now, there are (and have been) stirrings of turning this around. On the West St. Paul side of the river there is the somewhat-maligned Bridges of St. Paul project. The city has also had a long-range plan in play for greater integration between the river, residential, and commercial planning. I'm confident and optimistic that eventually St. Paul will have a vibrant riverfront that both protects the natural wonder and environmental sanctity of the river while capitalizing on it through "smart growth." None of this, however, changes the sad fact that the St. Paul portion of the Mississippi River has largely been wasted - both by being sold out for industrial purposes and as a result polluted - for years and years.


MNObserver said...

Ok, let's look at the river front that the Pied-Eyed is contemplating. From downtown, we have the Science museum, parkland, and railroad tracks. Then we have more railroad tracks and the Soviet-style apartments that Norm Coleman, A HUGE Texas developer (Centex), and the entire Bush administration insisted HAD to be built. Then we have the privately-owned Xcel plant that is going to be dismantled in favor of a far less polluting gas-fired peaking plant. Should the city have said "no" to that change? By having Xcel change the plant, we will eliminate lots of mecury and the smokestack, and we will gain the addition of greenspace in the many acres currently occupied by the existing coal plant.

Continuing our journey upriver, we have the new light-industrial building that has been built by the Port Authority on land that is far too polluted for anything else. Then we have the (once again privately owned) Ashland Oil facility that no public entity has the cash to buy out (nor would they want to, given the pollution on that site).

Then we have the Island Station building, something that the neighborhood has been trying to have either redeveloped or taken down for the past 20 years.

From that point all the way to the bridge to the airport, the river side of Shepard Road is owned almost exclusively by the city and is slated to be developed as parkland. The path you were riding on has taken years to assemble, has faced a number of obstacles from heavy pressure to develop even more industrial uses to underfunding.

On the landside of Shepard, private industrial and residential neighborhoods going back a century are tough to change. Some of the buildings are eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic places, even though they are industrial. Randolph Avenue is an eyesore at that end, and I could point you to any number of attempts to improve it that have sat on shelves at City Hall, ignored and unfunded.

Further upriver, the land that was home to petroleum tank farms for decades is being reutilized for both light industrial (Summit brewery, Twin Cities Marble) on highly polluted land, and as residential (Victoria Park) on lesser polluted land.

None of this took place overnight, every bit of bike path and green space you do see has been accomplished incrementally. The people in St. Paul's District Planning Council No. 9 have been working for 30 years to do things like save Irvine Park from demolition, to stop an ethanol plant that was driving people away, stopping the rebuild of Shepard road and the High Bridge from being more limited access freeways (complete with a cloverleaf at the end of Chestnut Street and huge entrance ramps at Randolph)and for better use of the riverfront. Great River Greening has planted tens of thousands of trees over the past decade. The Riverfront Corporation is working on the "Great River Park" concept, somthing that is going to take decades.

Honestly, you sound like the kid who finds the presents under the Christmas tree the parents have struggled to provide and then whines because the Ferrari isn't parked in the driveway with a bow on it.

Wasted? Maybe, to some who don't know how hard it's been to get what we do have. But it's not for lack of trying on the part of those who live along that stretch of the river.

PiedPiper said...

Whoa, MNObserved. You see, I think we agree on many things here. You basically prove my point that the riverfront has been wasted for decades on polluting entities that have destroyed/diminished the riverfront's natural resource value. As I've stated twice now, the St. Paul riverfront represents decades of poor planning. If you're not denying that, and it doesn't seem that you are, then I don't really understand what your bone to pick here is. And, as I just stated in this post, I am optimistic about the changes being made. I lament the fact, however, that St. Paul's leaders years ago didn't recognize the river for the resource that it is.

Pardon me if come off harshly. But if you read a bit more closely you'll notice that I don't disregard the gains made over the past 5-10 years. But that's just in the past 5-10 years. The prior 50 years had indeed been wasted, and are the sole reason redeveloping the riverfront is now such a pain in the ass.

Yes, we need to acknowledge the fact that positive changes are being made and will continue to be made. But that doesn't mean we can't also acknowledge the stupidity of previous leadership and commericial and industrial practices.

And I personally think your analogy to the kid at Christmas is utterly ridiculous. See this line:

"I'm confident and optimistic that eventually St. Paul will have a vibrant riverfront that both protects the natural wonder and environmental sanctity of the river while capitalizing on it through "smart growth."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think I sound hopeful that one day we will have an exceptional riverfront. That day is not today, and that fact, I think, deserves to be pointed out.

xtrachromosomeconservative said...

This is sort of inane but I thought I would touch on the subject of train tracks. Train tracks presuming they are no longer in use, are no impediment to urban planning. Counties the country over convert old rail ways to biking or pedestrian paths. Rails to trails as they are called. In a certain sense they provide us with a viewpoint of the way things were and how our surroundings used to function.

xtrachromosomeconservative said...

I would also like to add, as someone that doesn't have a dog in the st. paul/minneapolis fight, I found both cities to be eminently livable, uniquely so amongst American cities. I suppose I favor St. Paul if only because I have spent more time there.

MNObserver said...

Sorry, Pie-Eyed, I live in the area and have spent way to many evenings at meetings over the years trying and trying and trying to make good things happen. I tend to jump up and scream a bit when every little battle is so hard-won and people don't see what it would have looked like had the vision of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce come to pass. The gains that are being made have taken decades of work. And please don't overlook the potential of currently vacant/historical old industrial.

And Xtra.... the railroad tracks down there are in use. There are two transcontinental mainlines down there -- the UPRR lines that go over the swing bridge and the CPR/Soo tracks that the Amtrak and Ford trains go over. Those won't be made into rails-to-trails in any of our lifetimes.

PiedPiper said...

MNObserved - I certainly appreciate your efforts, and the efforts of so many St. Paulites. I'm a St. Paul transplant, having grown up in rural Minnesota, but have lived here now for almost seven years. I love St. Paul. I understand your vehemence, because it is my vehemence as well. St. Paul, as a city, has incredible potential and I want to see it achieve that potential.

I'm interested to know what ways I could get further involved in city planning. I'm fairly politcally active (I work as a campaign manager for a state rep race in Hopkins rights now), and would really like to help out in the efforts underway. (I'm also, coincidentally, a law student and by the looks of your profile you are involved with law as well.) Let me know...

Xtra - You're certainly correct about the livability of the Twin Cities and St. Paul in particular. For mid-size cities in a cold state, we're remarkably fortunate to have the lifestyle we have here. What I fear is people simply repeating the line "My city is very livable" over and over again, rather than always pressing for improvement. That's one of the things that sets Minnesota and the Twin Cities apart. Each generation tends to leave some large-scale improvements. We're seeing that right now in Minneapolis with the redevelopment of its riverfront, as well as the architectural displays of the Guthrie, Walker, Central Library, and MIA addition. I'd like to see some of that same type of investment in St. Paul.

MNObserver said...

Did some looking. This is what we started with decades ago when trying to make a better riverfront.