March is the big month for Downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota. It’s certainly not because of the dreary, drippy weather that gets everyone a bit down after a while. It’s our month because it’s Tournament Time, the giddy sidewalks packed with people in town to see, in turn, the Boys High School Wrestling Tournament, the Boys Hockey Tournament, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) Tournament, and sandwiched in there somewhere the bacchanal of Saint Patrick’s Day.
It’s a good time to see what works for our city because, after all, the place is bubbling with life and energy and a lot of cash being spent.
All of this activity centers on the Xcel Center, rebranded from the Civic Center, which was rebuilt in 2000. The Minnesota Wild of the NHL plays there most of the time, and they are also a good draw, but they have nothing on March. Throw in a few concerts this year like Black Eyed Peas and Celtic Woman, plus eight Wild games in a post-Olympic NHL flurry, and we are hitting the peak of the busiest March I’ve ever seen. Taken together, March Madness is when most of the businesses around here really make the money that keeps them open in the dry summer months.
The Xcel Center itself sits on the boundary between Downtown and the West End (aka West Seventh), my own neighborhood. When it was planned, the economic development was slated to go 75/25 towards Downtown, the overflow creeping down West Seventh Street a few blocks. As it progressed, that was revised to 50/50. Today, we can see from the crowds that it is clearly 25/75 – towards the West End. There are a lot of reasons for this.
Downtown is a zone of tall buildings made mainly of concrete and steel with a few old brick confections more than a century old thrown in for character. The West End is all brick, which most of the restaurants peeled away plaster to expose inside. Brick is something of a brand identifier for the old rivertown that is Saint Paul on the Mississippi. The gentle height of 1-4 stories makes even the relatively narrow West Seventh feel like a boulevard compared to the canyons made by much taller buildings Downtown. The West End is simply a lot more adaptable, comfortable and human scale.
There are other reasons people like to hang out in the West End. The Xcel Center brought with it a chain of parking lots that shimmer like the Great Lakes, meaning that this is where people leave their cars. While that’s unpleasant for us as a ‘hood, what’s remarkable is how people find these lots, park, and quickly become pedestrians — tourists, in fact. Once on the street they get the sights and smells and sounds of the West End and can’t help but be enticed to spend a few bucks.
What does all of this mean in terms of lessons we can take away from the experience? The most important to me is how strong the image of brick is as a brand for Saint Paul. We are a city of individual characters mortared together by filling in the spaces in between, a city with a lot of texture and color that dares you to accept it no matter how many rugged mis-matched shapes and colors you can find. The other lesson I think is critical is the importance of scale in defining where people like to spend gobs of old fashioned quantity time just hanging out — and how difficult that is to craft in one grand central plan.
It’s not that I’m against planning in general, of course. Back in 1989 I had an idea to bring some of the same feeling to Downtown as we encouraged people to be tourists on foot. The idea was to build two parking ramps that directed the Interstate offramps right into parking that got people out of their cars, one at Kellogg and I-35E, the other by Lowertown near East Seventh and I-94. Along with a transit hub at Union Depot, the triangle that is Downtown would then be linked by routing all the buses into these spaces, gradually converting the lines into streetcars that spilled out into the neighborhoods and reconnected the fabric of the city torn apart by Interstate construction. Skyway connections would complete the experience.
The first part of this was realized in part, the second would be expensive because of heavy off-ramp realignment. The latter may happen yet, if slowly. The whole concept never caught on because larger plans involving massive concrete and steel office towers had a greater allure than the small investment in mortaring together the bricks that we have into one coherent whole. The result is that March largely spills down West Seventh.
March Madness is one of the great features of Saint Paul, defining our city for the thousands of people that come down here once a year to scene and be seen. What they like best about the place is pretty obvious, if you just follow the crowds for a while. Not every crowd is a smart one, but in this case they have a lot to teach us about what works and what doesn’t for Saint Paul.