Downtown St. Paul’s reputation as a struggling urban center has quietly been shaped by its one-way street system. The growth hoped for from redevelopment projects will not come easily unless the streets are fixed.
In “Good things are on the way in St. Paul” (Sept. 25) the president and CEO of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce underscores Minnesota Wild games, the wealth of concert venues, and the downtown airport as main attractions for developers. I maintain that this identity is precisely what makes downtown St. Paul an unwelcoming place for residents.
Much like the one-way street system, these attractions cater primarily to short-term visitors. On nights that the Wild play, fans visiting from across the Twin Cities area flood the streets around the Xcel Energy Center, cutting through parking lots, over railings, and across several lanes of traffic with no marked crosswalk. At times, traffic comes to a standstill as green jerseys weave between cars to reach the stadium.
The pattern is always the same. A sudden inflow of people to downtown before the puck-drop and a mass exodus several hours later. The battle between pedestrian and driver for the right of way begs the question, for whom are the streets designed?
If the one-way street system stays, downtown will continue to move vehicles in and out of the city center as efficiently as possible. If St. Paul is to have a vibrant core, however, it must be more supportive of not only those who come and go, but those who want to stay.
St. Paul’s Downtown Alliance was formed in 2018 with the mission to “create and maintain a vibrant, economically successful, safe and attractive downtown. The Alliance is co-chaired by Mayor Melvin Carter and the president and CEO of Securian Financial, Chris Hilger. On their website, you can track completed and ongoing development projects: new apartments on the site of a surface parking lot, a practice arena for the Minnesota Wild and the purchase and renovation of old office space.
Perhaps most illustrative of the Alliance’s vision is the Riversedge redevelopment project. This project will place on the riverfront four towers flush with luxury apartments, hotel rooms and office space. The hope seems to be that residents will mingle on the streets, workers will enjoy the river overlook at lunch break and tourists will stay within an arms-length of both street life and natural beauty.
Indeed, bringing development that caters to workers and residents in downtown St. Paul will be a step in the right direction. But is that really all that needs to change?
Downtown’s deeper problem is the auto-centric one-way street design, which is damaging to vitality because it privileges vehicle speed over pedestrian safety. In a one-way street intersection, vehicles are unimpeded when making left turns, further exposing the pedestrian on the sidewalk. Compared to two-way intersections, the absence of vehicles waiting to turn left allows others to barrel through at higher speeds.
Proponents of one-way systems in downtown areas will celebrate this traffic engineering feat. But for bicyclists, skateboarders, scooter users and pedestrians, three columns of cars speeding by in the same direction can be daunting and deadly.
In a one-way street system, traffic signals can be timed to expedite the trip through downtown toward the freeway. Treating downtown as a corridor as opposed to a destination will continue to interfere with any sense of place that might come from the Riversedge project.
Similarly, one-way systems funnel traffic through a select few streets, entirely missing other parts of downtown. When traffic is unevenly distributed, only the storefronts along well-trafficked streets are desirable for business.
Not only are one-way streets dangerous and bad for business, they send a clear message about the function of downtown. It is designed for those who come and go.
Downtown St. Paul needs more than development projects. It needs a rethinking of identity, starting with the streets. So long as downtown St. Paul keeps its one-way system, the Downtown Alliance will be hamstrung in their pursuit of a vibrant city center.
The city has sent its invitation letter to developers, it must now invite its residents.
Alex Webb, of St. Paul, is a graduate student in urban planning at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.