Like any good urban dispute, it seems simple enough on the surface. Along a stretch of golf course known as the Town and Country Club there is no sidewalk, but many people walk there. A well-worn dirt path to the bus stop seems out of place in the middle of the city, so paving it with concrete to look like the rest of Marshall Avenue is only logical. But is this something that the club should be charged $42,850 for – and be held responsible for keeping clean from now on? It won’t benefit them or their members, but this is how we build sidewalks in Saint Paul. A suit has been filed to stop it.
A court case over a sidewalk may seem trivial, but it’s a great illustration of how the public realm is a kind of neglected after-thought based on The Way Things Are™.
The reason we charge a property owner for “improvements” to the streets in front of their house goes back to the earliest days of Saint Paul. An “improvement” a century ago usually meant some kind of paving, a very desirable thing to have in by your property that surely increased the value. The alternative was dirt and horse manure beaten down into a hard pack that was as dusty or muddy as the weather. Paving is good, no matter what.
A street, however, isn’t just the place where cars go. The city’s property generally starts at the sidewalk and includes streetlamps, a grassy boulevard, trees, perhaps some well-defined parking spaces, bike lanes, and an elaborate storm sewer system to handle the water. Streets are an awful lot more than they used to be, but any “upgrade” in the service level of the street is still an “improvement”. That even counts when the street is being changed to handle more traffic, something that may not be remotely desirable.
Property owners are, generally, assessed for some part of the costs of all of these “improvements”. The city, for its part, only has to hope that the tab isn’t large enough to lawyer things up and trigger a suit based on a 20 year old state law requiring them to prove that the property owner actually benefits.
This may seem like a cheap way to get public infrastructure built and a good thing all around. But the concept sorely degrades the public realm because our streetscapes are, necessarily, defined by what the city feels it can get away with. It often becomes a contest between handling traffic and how much the property owners carp about it. Urban life, the life of the street itself, is second at best.
The murky line between public and private drives far more than how we put in sidewalks, however. The entire zoning code is a thick book of elaborate restrictions on property, divided up into hundreds of precisely defined uses in dense lawyerese. It is unreadable by humans, but it rules any development. If you want to know what can be done on a property, you look up the zoning requirements and then see if there are any other restrictions such as being in a river corridor, and be sure to check if there is an overlay district. But don’t worry – if you can’t do what you want, you just apply for a change or a Special Conditional Use Permit (SCUP) and hope that none of the neighbors are paying attention.
If that’s too arcane for you to understand, don’t worry. No one really “gets it”. But we have to keep this the way it is because every sentence in the process is the careful coding of a cease-fire line between neighborhoods and some jerk who wanted to do something really awful once long ago. The lines have slowly petrified over time and are now written in stone.
The way we do things in Saint Paul, and for that matter in nearly every city in the USofA, is not defined on clear property rights and the needs of a public realm that supports an active urban life. It’s based on a blurred distinction that ultimately degrades both public and private to the point where they hardly make any sense at all. There are better ways of doing this, but the long, hard battles that produced The Way Things Are™ make it very hard to imagine getting there.
So we deal with it. We hire lawyers to argue over sidewalks and we attend endless meetings that hinge on the difference between B-2 and B-3 zoning and how we write a SCUP that doesn’t allow just about anything to happen. The life and energy of the city hardly ever enters into the discussion at all. That’s the shame of it.