Home » Urban Life » Visions for West Seventh

Visions for West Seventh

How do you fit all the public amenities needed for a 21st century city into a 19th century street? Some cities benefited from great forethought, like Salt Lake City, and gave a few extra feet here and there for the public realm. Saint Paul, my hometown, wasn’t as generous.

As I have discussed before, I’m deeply involved in the process of considering transit improvements to West Seventh Street. For me, it’s more than just my ‘hood – it’s a very classic street through a neighborhood that demonstrates many of the best things that cities have to offer. Yes, it needs a little something here and there, and should include better transit.

This is a big public decision, and the public has to be involved. In order to communicate not just plans but the thinking behind them, for true citizen empowerment, it’s vital that we get into how this is going.

Funky angles and historic structures mark the streetscape.

Funky angles and historic structures mark the streetscape.

A lot of background is necessary. West Seventh is a street which runs diagonally through the heart of the city. Nearly everything is funneled through here, at the base of the Crocus Hill / Ramsey Hill bluff line carved out by a much larger Mississippi River at the end of the last Ice Age. In a five block stretch, we have I-35E (over 100k cars per day), West Seventh (24k) and Shepard Road (10k). That is life at the major “pinch point” of Seventh, roughly from Mancini’s to the Xcel Center – about 3/4 of a mile.

The buses also funnel through this gap in topography, meaning we have excellent transit already. But connecting us, and really all of St Paul, means we need more. A rail line is at least worth considering.

West Seventh was built as a 66’ wide street. That’s 4 Rods for those of us into surveying. In the early 1950s it was widened to 80’ by tearing down or even sawing off buildings on the South side of the street, and that’s where it stands today. With the help of a fun site called streetmix.net we can make a quick cross-section of the streetscape roughly between Chestnut and Walnut Streets, between Burger Moe’s and the Downtowner.

This is where it all comes together:  (click on the picture for a larger version)

The existing West Seventh cross section between Walnut and Chestnut.

The existing West Seventh cross section between Walnut and Chestnut.

How did we get to this street? It evolved slowly over time. Once there were trolleys in the outer driving lane , but now there are buses. Street parking is vital for buildings built close together before cars were even invented, so there is limited off-street. But we can hardly say that Seventh, as configured here, is really the perfect street for any use.

The Schmidt Brewery, now artists' lofts, is the symbol of the West End and sits at its heart.

The Schmidt Brewery, now artists’ lofts, is the symbol of the West End and sits at its heart.

So let’s look at what we can do in 80’ at the same spot from the perspective of different uses. We’ll start with cars, since they have dominated city planning for nearly a century – and were indeed why Seventh was widened. With roughly 24,000 cars per day, a street which can really handle them all needs a lot of asphalt. It would be nice to have left turn lanes, too. And those 10’ wide lanes? They’re only as wide as a big truck – 12’ is much more standard as a minimum.

If we re-made Seventh into Carvana, a motorist’s paradise, it would probably look like this:

If cars really did rule the street ...

If cars really did rule the street …

Note that there is essentially no sidewalk at all – it just doesn’t fit. The real problem with cars in urban planning is that they take up a tremendous amount of space – to drive as well as to park. A good reason for considering transit is that it is simply far more space efficient.

We love Wild fans - but there are a lot of them!

We love Wild fans – but there are a lot of them!

But cars aren’t the only ones who use Seventh. There are at least 100 large events two blocks down at the Xcel Center, which holds 18,000 people for hockey (Go Wild!) and 20,000 for concerts. When these events let out, the existing 13’ sidewalk overflows to the point where police stand mid-block simply to keep them from spilling into the street. It’s nuts. We could reasonably use a 20’ wide sidewalk to handle the crowds – and to provide a nice street cafe scene during the day. It might look like this:

If it was all about the Xcel Crowds - and 100 or more nights a year, it is.

If it was all about the Xcel Crowds – and 100 or more nights a year, it is.

Note that there is no parking because Xcel patrons don’t get to park in the street anyways. They’ll be getting into their cars eventually and jamming up Seventh pretty badly, even if it is 4 lane. But they probably need about half of the total street width to be truly safe.

Cyclists would love Seventh. But it's dangerous today!

Cyclists would love Seventh. But it’s dangerous today!

Pedestrians aren’t the only ones who want to use Seventh hard, though. We have more bicyclists every day because Seventh is a diagonal, flat street. Today they tend to ride on the sidewalks in this stretch, an insanely dangerous thing to as they are largely invisible to cars before they cross Chestnut or Walnut. This is something more like they would need to have a cyclist friendly street:

Bikes don't ask for much, but a safe bike route needs some space.

Bikes don’t ask for much, but a safe bike route needs some space.

But if we punt on all of it and put a high capacity LRT down the street we can be more efficient with how we use it, right? If you presume the cars are always going to be there, if highly constricted, you still have the problem that LRT cars need 14’ of width each way. While more efficient, they still take up space:

If it were all about trains ... presuming the widest place for them, at a stop.

If it were all about trains … presuming the widest place for them, at a stop.

So those are four visions for West Seventh based on different uses – and they naturally result in four utterly different and incompatible layouts for the street. It’s nearly impossible to reconcile all of them in a mere 80’ of street width.

The Riverview Logo. Yes, it's a train.

The Riverview Logo. Yes, it’s a train.

What can you do? So far, the Riverview Corridor team has identified two possible scenarios for LRT on Seventh. The first is a dedicated guideway or something like the Green Line – except this group realized that putting it along the sidewalks takes up less room and makes for a more pleasurable experience.  I have to applaud that.  But it still takes up a lot of room for the trains and naturally squeezes out a lot of other uses for West Seventh:

How a full-blown LRT implementation might look, as per the Riverview studies.

How a full-blown LRT implementation might look, as per the Riverview Pre-Project Development Study (April 2016).

Note the lack of parking, left turn lanes, or even standard lane widths for cars. Note also that the sidewalk is substandard, less than 12’ wide. A typical LRT cross section squeezes everything out – and if you leave even the smallest possible room for the high volume of traffic creates a streetscape that can hardly be called “pedestrian friendly”.

Knowing in advance that this wouldn’t fit, the team has been scrambling for an alternative. It’s known as the “Hybrid”, which has narrower LRT vehicles which are only 12’ wide operating in the driving lanes. Think of it as a very large streetcar – 4’ wider and a solid 30’ longer even if there is only one LRT car in the train:

A "Hybrid" of LRT in traffic, from the Riverview studies.

A “Hybrid” of LRT in traffic, from the Riverview Pre-Project Development Study (April 2016).

A Skoda 10T operating in Portland. It holds 200 people max, about 50% more than an articulated bus, but fits well on a narrow street.

A Skoda 10T operating in Portland. It holds 200 people max, about 50% more than an articulated bus, but fits well on a narrow street.

We have room for parking! But not a turn lane for those heading off to Cossetta’s and an even more substandard sidewalk that will simply not be able to handle the Xcel crowds. I know that the team that is working on this is very proud of their design, but it just doesn’t work.

What do I think will work? If we punt a bit further and go with real Streetcars, like the Skoda 10T, we have a bit more room for a lot more stuff. But we have to put the street on a “road diet” that presumes a 3-lane configuration (as we have West of Mancini’s, just beyond Goodrich) will handle the cars,  It’s a big assumption, based on  proper 12’ wide lanes and a flexible turn / passing lane in the middle, but it has been shown to work well in other cities at this level of traffic.  Also in this configuration, streetcars share the road with automobiles – or, for that matter, might just be buses at least until a certain threshold is reached that justifies a streetcar line on rails:

My best guess as to what Seventh wants. The streetcars share a lane with traffic (and may just be buses until a certain ridership threshold is hit).

My best guess as to what Seventh wants. The streetcars share a lane with traffic (and may just be buses until a certain ridership threshold is hit).

This is where I see it going. But for all of this the original charter of the Riverview Corridor was to provide transit service from Downtown St Paul, at Union Depot, to the Airport and beyond. Anything on Seventh is not going to move faster than 35 MPH no matter what you do. It’s not going to be very adequate.

The Riverview Corridor Map.

The Riverview Corridor Map.

The team is going to have to consider two systems that merge like oil and water – one fast and one local on Seventh. Such a system is going will emphasize the transfer points where they cross along with parking, pedestrian access, and so on.

It may even make sense to dig a tunnel deep down in the soft St Peter Sandstone, under the limestone cap. We will look at the cost of this “subway” and see. It’s either a brilliant idea or a crazy one – we won’t know until we look.

Until that time, the basic configuration of Seventh Street is reasonably creating a lot of interest and people are sketching out a lot of ideas. That’s all good.

Street furniture, like lighting, benches, and even statues, tie everything together for solid "placemaking".

Street furniture, like lighting, benches, and even statues, tie everything together for solid “placemaking”.

When it comes right down to it, the key has to be reliable transportation which is integrated into the street furniture and distinct places all along the street. It really needs to operate every 10 minutes or less, with each stop bearing a number like “7” which tells you the transit arrives at 8:07, 8:17, 8:27, et cetera.

We’re not there yet – not even close. A lot of different visions of this relatively narrow street have to converge and a lot of thinking about the next century of West Seventh has to come to a consensus. And, of course, we have to price it all out and figure out where the money will come from.

But this is where we are starting from. The fast train to the airport? Not really even on the screen yet. Stay tuned and make popcorn – and try your own ideas out at streetmix.net!  There’s a lot more show to come as the competing visions boil down into one.

10 thoughts on “Visions for West Seventh

  1. One nitpick: Pedestrian paradise includes no cars, including no cars on cross streets.

    • I suppose it should! I was thinking about the Xcel crowd, hence the need for cars. They all get in their cars at some point. But a real Pedestrian Paradise would probably just have trains. Not really a nitpick!

      • Strange, every time I’ve gone to a Wild game or other event at Xcel Energy Center, I’ve arrived by means other than a car. I wonder what the actual mode share figures are.

      • You raise an excellent point, and I will see if I can figure out how people get to the Xcel Center. I made a huge assumption that the vast majority came in cars and that may not be correct. In my defense I was only looking at the pedestrian traffic, but as we consider them we should know where they are going.

  2. Not necessarily a minor point, but you city 24k AADT on W 7th in the 3/4 mile stretch from Mancini’s to the X. The most recent MnDot data shows counts near Grand Ave at 16.6k and 11.8k just SW of Jefferson. Both of these values are well-within the rule of thumb for a 3-lane roadway. We also don’t need 12′ lanes as a standard. 10.5 is more than wide enough to accommodate buses, trucks, cars, etc and at speeds that are far more compatible with an urban environment like this (read: slower and safer for pedestrians, who have literally been hit and killed in this corridor recently).

    I’d also highly question the need for on-street parking, especially if it comes at the expense of LRT/etc speed (when cars park/leave in your layout, they’d need to cross into the guideway, also potentially blocking transit if parked poorly. Cross-streets in almost all locations along even this short, more congested stretch of W 7th have ample parking capacity, and we haven’t even talked about pricing it with meters yet. That space would be much better used to expand the sidewalk and/or provide bike lanes. I’m mostly on board with the idea of a short shared transit/vehicle area between Grand Ave and wherever it might turn to head downtown, perhaps even if it helps retain on-street parking in that area. South/west of there, it sure doesn’t seem to make sense to have transit share space with vehicles if we can avoid it. But, if we think transit won’t be affected too much bu doing so, and it allows protected bike lanes all the way, I’d be open to this design from the X all the way to Randolph (where, presumably, the train should then head off 7th to use the CP tracks). http://streetmix.net/alexcecchini/120/west-7th-transit-st This is a street that manages to work for peds, people on bikes, decently well for transit, and well within the needs of cars given current traffic volumes. The only thing it doesn’t provide is on-street parking, which should be the last thing the street needs given the number of cross-streets (at high frequencies given the diagonal nature of W 7th) offering parking options.

    And, the city/county/state should be implementing any/all ways to shift as many vehicles as possible off W 7th and on to Shepard Rd if they’re not accessing local destinations.

    • First point – the chart I have shows 24k cars per day, and that was verified by the City. MnDOT was OK with the 3 lane conversion up to the point where it hit 20k cars per day, which I think was unfortunate. I’m sure it would work all the way.
      As for lane width, I do not support a 10′ lane anywhere that there are trucks. If we were to go with that, we would have to lose the MN Highway 5 designation – not necessarily a bad thing, but a big thing. It may be necessary.
      As for parking – businesses really demand it. Period. I want to get to the heart of this because I see a need for ramps tucked behind and under buildings even with no changes to Seventh – would that be enough? My gut says yes, the businesses say no. It’s worth talking about.
      As for Shepard, yes. All around. That may want to be Highway 5, for example.
      My only problem with your design is that we really do need a very wide sidewalk. I will never support less than 12′ anywhere, and around here I tell you 20′ would not be ridiculous. The current 13′ or so is barely manageable.

      • I’d be interested to see that AADT chart. 24k a day would be a significant jump from 16k (+50% from just a couple of years ago, when traffic counts across the metro and on similar streets have had flat-to-falling. Anyway, I know most folks are pretty conservative about traffic volumes and 3-lane designs, but as the link you cited shows, there re in fact places that have had success with AADTs well in excess of the 20k rule of thumb, up to 25k in Seattle.

        I suggested a 10.5′ lane width, something being used on many streets that carry truck traffic in Minneapolis (and many other parts of the world). My road section included a 2′ area for curb reaction and/or gutter pan, plus the lane itself was 12′, so it’s not hard to imagine a 10.5-11′ lane with 1′ reaction for that driving lane. Besides, we should strongly consider whether the speeds a 12’+ lane affords are worth the known safety tradeoff.

        My proposed sidewalk was 15′ including the tree/furnishing zone, which I’d assume you would want in your preferred 14′ sidewalk, right? The only tradeoff in my design is that, without a parking lane, transit stops would cut into the sidewalk, leaving 8.5′ (as noted). With this being a transit project with very infrequent stops, I’d say that’s not a huge issue. I sit on the Mpls Ped Advisory Committee and have definitely taken issue with narrower sidewalks behind transit stops, like the 6-8′ proposed between Lake St aBRT stops and building faces. With that said, I’ve been to places all over Europe with much a denser built form (residential, commercial) and pinch points like this in sidewalks that function just fine.

        Again, for parking. I think it’s pretty crazy to take businesses at their word. Yes, I agree parking is something that many businesses rely on. However, I’d wager a strong bet that parking is rarely even 30% utilized on most parts of this stretch. There are tons of surface lots behind buildings. And, given the frequency that W 7th crosses either a N-S or E-W street, people can very conveniently park without adding much (if any) walk time to reach their destination on W 7th. As you’re aware, tradeoffs will definitely have to be made in this area. It’s 2016. Giving people the ability to store their cars for free on a corridor with ample other parking options nearby when also building a high-capacity, high frequency transit system is not what a world class city or region should do.

        To be honest, it’s actually kind of crazy that grade separation under 7th from Randolph to ~Kellogg hasn’t even been brought up. This is a less than 2 mile stretch with an easy portal site on the south end and easy enough on the north end given the ROW at 7th and Kellogg to 5th (plus the surface parking lots). You’d avoid the conflict between transit and other uses, and would only need to build ?3? stations underground (Hospital, St Claire, and potentially closer to the Xcel). But that’s beside the point, I suppose.

      • Quick response – we are looking into all of these as a team including a tunnel as I mentioned in this piece.

  3. West 7th could use a streetcar but mostly what it needs are less cars. Why isn’t Shepard road more heavily used? It seems like the perfect place for all the traffic. I could see a fast train down there if that is where it could go but if they put LRT on 7th it will only be slower than University ave and that would be a waste.

    • I agree all around. However, shifting cars to Shepard may be hard for an important reason. This may be more local traffic that wants to be on Seventh. We need to learn a lot more about it, but in principle I agree.
      Do we need a streetcar? At $50M per mile it’s hard to justify, if you ask me. But I would gladly support an improved bus service, especially West of Randolph where there is no local bus now, and see how that goes.

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