There was a time in big cities when access appeared to be everything. Maintaining a dense urban core was about developing jobs or attractions that drew large crowds. The key problem was moving large crowds of people in and out of the urban core.
This problem played out differently in every city in America, but most of them were stuck with one fundamental assumption: these crowds were likely to arrive by car. The incompatibility of the car with the main goal, crowds, was left unmentioned for nearly 50 years as we sought to increase access to our cities. The simple fact that a parking space takes up about as much room as a cubicle for every worker never really sank in. The amount of land needed to create off-ramps and parking structures was never seen in terms of what would be left behind.
Over the weekend, I wrote a blog entry for the St Paul Real Estate Blog on the Armstrong House, a magnificent 1886 brick mansion that was caught up in the car craze of the last few generations. You can find it here:
Since this is a real estate site, it seemed off topic to go into an extended rant about what made the Armstong House what it is today – an empty shell that has become a black hole for money, forlorn and vacant for a generation. This beautiful building was simply in the way of the conversion of Saint Paul from a trolley city into an automotive paradise. It could have been destroyed, but too many people have realized how beautiful it is. And so we have spent a lot of treasure in a futile attempt to make this someone’s home.
The story starts with the attempt to cut I-35E into the city. The State DOT purchased this house along with an awful lot of land on the western edge of Downtown because at the time they were unsure how they would re-route the major roads to accommodate the interstate and the need to climb a large hill to the Cathedral. No one seemed to notice that there were 6 full acres of land left over in a large traffic island in the middle of so very many cars. What purpose could this land serve? Cars were not seen as a serious problem yet, so no one asked the question. But there were no developers interested in the piece of land that the Armstrong House sat on.
I believe it was the late Charlie Nelson who quietly put the Armstrong House on the national register of historic places. As a state owned property this was apparently easy to do. This one action assured that if anyone finally did have a plan for this automotive paradise they would have to preserve the Armstrong House. Finally, the only viable use for this parcel came along – a parking garage several stories tall. The Armstrong was going to have to be moved to make room for the storage of all those cars.
There are only so many places you can put a building this large, and the site chosen was a former parking lot near another road project, near the new connection of Chestnut Street to the highway known as Shepard Road. Of course, the old grid of Philadelphia street names had given way to Eagle Parkway, but whatever. The process of carving up the city to make winding roads suitable for cars to go places had a spot left over. Why not move the Armstrong House there?
The project simply didn’t work. No one will pay upwards of $800k for a condo on a street as busy as the one sliced out of the city. But this wasn’t all that important. The car came first, the treasures of the city came second. Things that we considered beautiful and worth saving had to be scattered around the access roads that were so much more important. The Armstrong House was just one more plastic pink flamingo pressed into the ground to give the driveway a more festive look. The pavement is what matters; the decorations are disposable afterthoughts.
Now the people who took on the restoration of this treasure have simply given up. The Armstrong is to sell at auction, as is. Even though we are now trying very hard to prevent the destruction of our city in the name of access, there is nothing we can do. Even though we know we have to preserve our treasures, we can’t make it work. The car demands far too much from our city to allow anything other than full surrender to it.
Access to our Downtown is what ultimately killed it. The crowds that were supposed to be delivered by all these roads had no reason to be here at all. Great treasures like the Armstrong House were eliminated in order to make it possible for people to arrive in the comfort of their automobiles. No one ever stopped to wonder why they’d still want to come once the car had taken everything over.