Field Trip to the Twin Cities (1998)

On October 15-17, 1998, 14 students and I traveled to the Twin Cities for a follow up to our initial trip in 1997.

While driving through the far west suburbs on I-494, I was inspired to tell the students how I thought a European planner might respond to what we were seeing: “Wow! Everything is so spread out. Where is the city?” After checking in at the Kelly Inn in the far west suburb of Plymouth near I-494 and State Hwy 55, we drove downtown for dinner at a Thai restaurant.

The next morning we caravanned downtown, passing by 1930s-era low-rise public housing along Hwy 55 that had been demolished. Once we arrived at the St. Paul City Hall/Ramsey County Courthouse (designed in 1932 by Hollabird and Root and Ellerbe & Co.), we were met by Ken Ford of the St. Paul Department of Planning and Economic Development. He showed us the Art Deco Lobby that contains Carl Emille Anderson Milles’ large statue “Vision of Peace,” and then escorted us into the City Council’s chambers. There he showed us John Nelson’s four murals on the wall, which represent the growth and development of the city from the time of the earliest French settlers to the 1930s. (I understood them to be a story about Progress that comes from human labor and technological advances, but they contained a sub-text about black slave labor, submissive women, and conquered natives as well.) I asked the students to imagine making a presentation to the City Council in their rather claustrophobic chamber.

We then went into a conference room, where Ford talked to us about the comprehensive plan update that the city has been doing in response to the Metropolitan Land Planning Act and the Metro Council’s Regional Framework. The major themes of the plan are growth, quality of place, and secure well-being. Those themes lead to four land use plan strategies: vital growing city center, neighborhoods as urban villages, corridors for growth (W. Seventh, River South, University Ave., Great Northern, and Phalen). All are connected to what someone called the “receding of the industrial glacier.”

Alan Torskin then spoke to us about the Phalen Village project in the Phalen Corridor. He began by referring to an abandoned shopping center that we had visited the preceding year and the low-amenity and poorly-maintained three-story apartments that had been built in the 1960s. Neighborhood-based planning has led, he said, to a strong political constituency for a “very bold” plan for Phalen Village. It seeks to create a more walkable, compact, pedestrian oriented, transit-serviced commercial area, with the nearby housing either being rehabilitated, thinned out, or removed and replaced with more diverse types of housing. After discussing the Lakewood housing project and Ames Lake, Torskin said that he’s played not just a facilitative role but also a stimulative “what if?” role as well. Innovations deriving from professional expertise have been a major part of the project, Ken Ford said, even though dialogue between planners and neighbors has been crucial too. Ford then spoke briefly about the Riverfron Development Framework, which has won several awards.

Aided by maps that Ken Ford gave us, we drove through the Phalen Corridor. We stopped at the proposed city center along the way so that I could show the students what the city was doing, and also at the shopping mall/wetlands site near Ames Lake, and on the bluff overlooking the St. Paul airport. We then drove to West St. Paul, which is across the Mississippi River directly south of downtown St. Paul, to meet with Dave Baker and others at the West St. Paul Riverview Development Association’s (RDA’s) office. The executive director, Ann Burcino, told us that she had come from South Amboy, N.J., where her father had owned a diner. It had been located in an old declining commercial area, and most businesses had been moving out. When she first moved to St. Paul, the same thing had been happening in the Concord Street area. The Concord Street Business Group had been formed in 1983, and it later transformed into the W. St. Paul RDA. It initially focused on short-term rejuvenation, but is now starting to look at real estate development. “Welcome to the ‘hood,” she said. An economic development specialist for the City of St. Paul, Marshall [I missed his last name], told us that the city works with neighborhood groups as a team. Doing so is good for both parties, partly because the teamwork makes it much easier to leverage funds. The associate director of the RDA, Rachel [last name?] spoke to us about the Cinquo de Mayo festival, which they sponsor every year. It drew 70,000 people in 1997! [By this time I had come to realize that West St. Paul has a very large Hispanic (or Latino) population: roughly half of the neighborhood’s 150,000 people, along with a substantial number of Hmong, Cambodian, and African Americans.] Laura Torez, a job coach for Mexican-Americans, told us that two big issues for them are transportation access to jobs and quality child care. Dave Baker then discussed industrial and commercial development in the area. Economic development is not just about creating wealth and jobs, he said. You also have to deal with race, perception, limits on funds, topography, zoning, etc. Mark Agnesi of the Neighborhood Development Alliance concluded the presentations by talking about the importance of having decent housing in the neighborhood.

At this point, Dave Baker escorted us to a housing project that was being rehabilitated in the area. It seemed quite well built, but my sense was that it was a disaster from an environmental point of view (as was virtually all new housing built in the U. S. up to that point). Baker then took us to a nifty little Mexican grocery/deli and then to a Mexican restaurant for dinner. By the end of the day, I had begun to think metaphorically of “sculpting the city.”

On the following day we took ourselves on a tour of the Twin Cities. It proved to be less successful than I had anticipated, for reasons that need not be discussed here. We drove downtown, parked near the Nicollet Mall, caught the bus trolley, and took a very interesting trip across the river to St. Anthony Falls, Nicollet Island, the warehouse district, the sculpture gardens near the Guthrie Theater and Loring Park, and then back downtown. I found myself feeling very attracted to several aspects of the riverfront renovations they are undertaking. They reminded me of the Mile Straight in Leicester, England, which several students had seen the previous year. (See the entry about the Sustainable Cities Tour.) Nicollet Mall seemed a bit like the “pedestrianized” parts of European cities, but there were far fewer people in it, and much a much smaller part of the city had been pedestrianized. I greatly enjoyed walking through Loring Park and across the new pedestrian bridge, which connected the Park with the sculpture gardens.

This field trip would not have been possible without the help of the people mentioned above, especially Ken Ford. Their help is deeply appreciated.

In addition to helping us learn more about the Twin Cities, this trip taught me several important lessons about how to conduct future trips better.

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