St. Paul, a city of the future? Not usually. Known for historic charm, St. Paul is often called quaint, quiet, and even sleepy, especially in comparison with its shiny neighbor to the west.
St. Paul isn’t usually mentioned when talking about cities of the future.
But leaving it at that means ignoring more than a few existing factors and upcoming projects that have the city looking forward. St. Paul’s population recently crossed the 300,000 mark for the first time in over 40 years, and people are moving back into the city center at an incredible rate.
Here are a few things coming soon, or already in place, that are helping St. Paul keep its momentum.
The 8-80 Vitality Fund
Centered around the idea of noted urbanist Gil Penalosa that cities should be accessible to anyone aged 8-80, the Vitality Fund has several projects around the city, including renovating the century-old Palace Theater in downtown, currently underway.
One of the key components of the plan is the Downtown Bicycle Network. Cities all around the world have been looking for ways to integrate bicycle traffic more effectively into city grids. In the Dutch city of Eindhoven, a suspended loop that hangs over automobile traffic called the Hovenring (read more: www.hovenring.com) was constructed to revolutionize the relationship between bikes and cars. In St. Paul, where the landscape is defined by the Mississippi River, the bike network lets you enter, move throughout, and then exit downtown quickly and easily on raised, separated paths. This allows bike and car traffic to coexist in a safer, more efficient manner.
The entire bike plan extends throughout the entire city, and will eventually connect to the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis (a city that needs no help with its biking infrastructure) to create a comprehensive bike route between the two cities.
Another key aspect of the plan adds more greenspace around the city, and makes streets more pedestrian-friendly and walkable in general.
The full plan for the 8-80 Vitality Fund can be found here: www.stpaul.gov/8-80-vitality-fund
Public transit has always been a contentious issue. While ridership has exceeded expectations (one of LRT critics’ initial predictions was that no one would use it) there are still those who say the Green Line wasn’t, and future rail/mass transit projects aren’t, a good investment. But as we have seen in cities all across the world, from Tokyo to Medellin, integrating the working class into the rest of the city (and doing so quickly and efficiently) is a key proponent of success.
And, as we have seen in cities like Nairobi, which has long dealt with overpopulation, the system also has to be user-friendly.
Here, workers in all industries, students, sports fans, shoppers, and tourists all use the Green Line. There is a plan to put rail or BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) down West 7th Street to connect downtown St. Paul and the airport. Another line, The Red Rock Corridor, would connect downtown with the southeast part of the state.
Considering the Twin Cities history of being connected by one of the most robust street car systems in the country before it was dismantled in the 1950’s, this feels like treading familiar landscape. But we now know that mass transit, especially rail, is good for the growth and progress of cities (read more here: The power of urban rail). With the Union Depot as a hub, St. Paul’s public transit options are poised to thrive.
Well we mentioned it, we may as well talk about it. For some, it’s still a bit of a sore spot; the massive multi-modal transit center that was incredibly expensive to renovate and reopen ($243 million) often feels empty and underused.
But the groundwork has been laid. Someday we will have high speed rail to Chicago, Duluth and other key areas. The coming transit lines mentioned earlier will all terminate at the Depot, bringing more people downtown. Multiple city buses, and regional buses like the Greyhound, Jefferson Line, and Megabus, as well as Amtrak and the Green Line Light Rail, already do. For those traveling on two wheels, the Depot is also home to Lowertown Bike Shop, and is connected to the skyway system for those traveling on foot. As St. Paul and its suburbs continue to grow, smooth transit options become an ever-increasing necessity to keep the metro connected. The Union Depot is a center that is defying its original purpose of operating ad hoc as a train station, becoming now a platform for the East Metro’s continued expansion and for transit of all types.
This is a plan that looks fifty years into the future. It’s an investment that will anchor St. Paul (and the growing Twin Cities in general) as a transit model for the rest of the country.
St. Paul’s meticulously maintained parks may not seem like a vision of the future. But we’re learning more and more about the importance of open space and nature in urban areas. The psychological and aesthetic benefits (more here: Green Cities: Good Health) have pushed urban planners toward adding more greenspace to their designs.
Mears Park in Lowertown continues to shine, used as community space, dog park, music venue, and event center. Rice Park, operating similarly in the heart of downtown, will soon get a makeover. Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, a true escape from the city just outside of downtown, will soon have greater ease of access on E 7th Street. There are also plans to raze the former SPPD building across the street from the Penfield to create another full-block park.
As part of the aforementioned 8-80 Vitality Fund, many blighted streets are getting touches of green and public space especially along the Green Line. All across the city public parks dot the landscape, bringing neighborhoods together and giving residents respite from hustle and bustle that becomes exhausting both physically and mentally.
But it may still be a while before St. Paul is considered a model city.
St. Paul is still a quieter metropolis that enjoys life just a little bit slower. It’s a city with one foot rooted firmly in the past while the other takes steps toward the future. But while there is a noted respect for its history, the population is growing, the landscape is changing, and it’s clear that the city is looking forward instead of back.