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Urban Return

I called up an architect recently to get the name of a good carpenter who can be trusted with a 150 year old house. But this friend, who is heavily involved in our community, had a serious beef to air first. What got him upset was a recent policy change here in Saint Paul. Since the downturn started we suddenly faced a tremendous number of properties that have become a bit neglected due to foreclosure and general hard times. There are over 1600 properties on the city’s registered vacant property list, for example. The Mayor’s office has responded to this growing problem by clamping down hard on code enforcement, citing people for small issues that they would have let slide in past years.

The reason this is a problem to my friend, and I agree, is that in an era of expensive gasoline we have every reason to believe that there will be a return of people into the city. Saint Paul is not like big cities in the conventional ways in that it has a low crime rate, good schools, and an amazing number of public and private amenities. While making sure it stays handsome and proper is a good thing to do, and there are very few run-down “slum” areas, is getting harassing people the best way to get more residents in Saint Paul?

Having gotten this far, you know that I don’t think it’s the best approach overall. During the administration of Mayor Kelly, concluded 2 years ago, the city had a goal of 5,000 new units of housing to entice people back to urban life. In a real estate boom, that was met and exceeded to a total of around 9,000 units. We have the space to grow, but what will bring people in? I think that this achievement has to be met with a continuing effort to bring people to the city, and that means we have to do something about a few nagging problems:

Transit: The lure is that with expensive gasoline, people should try to live in a place where they drive substantially less. That’s not necessarily Saint Paul the way things are run. Our transit is operated by the Metropolitan Council, a strange beast that is in charge of transit in Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and many suburbs. Even if they did care about us, they have shown that they move very slowly at best. Yes, I know people have high hopes for the Central Corridor, but even if I’m wrong and this is built it’s just one line – we need a reliable system of transit that will allow residents to ditch their cars. Saint Paul has to step up and find ways to make that happen, with or without the Met Council.

Jobs: Saint Paul is simply not a jobs center anymore. The estimate of 70k jobs downtown is clearly inflated, and whole buildings stand empty along Fourth Street. Our Port Authority has done a great job of building industrial parks and would like to have a no-net-loss policy regarding industrial land. All that is good, but we have to find a way of getting ahead of the curve to provide the jobs and the space for jobs that will be viable for the next generation or two. That means leveraging our existing corporations and universities and figuring out what the future of work is. American cities have always been built primarily as enormous factories, and while I’d love to see a balance between that image and a beautiful place to live, we can’t forget the driving engine of a city. Downtown, at least as we know it, ain’t it.

Schools: The Saint Paul Public Schools has done a wonderful job of turning itself around, particularly with the K-8 grades. They are working on real reform up through High School, but it’s necessarily slow. We need to tout the successes we’ve had and connect people to our schools to bring in the resources necessary to speed up what’s left. The schools are doing well, but what will take it to the next level? More community involvement has to be part of the answer. The Mayor’s office is always looking for ways to be involved in schools, regardless of who is mayor – I think this is showtime for that kind of effort.

Image: I hate it when any entity goes on a slick campaign of hype. But damnitall, Saint Paul has a lot to crow about. People who come into town for a hockey game or an Obama speech should come away with the feeling that this is a fun, safe, and beautiful town. It’s the hard truth, too. A serious marketing effort needs to be built around that. We have a city to sell, and we know it’s a good one. Do people out in the ‘burbs know what a good life we have? I really doubt it.

That’s enough for now. I’m sure there are more points to make, but the real issue is “How do we keep the momentum going?” We have a few things to patch up and we have to solve the hard problem of what a Downtown is for to really sell this place. But we can do that. Saint Paul is a great city and it has a great future. We need the leadership and the vision to make it happen, and we need to get together around those to work on it. Anyone with me?

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3 thoughts on “Urban Return

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