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It’s not (only) about the bikes: how a series of small fights has revealed deep divisions over the future of St. Paul

A city that is getting younger, more racially diverse and more urban is grappling with what it will look like in coming years. 

It hadn’t been planned that way. It just sort of happened that the agenda for one recent meeting of the St. Paul city council included public hearings on the city’s most argued-over issues.

In sequence, the council took up new bike lanes, infill development and a discussion of a proposal to change the way garbage is collected. For two hours, residents and business people approached the microphone in St. Paul City Hall’s third floor art deco chambers and told the members what they thought.

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Coincident though it was, that single council meeting illustrated the tensions of a city where politics are in the midst of a transition. A population that is finally growing again, that is getting younger, more racially diverse and perhaps more urban is grappling with what it will look like in coming years.

“With St. Paul being less-populated for the last 20 years or so — 30 years — there was less pressure on resources,” said Mike Sonn, co-chair of the St. Paul Bicycle Coalition, which has been in the midst of some of the recent policy fights. “But with people moving back to the city, things are getting a little bit more crowded.

“There’s a sense that, hey, this has always worked for me — and all of a sudden it’s not.”

Boomers vs. millennials?

To understand St. Paul, says former Mayor Jim Scheibel, who teaches public policy and administration at Hamline University, you have to understand that issues are often neighborhood-based, rather than city-based, as they tend to be in Minneapolis.

“People very much identify with the different neighborhoods, whether it is Dayton’s Bluff or St. Anthony Park or Mac-Groveland,” Scheibel said, and they expect a voice in what happens there.

Jim Scheibel

But there are also aspects of city politics that didn’t exist a generation or two ago. “There are challenges about making sure when we do address issues; it reflects the diversity of the city.”

At one level, the different approaches to the issues that dominated that June 1 meeting are generational: baby boomers vs. millennials. Bike advocates, for instance, tend to be younger, those rejecting the loss of on-street parking tend to be older. Proponents of increasing the city’s density tend to have the same generational tendencies.

An oversimplification? Yes. Many empty-nesters are interested in urban density and the amenities it promises to attract. But the generational generalization is commonly made in St. Paul these days.

“There’s always change, obviously,” said John Mannillo, a St. Paul business owner and co-founder of a citizen group called Saint Paul STRONG, whose founders say was formed to advocate for more transparency in city government. “The last time we experienced this kind of change was with the baby boom generation, and now we’ve got the millennials.

“The problem is that, while, the millennials outnumber the baby boomers, the baby boomers are still quite vocal and large in number,” Mannillo said. “You have two extremes that are hitting heads. I do see that.”

Council Member Amy Brendmoen, whose 2015 reelection race against David Glass featured many of the issues still causing conflict (Glass said Brendmoen and the city were pushing a “Millennial Initiative”), sees the conflict as less of a battle of generations than as differences in how people view the city.

“There is a shift toward people both young and old moving back into the city and looking for amenities they think are part of a city,” Brendmoen said. “And I imagine, for people who have lived in the city through thick and through thin … want the urban piece but also tried to draw some of plus side of the suburbs — like bigger lots — into the city as well.”

Those different ways of looking at the city reveal themselves in issues like bike lanes and residential development — and even skirmishes like last year’s over putting parking meters on Grand Avenue.

“I see a bit of a sea change in St. Paul.” 

Bike lanes as proxy wars

It’s the stated policy of the City of St. Paul to both grow the population and build a city that has appeal to all generations, all cultures. The council has adopted Mayor Chris Coleman’s “8-80 Vitality Fund” concept, which promises investment in everything from bike lanes and a restored Palace Theater to the completion of the Grand Round parkway system. The plan is based on the work of urban designer Gil Penalosa, who advises cities to work to appeal to residents from ages 8 to 80 and emphasises walkability and vibrant urban spaces.

“We’re trying to plan streets and communities with people at the center of planning, not cars,” Brendmoen said. “It’s kind of like small towns in a the big city,” she said.

Bike access is central to Penalosa’s message. Yet be it the proposed bike loop downtown or new lanes on Cleveland Avenue, nothing engages the battle of St. Paul quite like bikes. And bike lanes. And bikes on bike lanes.

At the June 1 hearing, the council was deciding whether to support a Ramsey County proposal to reconfigure Upper Afton Road between Burns Avenue and McKnight Road to provide for bike lanes. On-street parking would be lost — that’s what drew neighbors to the hearing, since Upper Afton Road is a parkway with fewer side streets where visitors or service vehicles could park.

When it returned to the council June 8, the lanes passed 4-1, though not before Council Member Jane Prince said she had recently convened a meeting of city and county staff and elected officials — as well as some neighbors — to see if a compromise could be reached.

It couldn’t: the street could not hold traffic lanes, bike lanes and parking. But Prince, who had served on the city council staff for years before winning election last fall, lamented the fact that there wasn’t a way to reach some sort of accommodation when problems “pitted neighbors against one another.”

Jackson Street rendering
Department of Public Works
Plans call for off-street bike paths that could accommodate two-way bike traffic even on streets that are one-way for cars. A before and after rendering of Jackson Street is shown.

“Clearly this is not the case with our bike plan and policy,” Prince said. “I accept that this is an intractable requirement that cannot be changed to accommodate people who live on the street.”

Council President Russ Stark said there isn’t a “perfect solution” when it comes to the bike lanes on Upper Afton Road. But he also added something that describes the broader tensions at play in St. Paul: change disrupts residents’ sense of ownership of their city.

“These are really tough projects when there’s such a sense of something being lost that people thought was theirs,” Stark said. “People believe parking in front of their house is theirs, even when they’re public streets.”

The vote, Stark said, reflects a council majority’s belief that city streets must accommodate “the most people, most often.”

Brendmoen said that sometimes the issues are not as big as people make them out to be. Bike lanes, she often says, are just paint. If the problems predicted by opponents materialize, they can be erased, and she objects to the argument that residents don’t see anyone biking on streets that are inhospitable to bike riding. Once built, she said, lanes have been well-used.

But Mannillo, who said he was speaking for himself and not for Saint Paul STRONG, said that “most people still drive.” And with the aging population increasing as boomers reach retirement, “we’re building bikeways where most people can’t ride bikes.”

The divide over density

To accommodate younger residents and empty nesters who want to live near the city core, more housing is needed in St. Paul. While some of that is being built in and near downtown, the city also wants to add housing along commercial corridors that run through venerable neighborhoods. That’s what was at issue when developers recently sought to tear down a duplex at 1174 Grand Avenue and replace it with a multi-family apartment building.

The property sat between two historic apartment buildings, both similar in size to the proposed project. And it fit with zoning rules for height and square footage. Neighbors, however, felt it was too tall and too bulky.

As with bike lanes, the fight also spoke to broader issues in St. Paul. Density brings traffic and more competition for parking. It can also threaten to alter a sense of place — in a city that prides itself on having preserved its history, even as neighboring Minneapolis lost so much of its own.

“Should this building as proposed be allowed, the precedents it sets will surely encourage other developers who will move to tear down many of the same early 20th Century houses which add to the charm of Grand Avenue and its historic and eclectic mix of single-family homes and low-rise commercial and residential buildings,” Summit Hill Association board member Lori Brostrom told the council. She said that would “irreversibly” change the character of the area.

That this one project in this one neighborhood drew opposition wasn’t unexpected. More noteworthy was that a previous council voted 4-3 to oppose a similar proposal for the same lot, despite a city policy encouraging density.

Developers recently sought to tear down a duplex at 1174 Grand Avenue
City of St. Paul
Developers recently sought to tear down a duplex at 1174 Grand Avenue and replace it with a multi-family apartment building.

That 2015 decision, while celebrated by neighbors, was disappointing to those who fear the city will never grow its urban population if neighborhoods can block multi-family infill development. “I’d like to see four and five story buildings popping up on Grand,” Sonn said. “I understand that’s not realistic, but if we can’t even build three stories when everything else is three stories, it’s kind of disheartening. We couldn’t even build Grand Avenue anymore.”

Legally, the plan before the council June 1 was different — somewhat smaller than the project defeated last year, and it was now condos rather than apartments. But it still needed a variance on side-yard setbacks and was viewed as the second attempt to get the the go-ahead. After lengthy testimony and council debate, it was approved 4-1, with three members who voted against the 2015 plan — Stark, Brendmoen and Chris Tolbert — in support of  the new-ish plans.

Garbage time

“St. Paul is a very conservative city,” said  Scheibel, the former mayor — not in partisan terms, of course (it remains a DFL stronghold), but socially. “People feel there are a lot of things that work, people like the way they work.”

The city is slowly examining whether one of those things that doesn’t work is garbage. The city has a unique way of collecting refuse: 14 licensed haulers compete to win the business of each household and apartment building. The result in some neighborhoods is that two or three — or six or seven — different trucks traverse the alleys to collect garbage. There is no single garbage day, exactly, though some residents get together and agree on a single carrier to make it less chaotic.

The city’s public works department has recently been taking public comments and meeting with haulers over a plan to coordinate collection. Private haulers would still do the work, but geographic zones would be created and collection would be divided based on current market share.

The new plan is far from being adopted, and has so far attracted only a smattering of opposition — nothing compared to the uprising seen in Bloomington when that city adopted a similar conversion. In fact, much of the resistance in St. Paul has come from the haulers themselves.

But if the garbage conversation breaks less generationally than bikes or density, it does touch on an age-old tension that also underlines those issue: the way things are vs. the way some people want them to be — status quo vs. change.

Coordinating garbage collection
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
The city’s public works department has recently been taking public comments and meeting with haulers over a plan to coordinate collection.

Some residents have expressed an “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” sentiment about the city’s garbage collection system, while others support the proposed change, complaining about the noise and exhaust from trucks and the burden of setting up service and finding the best deal. The proposed change is also seen as a way to better deal with illegal dumping, which remains a problem in the city.

The haulers, themselves, are listening. Ten of the city’s 14 haulers are small, locally owned businesses, and they are discussing forming a co-op that seeks to accomplish many of the city’s goals: fewer trucks, more transparency on rates, ease of arranging service. Stark said he was encouraged by those conversations.

Saint Paul Strong vs Saint Paul Strongerer

Last fall, some residents of St. Paul formed an organization they titled Saint Paul STRONG, an acronym for Safety-Trust-Responsible-Open-Neighborhoods-Generations. Members include former Ramsey County Commissioner Ruby Hunt, former council candidate David Glass, former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger, St. Paul NAACP vice president Yusef Mgeni and former state Rep. Andy Dawkins. Its web page features a lengthy “List of Grievances” that reference bike lanes, tear downs, zoning variances and even Grand Avenue parking meters.

But the unifying theme is a belief that city government isn’t transparent enough, and that changes are made without input from residents.

Mannillo ticks off a series of issues that he thinks were decided without public involvement, from CHS Field to the bike plan to the proposed soccer stadium to rules for development along the Mississippi River.

“The mayor drives this,” Mannillo said of Coleman. “He’s lined up commissions to favor his position. The city tries to make it look like there’s process when there isn’t.”

That suspicion was expressed Friday, during the planning commission hearing on the master plan for the Midway area, where the new MLS soccer stadium is proposed. “Please decide based on planning principles and not out of loyalty to the person who appointed you,” said stadium opponent Tom Goldstein.

Sonn sees such debates in a different light. While there was extensive public process to decide to include bike lanes on Cleveland Avenue, it took so long that the project was delayed by more than a year. “The process extends the status quo because if you can delay change then you keep getting what you already have,” he said. “I’m beyond frustrated.”

Saint Paul STRONG has drawn some criticism — and some ribbing — by younger activists who see it as a means of simply maintaining the status quo, especially when it comes to anything having to do with driving and parking.

An anonymous parody Twitter account using the image of the statue that towers over the lobby of City Hall is called “Saint Paul Strongerer.”

The (bike) path forward

“I don’t think you’re going to continue to have battles,” Mannillo said. He sees a chance for a change in the political dynamic in the new few years, especially if Coleman does not seek a fourth term as mayor, as is expected; and if the council adds other new members like Prince, who has opposed some recent initiatives, and Noecker, who asks hard questions about issues such as the stadium and what she considers overuse of Tax Increment Financing.

“It’s not a six-zero or seven-zero vote all the time anymore,” Mannillo said. “I think Saint Paul STRONG has come up with a way to put pressure on them that they have never experienced.”

Sonn, not surprisingly, disagrees. Had the 2015 election gone differently — had Goldstein defeated Stark and had Glass defeated Brendmoen — the council and its positions would look quite different. But Stark and Brendmoen were re-elected, with 61 and 56 percent of the vote, respectively.

Taking bike infrastructure as the most obvious issue in the conflict. Sonn said he thinks St. Paul is just a few years away from it being a non-issue, similar to how biking is considered a given in Minneapolis. When more lanes are installed and more residents see more bike use, it will disprove the claim that no one bikes. He thinks that will help the city council become more supportive of the changes he hopes for, not less.

“The council knows they have some support but there’s still some trepidation,” Sonn said. “I think that whole conversation will change in the next three to five years.”