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There’s a four-story, 153-unit apartment complex proposed for the former Thompson Oaks golf course in West St. Paul. I’ve already detailed why I think the project is a big win for the city. Last night the project came before the Planning Commission for approval, giving local residents an opportunity to be heard.
And they showed up.
The public comment period went on for nearly an hour. Complaints included renters not being invested in the community, the loss of wonderful views, the lack of public meetings, and frustration over the complicated zoning changes to accommodate the project, among others.
Planning Commission members pushed back on some of those points:
- The value of renters: “A gentlemen made a comment about renters not being vested residents. As a renter, I disagree. I think renters can be great residents.” -Samantha Green
- Changing views: “Being a property owner myself, I wouldn’t want to see a big building go behind my house either. [But] it’s something we all gamble with when we purchase our homes.” -Maria Franzmeier
- Lack of meetings: “I personally either or attended or was a part of at least three dozen meetings from 2014, ’15, ’16, ’17.” -Morgan Kavanaugh
Safety & Traffic
But the most common complaint from residents centered on safety and traffic. Thompson Avenue has no sidewalks, forcing kids to walk along the street to get to the bus stop. Others complained about speeding and people cutting through Carrie Street. Neighbors are concerned that parking overflow from the proposed apartment, combined with increased traffic from the building and Hy-Vee will only exacerbate these problems.
Dakota County is in the midst of a traffic study for this project, and their preliminary results show that traffic on Thompson will increase from 9,600 daily cars to 13,500 by 2040. Given that increase, the county sees the need to add a left turn lane to Thompson—but with that adjustment the traffic is well within what the road can handle.
Furthermore, their study showed that the proposed apartment would only contribute 825 daily trips to that increase (less than 10%). Most of the increase is attributed to Hy-Vee.
The county is also in the process of addressing some of these traffic concerns, with a roundabout eventually coming to Thompson and Oakdale and sidewalks coming to Thompson.
But the question is when?
Commissioner Lisa Stevens put it succinctly: “I’m quite concerned that we don’t have the infrastructure in place before we put the density in place.”
It creates a chicken or the egg situation where we can’t have density because we lack the infrastructure, but we don’t get the infrastructure because we lack the density to support it.
At some point, somebody has to go first and the rest will follow. We’ve seen that with other developments, like the Darts building that was criticized for a lack of sidewalks in the area. But now that the development is going in, the sidewalk infrastructure is following.
That’s probably little comfort to residents on Thompson who battle traffic and safety issues. Unfortunately, these things come slowly. This whole process underscores the very real need and priority for walkability infrastructure. It’s obviously good for safety, but it’s also good for the economics of our community.
West St. Paul Needs Traffic Calming Measures
For me, the hour of public comment highlighted the need for traffic calming measures in West St. Paul. Residents complain about speeding and cars cutting through residential streets when as a city we’ve done very little to address those problems.
Rather than use that as a reason to stop a major project, we should be doing everything we can to address the issues:
- Create the safe infrastructure, including sidewalks, bus shelters, pedestrian crossings, and more.
- Consider adding speed bumps to streets such as Carrie Street to discourage drivers from cutting through residential streets.
- Simple enforcement of existing traffic laws could go a long way (someone jokingly commented that the city could make a lot of money with a speed trap).
- There is a ton of research on traffic calming measures that are often counter-intuitive but work to subconsciously slow down drivers (West St. Paul recently missed out on an opportunity to add a ‘sneckdown’ to the Smith/Dodd intersection that could have improved walkability and safety).
- Thankfully one thing we are doing is prioritizing trails and safe trail crossings, such as the River-to-River Greenway, which will go through immediately south of the proposed apartment, and will serve as a major way to increase walkability and access to green space.
While (again) it’s probably little comfort to the neighbors who oppose the project, no one can say the Planning Commission didn’t wrestle with and fully consider the issues raised. Several members expressed hesitation and grudging support. After an hour of public comment and three hours of presentation, questions, and discussion, the Planning Commission voted to approve all measures related to the proposed apartment (two votes were unanimous, two were 4-1, and one was 3-2).
Planning Commissioner Chair Morgan Kavanaugh gave perhaps the most enthusiastic support for the project:
“I went all the way back to the Renaissance Plan from two decades ago—two decades—and looked at the vision for this area. And even at that time there was commentary about mixed use and multi-family. … How many plans do we need to pull together and have community input on that say this is exactly the project we’re looking for—and then to say we don’t like it for one reason or another, I just don’t understand that at all. …
“It’s not just a building, because I’ve heard that comment made over and over again tonight, these are new residents that will be coming into our community, and we need new residents in our community. Our population has stayed the same for 40-plus years. … I want more residents, new residents coming into West St. Paul. The more people the better, in my opinion. We are in a housing crisis, there’s a huge need for housing… rental rates are at an all time low, so any time we can get more housing in our community is a good thing.”Morgan Kavanaugh (jump to 3:33:54 in the Planning Commission video to see Kavanaugh’s entire statement)
Kavanaugh also took to Twitter to emphasize his support.
The next step is for the proposed apartment to come before the city council for a public hearing on Oct. 28.
Fun fact: At four hours and 30 minutes, this is the longest regular Planning Commission meeting in recent memory.
- The folks who show up regularly for Planning Commission meetings, including city staff, Council Member John Justen, and especially the volunteer commissioners deserve our thanks for the long and hard work they do.
- The residents who nearly packed the council chambers—whether we agree or disagree—also deserve our thanks for being engaged and showing up. It’s hard to know what’s going on in local government, and while this may have been a frustrating experience, I thank you for doing it.
- The residents who spoke during the public comment period also deserve a hats off. While I can easily write an article defending a project like this, it’s a lot harder to get up there and talk about it. I wanted to, but I chickened out. I may disagree with many of the comments, but it takes bravery to get up there.
- While not required to attend Planning Commission meetings, City Manager Ryan Schroeder sat in the audience for the entire meeting. I think sticking around until the meeting adjourned at 11:30 p.m. was a good show of solidarity with his staff and shows residents that he’s willing to listen and be engaged.