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Nathaniel Hood

He writes about transportation and planning.

Snelling Avenue: An Unavoidable Beast

Snelling Avenue is a must-see landmark in St. Paul.

By “must-see”, I mean it’s unavoidable. It is an inevitable monster that, at some point, you’ll need to combat the seemingly endless hordes of fast moving traffic.

I decided to fight that traffic from south to north, through the entire City of St. Paul.

At it’s farthest point south, near my house in Highland Park, Snelling is a modest tree-lined, two-lane street that quickly transforms into a school zone. Traffic moves slowly until you cross Montreal. The lanes then widen and the speed increases. That is, until you hit the patchwork of local businesses situated on late-streetcar and early-suburban commercial nodes around Randolph.

The slight hill makes the ride enjoyable, and car traffic isn’t overwhelming. It’s not comforting, but I’m not fearing for my life. That last part is important when designing spaces for bikes.

Moving northbound, the intersection of Snelling and Randolph feels urban; buildings hug the wide sidewalks and apartments are above the shops. The further northward I go, the heavier flow of traffic makes the area a biker’s nightmare even during quietest weekend hours.

What to do with these types of roads is contentious and the city and DOT often seems like they’re at odds. Is it a highway or is it a city street? While residential property owners would certainly benefit from reduced traffic, the business owners like it – especially if they are fortunate enough to have off-street parking. It’s a blend of urban meets suburban meets pedestrians meets highway meets potential bike lane. It tries to appease everyone, but successfully appeases no one.

From Randolph heading north, Snelling has single-family homes until St. Clair. Macalaster College’s green median turns the avenue into a three block stretch akin to Summit Avenue. This looks nice, for a short period, but quickly converts back. Despite good effort, the median that was designed to help students cross tightens the space and makes me feel on-guard. Speeding cars pass on my left and I debate jumping onto the sidewalk.

North of Summit you’ll find strip malls, a Buffalo Wild Wings, a gas station, and a hodgepodge of light industrial until you hit I-94 and University Avenue. Anyone who has driven this section of Snelling knows that congestion is the norm. But not today. I-94 construction has closed the intersection to cars and the silence is oddly beautiful. I picked up my bike and just walked right over. It’s a beautiful feeling to have control over a space that would otherwise be inhospitable.

Snelling from University Avenue north to Hamline University is medium-density lined with small businesses and multifamily dwellings. This stretch of road works, kind of. It accommodates pedestrians, businesses, buses, and cars. It’s noisy and chaotic, but it works. If Hamline University were to follow in Macalaster’s footsteps and spruce up the median, it could go a long way.

It’s always astonished me that the city hasn’t done more north of University Avenue; little improvements could go a long way. The congestion oddly acts as a safety buffer, too. The slow moving traffic ensured that any possible collision would occur at less than 5 miles per hour. It is here that I feel refuge.

I stopped my ride near the Midway Motel, glanced over the bridge to the State Fair grounds, and figured that it’d be best to ride the sidewalk from here on out. And that is what I did; relegated to the margin as cars whizzed past at unknown speeds. At this very moment, anyone on a bike becomes a second-class citizen.

I can’t help but think that Snelling is emblematic of the transition we’re making from car culture into something else. It’s urban. It’s suburban. It’s a highway. Snelling Avenue is a lot of things. It just depends where you are.  The problem with Snelling is that it’s a little bit of everything, but doesn’t do any of those things particularly well.

Snelling doesn’t work as a highway; but as long as it tries to sometimes act like a highway, it won’t be able to act like a city street either. If it turns into a street city (with a median, narrower traffic lanes and bike lanes), what will happen to adjacent alternative routes? When congestion occurs on your traditional street grid, people have options. They’ll take Fairview or Hamline or Lexington. Will these roads become more congested and less desirable? Will it reduce traffic demand or move it elsewhere?

The answer isn’t clear. But, what is clear is that I wasn’t biking back on Snelling. I found another way.

Nathaniel Hood: Davanni's dreams of its youth in St. Paul

The Twin Cities pizza chain Davanni's is celebrating its 40th birthday with a facelift. It wants to be young again and recapture its original glory as the neighborhood pizza joint.

In a recent article, the Star Tribune reported that many young millennials do not associate Davanni's with their local neighborhood businesses, but rather think of it as a chain. And I know why.

The answer is the suburbs and their geography of nowhere.

I live close to the original Davanni's on Grand and Cleveland in St. Paul. It has a neighborhood feel, which has not changed in my experience. The St. Paul location is a modest two-story brick structure that's clean enough to not arouse suspicion, but dirty enough to be authentic. One can write off the grease stains as nothing more than charm.

This Davanni's even goes the extra mile by writing clever messages on its sign (which commonly says things like, "Four out of Four Ninja Turtles Recommend Us"). If you're looking for a neighborhood pizza joint, this is exactly the personality you want.

I've seen the Davanni's outposts alongside the five-lane arterial collector roads in places like Eden PrairieCoon RapidsRogersArden Hills and Eagan, but I've always dismissed them. These buildings are not reminiscent of the original location, which is what a Davanni's should be. Instead, they more closely resemble a small strip mall refurbished sometime in the mid 1990s, surrounded by asphalt, turning lanes, and fast moving traffic.

Location. Location. Location.

In an interview last week, Davanni's CEO said, “Every store will get something. Some more than ­others. Our location on Cleveland and Grand is our golden goose. We’re not going to modernize that one.”

The goose that lays the golden eggs is their oldest storefront. This is a success that Davanni's can replicate, but it cannot be beside the highway next to the Applebee's. How can you be a neighborhood establishment without a neighborhood?

Davanni's wants to cash in on millennials who confuse them with national chains. Craft beer is a good start, but it will be hard to overcome the frontage roads. When Davanni's was locally expanding their footprint, an Arden Hills location would have made sense. They were following the trends. But now these suburban landscapes feel depressing and are places millenials want to escape, not hang out in.

The company will need to go where millennials want to live. And to be fair, they have done this. They have restaurants in downtown Minneapolis, Riverside and Uptown. My guess is that these locations don't need much in way of modern renovations to stay busy.

They may want the clientele to change, but deep issues in the company culture do not seem to budge. Change can be a bitter pill to swallow. I'm referring to the company's baffling political opposition towards a modest proposal to put bike lanes on Cleveland Avenue in St. Paul. Davanni's positioned itself as the leading business opponent to the bike lanes, due to the loss of four parking spaces (despite the business' ample off-street parking). These bike lanes were overwhelmingly supported by millennials -- the precise demographic Davanni's is trying to attract as customers.

If you want to attract millenials, I recommend giving them a safe option to visit your store by bicycle. Driving and car ownership are declining, and millennials as well as older adults are embracing alternate transportation. I have a work colleague who specifically chose a vacation destination based on access to bike share. Cycling rates will continue to climb and accommodating cyclists could be a business windfall.

Davanni's situation isn't dire. They make good pizza and hoagies (and apparently is a fun place to work). They might be a tad more expensive, but you get what you pay for. Yet, if Davanni's wants to establish a neighborhood feel, then I recommend opening stores in neighborhoods. Only then will they replicate the company's original soul.

The addition of craft beer is a good start, but Davanni's won't be able to drink themselves out of the suburbs.

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