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Friday, November 1, 2013

A more livable Snelling Avenue and managing change

Submitted by Councilmember Russ Stark, Ward 4

With light rail service set to begin by mid-2014 and the development of jobs and housing along University Avenue well underway, more and more community conversations in Ward 4 are beginning to be focused on the future of Snelling Avenue.  In 2012, the city and community members partnered with MnDOT to create a plan for making Snelling between Selby Avenue and the northern city limits a more multi-modal street, to provide better facilities for transit riders, pedestrians, and (in some areas) bicyclists, and to be able to share the avenue more safely and efficiently with cars and trucks.  The Metropolitan Council plans to introduce a new type of bus service on Snelling in the next few years (sometimes referred to as Rapid Bus or Arterial Bus Rapid Transit), with the goal of providing a faster, higher-amenity service on an already well-used transit route.  Within the next several years, MnDOT also plans to rebuild the aging Snelling Avenue bridge deck over I-94.

Seattle's Rapid Ride, an example of the type of bus service coming to Snelling Avenue

Snelling Avenue not only carries more traffic than any other street in the City of Saint Paul (with the highest traffic between Selby and University), but also doubles as a center of retail and commercial activity for the neighborhoods that it bisects.  Because Snelling serves these two primary functions, managing change will continue to be a balancing act. We need to assure that people have the ability to move efficiently around our community through many modes of travel, and also maximize opportunities to create great places to live, work, and cross the street safely.

The proposed Vintage development at the northeast corner of Snelling and Selby
In Union Park, the proposed Vintage on Selby development (Whole Foods with 200 units of market-rate apartments) has been well-received by the community and has also raised important questions around traffic flow, parking, and access to the site, as well as re-igniting conversations about how the city can best use Ayd Mill Road.

At the former "bus barn" site on the northeast corner of Snelling and I-94 -- which was formerly the streetcar barns -- the city and the Metropolitan Council are working together to solicit development concepts for one of the key "gateway" develop-able sites in our community.  Further north in Hamline Midway, retail vacancies and a tired-looking streetscape along Snelling are leading to community conversation about the need for revitalization.  Further north still, the former Sholom Home site at Snelling and Midway Parkway remains vacant and the re-purposing of the site is a top priority of the Como Community Council.
Streetcar barns at Snelling and University, 1926. Courtesy of the MN Historical Society
I attended the recent annual meeting of the Union Park District Council and was part of a panel talking about "Managing Change" in our community.  One of the topics of discussion was the appropriate density of development in our community.  I believe that as a community, in many ways we are of two minds about density.  On the one hand, Saint Paulites in general do not want to see taller buildings built anywhere near their houses; on the other hand, many of us live in the city in part because of its walkability and our proximity to businesses and services.  I believe we need to accommodate growth and greater density of development along our commercial corridors, including Snelling, in order to create more options of stores, housing, and jobs than exist today.  But our approach to this development must be thoughtful, and must complement the great stock of single-family homes in our neighborhoods without detracting from our quality of life.  The denser the development, the more thoughtful we must be about how to handle parking, traffic, and a safe environment for walking and bicycling.

Change is already coming to some parts of Snelling, and now is a great time to be thinking about how we want to continue to shape change to ensure that our Ward 4 neighborhoods become even better places to live, work, and play.

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