2018 was a year in which the modern media and political environments were choked by misinformation and propaganda, and St. Paul was certainly not immune — though here the topics were largely of a more quotidian nature. In St. Paul, a particularly contentious issue has been the most ambitious rezoning and development plan seen in the city in a generation, colloquially referred to as “the Ford Site.” A full understanding of what it means for St. Paul has been partially obscured by the ramifying hypocrisies and half-truths attendant to the discussion, but a more complete understanding might be found in the Riverview Corridor transit study; an equally ambitious plan, conceived in parallel with the Ford Site over the course of nearly a decade, yet in a conceptual universe in which the Ford Site does not exist. When juxtaposed, these political dramas surrounding some of the largest decisions in a generation about St. Paul have formed, together, the most “St. Paul” of St. Paul political moments.
Of the two, it is the Riverview Corridor that may be the most important to St. Paul. The current streetcar plan was inspired by Kansas City’s efforts to rescue its downtown, a disfigured environment best described as isolated archipelagos of buildings in a sea of parking lots. In St. Paul, this fate is apparently the desired end state for a vocal contingent of people – including business owners – who came out to oppose the project in the name of more parking. Their opposition to a plan that is, to all appearances, a thoughtfully conceived, commerce stimulating park-and-ride, is humorous. The proposal will connect downtown to the airport and the suburbs via a thread of commercial venues, and will hopefully succeed at a twofold goal of increasing commercial traffic while decreasing that traffic’s use of cars, making the commercial space more habitable for St. Paul locals as well. But even more comical were the transit proponents who supported it as some form of utilitarian and/or equitable form of transit, in defiance of most conventional understandings of those terms.
In isolation, a good plan. But …
In isolation, Riverview Corridor is a good plan, despite a farcical partisan divide in which everyone argued against their own actual cause. However, when considered next to the Ford Site, which exists in a state of quantum superposition in the Riverview Corridor universe, the farce becomes a tragedy. A commerce-stimulation plan is a laudable pursuit for the city, but when such a singularly significant capital investment passes tantalizingly close to future St. Paul’s densest population center without actually touching it, can it be described the way it has been by transit advocates? A Venn diagram of transit and Ford Site proponents has considerable overlap, and with them also lies culpability for Highland’s car-centric future since they not only refused to talk about the need to mitigate some potential pitfalls of a dense population in a geographically constrained nook, they also supported a generationally expensive and extensive transit plan that provides no transit to said development.
Ford Site opponents, who were particularly vocal about car-traffic concerns in their otherwise often specious campaign, might have helped to help shape Riverview Corridor. But given the considerable Venn congruence of Ford and Riverview opponents, it was unlikely that the two sides of Ford would find common ground here, as I suggested at a hearing. They are diametrically opposed on issues that Ford and Riverview are mere proxies for. The conversation itself becomes fraught with difficulties concerning true meanings and motives since opponents’ worries about tall buildings, concentrations of people, and, most noteworthy – car congestion – evaporated in the presence of the possibility of hotels or even corporate campuses, with their highly concentrated and likely equally car-dependent commuting patterns. Ford opponents have exerted a particularly strong gravity over the plans since zoning was approved, and they are, if nothing else, typically in favor of ever more parking.
Some manifest truths need to be addressed
At this point, no matter how convoluted the conversational legerdemain, there are some manifest truths that St. Paul should address in actual frank discussion: There will be a Ford development, and it will be inadequately served by transit. There is only one logical outcome to this confluence of planning decisions.
Currently, the city has decided, as an addendum to Riverview Corridor, to consider adding another minor bus spur into the site, tucked in a part of St. Paul where current bus service, with the exception of the A-line, is often as frequent as every 45 minutes to embarrassingly signed patches of corner dirt. Meanwhile, the Ryan Co., selected as the developer, is adopting a backward-looking St. Paul transit stance, one as disconnected from rationality as the rest of this tragicomedy. When I asked their reps if they intended to engage with the city for better transit to the site, they answered that it was unnecessary, since they believe that residents will either never want to leave their Elysian Ford cloister, or that thousands will prefer to walk two miles each way to the 46th St. station. I, for one, look forward to witnessing this daily movement of thousands; the March of the Fordies, if you will. However, while Ryan Co. wouldn’t address improved transit with the city, they did successfully petition for a concentration of retail parking near one of Highland’s most choked and dangerous intersections; because, like many in St. Paul, they believe that the prosperity of business is linked to parking. The plan, as it evolves, starts to bear hints of Platte County’s Zona Rosa, a failing Kansas City retail development that the county attempted to revitalize with more, very expensive, parking. After falling into receivership, the new owner plans to bring it back with … more parking.
I am not the only one to draw comparisons between my past and present homes. Both Kansas City and St. Paul earned a brief moment of joint international notoriety in 2017, when the editors of the Economist derisively profiled their silly parking policies as examples of how to wring the vitality from a city in an article pun-nishingly titled: “Aparkalypse Now.” Without a forthright discussion about transit and development in St. Paul, we may find ourselves in the future writing glum summations and retrospectives of this moment. If anyone is looking for another pun, I would like to suggest “Carmageddon.”
Michael Daigh is an active St. Paul citizen, a pilot, a union volunteer, and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He holds a master of arts degree in history and is also the author of “John Brown in Memory and Myth.”
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