West Midway Study tackles zoning in South St. Anthony


As Central Corridor light-rail construction draws near, truckers worry about access to Highway 280, property owners keep an eye on values, and officials see opportunities to bring well-paid jobs to St. Paul.

These are some of the considerations for a West Midway Study task force convened by the St. Paul Planning Commission that has brought together tenants and landowners, residents and businesses, to hammer out recommendations for the next few decades.

The West Midway area, roughly bounded by University Avenue, Highway 280, Energy Park Drive and Transfer Road, is St. Paul’s largest industrial area. (A detailed map, along with many other documents related to the study, can be found online on the West Midway Study page of the City of St. Paul’s website, www.stpaul.gov/index.aspx?NID=3915.)

Many see the opportunity to bring jobs to the area-the question is, what kind?

 “I think part of what makes a good neighborhood is good access and good proximity to jobs,” said task force member Pat Connolly, who lives on Como Avenue near Highway 280 and also serves on the city’s planning commission.

Because some of the rezoning from industrial to residential or commercial will happen along the light-rail line, “there was concern that with the industrial area that’s left, we make the best use of that,” according to task force member Sandy Jacobs, who owns and manages a mix of properties in the study area.

A study document also notes that Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad wants to expand its shipping volume through the Twin Cities. BNSF owns the intermodal facility (for container transfer between trucks and trains) at the east end of Capp Avenue near Pierce Butler Route.

A related Northwest Transportation Study that includes state officials may identify “the potential for a north-south connection” for trucks to the BNSF yards, city planner Luis Pereira said.

Task force member Gregg Richardson, who also serves on the St. Anthony Park Community Council’s Creative District Task Force, described a three-way balance between nurturing the established and growing community of artists in the low-rent old industrial buildings, attracting jobs that people can live close to, and providing housing stock to support both.

“The different needs and perspectives in the neighborhood need to be taken seriously in order to make this development good for the neighborhood,” Richardson said.

Connolly, who is the housing development director at Lutheran Social Services and has held similar posts, said “safe, decent-looking buildings” and other residential amenities are needed without getting too onerous about building setbacks, parking, landscaping and other requirements that would scare industry away. “I want to have companies with good jobs close to where I live, in an environment where it’s attractive for residential uses as well,” Connolly said.

Richardson said “housing that could support an aging community” would also be desirable for the neighborhood.

Task force co-chair Jon Commers, who lives in St. Anthony Park, has an office on University Avenue and is serving his second term on the city’s planning commission. The addition of light rail represents an opportunity to build on the rare mix of residential and industrial uses in the West Midway, to create well-paid jobs in a place that is accessible by car, light rail and bus transit, freight rail and truck, he said. “There’s an optimism on the task force that the West Midway is positioned very well as a mix of neighborhood and industrial.”

The task force is trying to understand better what industrial uses are going on in the project area now, Commers said, and how residential and industrial use of the area can co-exist. At a recent task force meeting, a labor economist talked about trends around industrial uses and manufacturing and “where we are going as an economy,” Commers said.

 “Industry is not what it was in 1950 when our zoning code around industry was structured,” Commers said. Though the area is home to businesses that “we typically think of as industrial [such as printing and recycling], some of it is not what we think of as industrial [artists’ studios, for example].” A microchip manufacturer could exist near residential areas, where a tar plant can’t, he said.

One potential flashpoint is the need or threat, depending on your point of view, of a westward extension of Pierce Butler Route that would connect warehouses on the south side of the railroad yards with Highway 280 via Robbins Street, wiping out the St. Anthony Park Community Gardens and possibly changing the character of housing on nearby blocks.

Jacobs, whose holdings include properties near that area, said it has to happen. “I personally think it’s going to be important to have a connection onto Pierce Butler if you want University [Avenue] to be friendly to pedestrians,” Jacobs said. The reduced street width will make some of the current turns between the warehouses and the University Avenue entrance to Highway 280 impossible for semi-trailers, she said, adding that large-truck traffic won’t mix well with increased pedestrian and bike use.

Properties along Capp Road, adjacent to the tracks, are “outdated,” Jacobs said, but “if all of a sudden there was a connection to Minneapolis, some of those properties might get developed,” increasing property values and contributing good jobs.

Richardson, who lives near the gardens, said some neighbors are determined to keep that from happening.

And if it does happen, the concerns aren’t limited to noise, smell, and safety issues around trucks, he said. “That creates a source of more through traffic, not just serving the industrial area,” he said, noting that it would be one more barrier to pedestrians, bikes and local traffic passing between the housing and small businesses in North and South St. Anthony Park.

Studies have limited power to control development, Connolly cautioned. “We can paint the prettiest picture we want, but it happens one pixel at a time,” he said.

Richardson is hoping that neighbors, instead of glazing over at the barrage of information, will “educate themselves about the opportunities this creates” and help plan the changes that light rail will inevitably bring. District councils are the best place to start, he said. “This district can be a model for how the rest of the city should be developing.”

Commers said the task force meetings are interesting and members like seeing a roomful of residents there.[MSOffice1]  Meetings are held the second Tuesday of the month from 6 to 8 p.m. at South St. Anthony Recreation Center, 890 Cromwell Ave., and will continue through late spring or early summer.