I have spent the majority of my 70 years here in Saint Paul, beginning at the long-since vanished Miller Hospital. I have watched the city grow and shrink over the decades, fighting against forces beyond its control, largely driven by an urge to protect commercial interests downtown. Successes are hard to find.

The closure of Seventh Street through downtown drove vehicle traffic to the outskirts in order to accommodate the World Trade Center, a parking facility and a courtyard/mall connecting it to Dayton’s department store. All are gone today. The World Trade Center is now Wells Fargo Place. Dayton’s is a multi-use building whose major tenant appears to be a hockey team.

River Balcony
The initial concept for a new promenade along the riverfront in downtown Saint Paul includes a wooded path, stairways and plazas, a blufftop overlook and other new features for enjoying the capital city's perch along the mighty Mississippi.

Directly east of these was Town Square, another failed attempt to create an inner-city mall complete with indoor park. A few blocks further east is the facility once known as Galtier Plaza, in which the city and private interests invested and lost millions. Today it is known as Cray Plaza, named for a company that left town in 2016 after buying the naming rights in 2009. Today, Cray Plaza is occupied by a private preparatory academy, various technology companies, an event facility (carved out of the old movie theaters), a restaurant and a food court.

Despite the millions invested and lost on these projects, city and county leaders are moving ahead with perhaps their most massive undertaking ever—the $800 million “River’s Edge” project by the county and a city-driven “river balcony” that has yet to be assigned a cost.

Even if someone were to give the city and county every nickel needed to construct the promenade, it would still require daily and annual maintenance costs and likely create a large demand on law enforcement resources, assuming it can be made safe after dark in a downtown already severely challenged in that regard.

Saint Paul is and always has been a mid-tier American city. It is currently ranked the 63rd largest city in the nation. Its population suffered a sharp decline after 1960 when the number of residents peaked at 313,411. As of the 2020 U.S. Census, we are still about 3,000 residents short of that number despite decades of effort.

Does Saint Paul really need a “river promenade” that may cost us well over $1 billion if not $2 billion? I think not. I also think the numbers used to justify the promenade make no sense.

 

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As reported in the March 9 MyVillager, some “2.9 million people are expected to visit the river balcony each year.” But those visitors are not unique individuals. “Most of its users will be residents of downtown and the West Side,” MyVillager reports, and the 2.9 million is the number of times they will visit it. About 7,500 people live downtown, according to my sources. Roughly 15,000 people live on Saint Paul’s West Side. Each of these 22,500 people would have to visit 65 times in order to generate half of the projected 2.9 million visits.

Some may argue that visitors to Xcel Energy Center and various other Saint Paul attractions will use the river balcony. How many of them would not come to see a game or an exhibit without this investment in the river balcony? Others may argue that the funds largely will come from elsewhere. So what? Even if someone were to give the city and county every nickel needed to construct the promenade, it would still require daily and annual maintenance costs and likely create a large demand on law enforcement resources, assuming it can be made safe after dark in a downtown already severely challenged in that regard.

One last point to consider: The New York City Highline designed by James Corner Field Operations, a consultant on the Saint Paul project, reportedly attracts about 8 million visitors per year. The Highline is in the heart of Manhattan, which has a population of 1.6 million—more than five times the population of Saint Paul. Yet our city expects that its promenade will draw more than one-third of those who visit the Highline.

Saint Paul has far more pressing needs than a tourist attraction intended to revive a downtown that is no longer relevant to most of the city’s residents. Let’s devote our energies to those residents.

— James M. Hamilton

The writer is a resident of Macalester-Groveland.

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