In a classic New Yorker cartoon, a couple of math professors are seen pondering a chalkboard. The right third of the chalkboard is covered with an impossibly complex equation. So is the left third. In the center, the other halves are joined together by a large logic cloud labelled “Insert Miracle Here”.
Even without Minnesota Public Radio’s threatened lawsuit for relief from the Central Corridor light rail line’s potential vibration and noise affects on their studio and production operations, the project’s “plan” seems highly dependent on inserted miracles.
On Tuesday, we talked about the subtleties of acoustic engineering. Today’s subject is the brawn and muscle of civil engineering, as well as the pointillistic wonkery of urban planning.
The Central Corridor is intended to start in downtown Minneapolis’ Warehouse District, on the same tracks as the Ventura Trolley, rumbling down Fifth Street to the Metrodome area. There, it’ll split off from the Hiawatha, and rumble through the West Bank U of M campus to the Washington Avenue bridge, which a recent study showed would need massive remodeling to support the additional weight, and whose top, pedestrian deck has had lanes closed due to structural problems.
After the bridge, the train will roll up Washington through the heart of the East Bank campus – a stretch of street that will need to be rebuilt as a transit plaza, making car traffic through the heart of the U a sisyphean nightmare.
The train will exit the east end of the U on Washington, then turn up University. It’ll chug up the long hill through Prospect Park, cresting the hill near KSTP as it enters Saint Paul.
There’ll be stops every half-mile as the train rolls through the west Midway, a neighborhood that is part warehouse district and part business incubator (but which the long-range plans have slotted to turn into a high-density virtual third downtown of condos and mixed-use businesses).
The neighborhood becomes less tony, and the stops become more widely spaced than the trees, as the line moves into the heart of the Midway; the hardscrabble gray thirties-era small-business and housing blocks east of Prior. It’ll make a stop at Snelling – the Midway’s main street. And so will everything around the train; the intersection is already one of the busiest and most dangerous in the Twin Cities. Designed in the early horseless-carriage era, there are those that advocate levelling most of the buildings around the intersection – Midway Books, American Bank, parts of the thriving Midway Center – and building a traffic cloverleaf or half-cloverleaf, sacrificing some of the businesses that have led the Midway’s revival. For a train.
The train will demand more sacrifice as it glides east through the Midway’s tatty last mile and into Frogtown. Frogtown was a north-Minneapolis like catch-phrase for urban decay when I first drove down it, in October of 1985. While most of it will never get into Architectural Digest, the strip along Uni has undergone a revival as successive waves of Vietnamese and H’mong immigrants started new businesses along the street. It’s not always pretty, but it’s an industrious stretch of Uni, a monument to the spirit of the new Americans, and of the resilience and rugged beauty of capitalism. The construction process will gut these businesses like fish.
It’ll whish past the Capitol, and whip a noisy, creaking right down Robert Street.
And it’s there that the fun begins.
Once the train gets downtown, the intention for it to roll down Robert to the frontage road, then jog west to Cedar,where it’ll turn south and roll into downtown, including its fateful whoosh past the Taj Ma Kling.
Four blocks later, it’ll turn left – in the slow, creaking gradual way of “light rail” trains – onto Fourth Street. Unlike the smaller, slower, less “sexy” trolleys that might have been a better choice, has a pretty wide turning circle – wide enough that the line is going to have to demolish most of a block, between Fourth and Fifth, Cedar and Minnesota, to make the turn.
To be fair, the final six blocks to the Union Depot terminal are fairly problem-free.
So count up all the parts of the route that’ll need to be completely rebuilt. Count up all the parts of the route that are not currently rail routes (the technical term is “right of way”) that will need to be turned into right of way by a combination of buying and eminent-domain arm-twisting, which in the middle of a busy metro area is a process that is about as expensive as paving roads with ten dollar bills. Count up all the long stretches of busy street that will need to be shut down, torn up, widened, narrowed and rerouted. Bear in mind that the Hiawatha Line is no guide on this; most of its right of way, the dismal straight shot down Hiawatha, was cleared for transit as early as the sixties.
Count up all the “insert miracle here” moments.
It’s called “transit planning”.
And solving the “miracles” is both mundane and hideously expensive.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, we dipped a toe into the nuanced, subtle science of acoustic engineering, around which most of MPR’s complaints currently revolve; the overt noise and more-subtle acoustic rumbling of the trains past the front door of MPR’s Taj Ma Kling.
MPR has a suggestion – which swerves to engineering’s opposite extreme. They want the downtown leg of the Central Corridor re-routed:
Has MPR explored every possible way to make LRT work on Cedar Street? Has the City of Saint Paul?MPR has done everything possible to work cooperatively with the CCPO to identify and address our concerns. We have offered to work together with them to find an alternative route for these final blocks of the plan.MPR has spent years working with the CCPO to get accurate information about the project, how close the tracks would be to our building and the actual impact of the trains. That information has not been available until the last few months. Additionally, MPR has worked closely with the historic, 100-year-old Central Presbyterian and Saint Louis, King of France churches on how they can remain viable institutions faced with similar noise, vibration and access issues related to the project.
(Cheap Irony Alert: Central Presbyterian, MPR’s neighbor to the north, is where I learned to play the bagpipes. For many years the church hosted the bagpipe band’s weekly practices. Now they’re complaining about noise. I digress).
The alternate routes they suggest on the website include Minnesota (in blue, below) and Robert (in green):
There are, of course, problems with both routes. Let’s start with engineering; we’ll work our way back out to urban planning.
One problem with “light rail” as opposed to trolleys and streetcars is that they are long in relation to their width. Which means, among other things, that they don’t turn corners well. The planned light rail line can not turn within any of the existing downtown streets. The currently-planned turn from Cedar onto Fourth Street will require tearing down the old Premiere Bank building at Fifth and Cedar (across from the Pioneer Press building) and basically turning most of the block from Cedar to Minnesota into a rail right of way. It’s not just tearing down buildings; there are utilities to move, infrastructure to relocate…
Which is fine; that’s part of any work in the big city.
But what about the other two routes – Minnesota and Robert?
We know that there’s a vacant bank at Fifth and Cedar. What about Minnesota and/or Robert?
To turn on Minnesota would involve going through the USBank Building (recently remodeled at exquisite expense) and/or the First Bank building (the classic moderne skyscraper with the big red flashing “1” on the roof).
In exchange for losing one of Saint Paul’s major landmarks, the Central Corridor will…:
- Still need to make the two turns by the Capitol – onto the frontage road and back south into downtown. Turns are expensive, slow, and eat up tons of space (as we’ve seen).
- Move the vibration to the other side of MPR’s block.
- Constrict Minnesota, a busy northbound one-way street, shunting traffic onto surrounding blocks.
- Leave the already-vacant space that is slated to be torn down to make way for the currently-planned route…still vacant.
- Do nothing to solve the urban-planning issue we’ll talk about below.
So how about Robert Street (yellow in the picture above)? Making that turn will require tearing down either the Endicott or the Pioneer Buildings, or both. These historic buildings, built in the late 1800s and classic examples of the architecture of the era, are two of downtown’s historic treasures, two of the last remnants of the city’s pre-Urban-Renewal past. In exchange for this, we get:
- A straighter route down from the capitol – faster and incrementally less expensive.
- However, it’ll clog the center of Robert Street, downtown’s only major two-way north-south street.
- Again, it’ll do nothing – even less than Minnesota – to fix the urban planning challenge below.
This doesn’t consider the less-visible challenges of either of these routes – the utilities that’ll need to be relocated, business that’ll need to be compensated and so on.
But let’s say that either of those sets of challenges are manageable. We know that MPR says they’d like either of these solutions. What about Saint Paul?
As I noted on Tuesday, one of Saint Paul’s biggest hurdles as a city is dealing with the detritus of a number of government initiatives from the 1950’s. Urban Renewal’s list of crimes against Saint Paul is a long one: the gutting of the Rondo, Midway and Dayton’s Bluff for I94, the devastation of the West End and North End for 35E are merely the most obvious.
Downtown Saint Paul’s specific Urban Renewal outbreak was called the “Capitol City” plan, a detailed vision written in the mid-late fifties for downtown that involved gutting most of the city’s old buildings Seventh south to Kellogg, from Wabasha all the way to Wabasha. The better part of twenty square blocks fell to the wrecking ball over the following thirty years. In place of the old, brick and mortar buildings, we got dismal monstrosities like the Alliance, USBank and Securian buildings; we got the airplane-hangar-like Dayton’s (now Macy’s). Worst of all, we got twenty square blocks of downtown where, if you were on foot or in your car, there was no there there. For block after block in downtown Saint Paul, there’s no reason to stop, get out of your car, shop, have a drink, eat, spend, date, live. It’s not an accident that the two parts of downtown that show any signs of life at all – the part of Uppertown west of Wabasha, from the Xcel Center up to Mickey’s Dining Car, and Lowertown’s old warehouse district, now mostly residential lofts and condos and slowly developing into an interesting neighborhood in its own right – are the parts that escaped the ravages of urban “renewal”.
And the worst part? Cedar.
From Seventh – just south of MPR’s studios – all the way to the river, Cedar is a desolate canyon. From the Wells Fargo Tower and Town Square – failed commercial and office developments – to the back side of Macy’s, there is not a single storefront on the street. Not one amenity to humanity. The only sign of life, really, is the little transit center, tucked next to Ecolab’s loading dock down by Fifth Street. Noplace to stop and grab a cup of coffee (unless you know there’s a skyway level food court, safely out of sight a floor above); no signs of any life that isn’t desperately trying to get elsewhere and fast (especially when the cold north wind sweeps down the dismal cement canyon). It’s a depressing cement gash in the heart of downtown.
At worst, bringing a train down the street will do no harm.
At best, redeveloping the street around the pedestrian traffic that the train should bring will give downtown something it desperately needs: a human-habitable link between the modestly-bustling Uppertown with its Pazzalunas and Chipotles and Fuji-yas, and the signs of human life breaking out in Lowertown.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t support government social engineering to change urban geography; Urban “renewal” should have taught us our lesson. However, if we’re committed to a project anyway, why not use it to help repair the damage of the last round of social engineering?
Moving the line to Minnesota is…:
- a throwaway: There’s no there there. Minnesota Street has few jobs, no retail destinations – it’s just something to get through, transit-wise. Indeed, transit stations are the strip’s only notable feature. It provides the city no useful payback for all the damage it’ll sustain.
- a net loss to the city: Tearing down the buildings that’d need to go to make the turn would serve only to leave another vacant, desolate block in a downtown that has too many as it is.
- a side-track, so to speak: Running the line down Minnesota does nothing to re-integrate downtown into a useful, habitable place.
So how about Robert? Leaving aside the engineering benefit of straightening the line, the route would have the same drawbacks as Minnesota, along with tearing down even more historic building stock and doing even less to fix downtown’s urban geography.
As I noted on Wednesday, I think MPR has a case against the Central Corridor for the damage that the line could cause its operation at Seventh and Cedar. The costs of rerouting the lines as they suggest (I think it’s fair to say) would seem to so vastly outweigh the benefit to MPR as to be completely impractical.
So why even suggest it?