Believe it or not, I had a delightful experience down by the river in downtown St. Paul the other day. I bicycled with friends along a wide stretch of road with the Mississippi on one side and the city’s white rock bluffs on the other. Surprisingly, it was quiet. You could almost hear the river flowing on the other side of the levee wall. This was noteworthy because it almost never happens in Minnesota’s capital city.
If you’ve spent any time there, you already know downtown St. Paul is not famed for its riverfront. For 70 years, the banks of the river have been dominated by railroad tracks and a wide concrete highway. The only walking path is a narrow trench that feels uncomfortably close to fast traffic, if you can even access it. There are precious few connections between downtown and the Mississippi, all of them ceded to turning trucks and cars.
Yet for three weeks this spring, there was a window of opportunity. Thanks to spring floods, St. Paul’s waterfront freeway, Shepard Road, was closed to vehicular traffic. During that time, the river was transformed. It made an excellent case for a different future, one where the riverfront experience might be valued more than a few minutes of freeway time.
A brief history of Shepard Road
St. Paul’s Shepard Road is a four-lane divided freeway about 60 years old, originally planned to bring industrial vitality to St. Paul’s long-struggling manufacturing and warehousing sector. It was part of a midcentury economic development strategy that focused on industrial uses, for example, bulldozing the West Side’s working-class Mexican and Jewish neighborhoods along the river for an industrial park, one of the city’s great tragedies. In that same vein, planners envisioned a riverfront freeway that would bring trucking and commerce seamlessly into St. Paul’s downtown from east and west.
Since then, the road has largely underdelivered on its promise. There’s precious little industrial activity along the corridor, other than some warehousing and light manufacturing (e.g. Nut Rolls) near the airport. Since a 1990s redesign, which expanded the road at great expense, it’s been overbuilt for the amount of traffic it receives. Traffic peaked before COVID around 18,000 cars a day on the western section. But with shifts since the pandemic, vehicle counts have been cut in half, leaving a wide freeway largely empty.
Meanwhile, St. Paul planners have occasionally imagined ways to bring traffic to Shepard Road by re-configuring it, moving cars away from West 7th Street (State Highway 5) or connecting to Interstate 35E. But the steep topography and complex interchanges make that an expensive dream. Instead, the bluffs ensure that Shepard Road will likely remain underused and marginal.
City House as window to the future
The road is a problem because, over the last century, many downtown riverfronts have seen dramatic change. That’s certainly true in Minneapolis. There, what was once an overwhelmingly industrial scene of mills and railyards slowly transformed into its opposite over 40 years. Minneapolis’ riverfront today offers serene parkland ringed by residential revitalization so attractive it’s lured the state’s wealthiest residents, lines of tourists balanced on Segways, and every wedding photographer within a hundred miles.
American river cities fall somewhere along a spectrum between glorious renaissance and industrial purgatory. But one consistent trend is that riverfront freeways have proved the death knell for any revitalization. Notorious examples like Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive, Boston’s Storrow Drive, or Cincinnati’s various freeways have long kept their downtowns at arm’s length from positive change. On the other hand, there are plenty of terrific riverfront parks like those in Minneapolis, Pittsburgh or Detroit.
The jury remains out in St. Paul. If you want to contemplate the stakes, head to City House, city parkland just up the river from downtown offering a rare riverfront patio experience. Located in an old elevator building — part of a century-old economic grain scheme that set up a municipal co-op to break Minneapolis’ railroad monopoly on wheat. It was once part of a large industrial complex connecting trains to a barge terminal, which gradually declined throughout the 20th century.
These days, City House provides the best place to sit and soak in the future of St. Paul riverfront. Blissfully separated from Shepard Road by 250 feet of trees and apartment buildings, it’s about the only Twin Cities spot where you get a sense of the river’s potential. You might grab a snack along a railing and sip wine while a tug from Upper River Services parks an empty barge on the piling just a few feet away. It offers a splendid vision for the future of the city, a balance between the “working river” and a vibrant urban park.
Work in progress
Most people in St. Paul already know about the riverfront problem. Planners and civic leaders have floated various schemes to connect the city to the water, many of which struggle to deal with the barriers presented by the railroad and highway.
“There are a lot of things that will bring St. Paul’s physically closer to the Mississippi,” explained Sean Kershaw, the city’s Director of Public Works.
Kershaw was quick to point out that the road is owned and controlled by the County, and Ramsey County officials will lead on future decisions. But he also pointed to projects like the city’s ambitious River Balcony project, a bricolage of architectural tactics that would bring people closer to the bluff and the river itself.
Along with a park that might be part of the proposed River’s Edge development, another key suggestion from the balcony brainstorm was to enact road diets on Shepard Road. Though without specifics, the plans suggest pedestrian medians, removing a lane, or other tactics that would help the riverfront look and feel more like Minneapolis’ river parkway.
“We’re thinking there’ll be new opportunities for change, but absolutely no new decision has been made,” said Sean Kershaw, after pointing out that the road has decades to go before it requires reconstruction.
Today, St. Paul’s waterfront’s potential is eviscerated by the constant din of traffic and enough speeding cars to make anyone feel uneasy. But just under that unpleasantness lays what amounts to a beach, a lovely place for strolling, gazing at driftwood, or pondering this amazing place, home to Dakota people who for thousands of years before Pig’s Eye ever showed up.
At the very least, the city and county should figure out a way to close Shepard Road on summer weekends. Park some food trucks down on the concrete. Install a pop up playground. Give people skateboards, whatever it takes to offer St. Paulites a chance to experience St. Paul’s missing riverfront bliss. Once you hear the sound of the cottonwoods in the breeze or gaze up at the white stone bluffs, you’ll never see the city the same way again.