"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Local Politics and the Economics of Land Usage

My town (Maplewood, MN) has become known as "the most dysfunctional city" in the area and the most recent election had, by my count, five lawsuits. I'm probably the only person who understands the situation and I think everyone's going to face the same crisis at some point, so it's worth while to explain how things got the way they are.

The cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis exist because the navigable section of the Mississippi River ended there and the Minnesota River connects there. Duluth became important originally for the shipping of lumber. The connecting road between St. Paul and Duluth became Highway 61. This highway follows the easiest course and coming out of St. Paul has to skirt a series of lakes (Phalen, Keller, Gervais, Kohlman, Goose and White Bear). White Bear Lake, being 10 miles in circumference, became a resort area. The recreational theme extended along the lakes to include the St. Paul Tourist Cabins on the north end of Phalen Lake, followed by a privately-owned public golf course on Keller Lake (site of a few PGA/LPGA championships) and eventually a publicly-owned golfcourse (Phalen) and a private golf course a few miles away.

Iron mining in northern Minnesota led to railroads extending between Duluth and St. Paul. In the heyday of railroads, a north/south line crossed a west/east line by the tourist cabins and golf course. A railroad repair shop and the station of Gloster were created. A village, called Gladstone, developed around the station, catering to tourists and railroad. Private cabins were built along the lakes and a few farmhouses dotted the area.

The railroads declined and more roads were built. White Bear Avenue extended from the city of White Bear lake to St. Paul east of Hwy 61. Hwy 36 cut east/west just north of the golf course. Frost Avenue paralleled one railroad, English Street the other. This delineates my neighborhood: Phalen Lake, Frost Avenue, English Street and the northern boundary of St. Paul. Further declines in railroading closed the station, then the repair shop became a factory for manufacturing washing machines (Whirlpool, later Maytag), as it had ready-made railroad access. The manufacturing was moved and the railroads were pulled up and made paved pedestrian trails (though one is still being held as a possible route for light rail).

Increased mobility meant that no tourists used the tourist cabins any longer and it logically became a trailer park, with apartment buildings on the lake itself. More houses were built behind the original lake cabins (including mine) and along the roads. The private lake cabins became permanent residences and were enlarged dramatically.

In the 1950's, 3M company moved its corporate headquarters out of St. Paul to unincorporated land just outside the city border, to decrease its corporate property taxes. St. Paul quickly tried to annex the land, as did neighboring towns. The village of Gladstone decided in 1958 to incorporate and included a gerrymandered strip including the 3M complex. The new city of Maplewood flourished for 25 years, and the Gladstone neighborhood boomed with residences, which the older residents disdained because their "cookie-cutter" design did not fit in with the older neighborhood. The city hall, police station and fire house were built on Frost Avenue.

By the 1980's, the city had grown to the point that the city services had to be enlarged and therefore moved, leaving awkward buildings that did not fit any businesses well. 3M then stated that they would no longer pay for everything in the city, as they had been doing. If the city became a bedroom community, then property taxes would have to pay for all services, so a push was made to enlarge the corporate tax base. This lead to the Maplewood Mall, which became very popular, then very unpopular, in the space of 10 years, due to shifts in the way people shopped. The building of a hospital near the mall, plus some commercial development near the mall, staved off tax base problems for another 10 years.

Eventually, the city began to run out of space for development. Seeing that open space was disappearing, the city bought a number of parcels, including the old railroad shop land; residents of Gladstone were not happy to pay for this land, but were glad that the neighborhood would remain green space, rather than congested with houses or businesses. At the same time, demographics changed and Gladstone was left with an empty elementary school.

Gladstone as a business location declined futher, as retail was moved and the government was moved. Remaining were two trailer parks, a bowling alley and a boat shop (remnants of the original recreational theme of the area), a laundromat, two barbers, a bakery... and liquor stores, a tattoo parlor and shops that changed almost continuously. A funeral home catering to the new influx of Hmong immigrants was the one thriving business.

There came an idea to remove the blighted area and change it to residential land, mostly senior assisted-living. Developers stated that to be feasible, the land needed would include the open space (which had been claimed would be held in perpetuity) and two small, little-used parks. It would mean building new roads and making some of the narrow, one-block streets currently existing into major roads.

Here's where things got ugly. People divided into three groups, which I've named "the stupid, the evil and the crazy." One group balked at the idea of radical change, as it would be yet another temporary fix, politically alienating a large section of the city and breaking promises, but they had no idea of how to solve the city's financial dilemma (these are the "stupid'). Another wanted whatever was expedient, would keep their own taxes lowest and didn't affect their own neighborhoods (these are the "evil"); they were all for razing everything in the area, as it wasn't their neighborhood. The third, perplexed by the first two's inability to do anything - as any action required both the mayor and a majority of the city council to agree - wanted their section of the city, which includes the 3M world headquarters, to secede (the "crazy').

Currently, one trailer park has been purchased and razed. The proposed development has been scaled back to suit most residents, but not any developer. So, the land stays as it is for the time being and the financial problem continues, rather than being delayed another decade. In the meantime, property taxes increase, city services decrease, business falters and the city has a mayor who's a frustrated land developer and a council made of people who probably will not be residents in ten years.

If you've been moving further and further into the exurbs, this problem's chasing you!


Diane said...

Very interesting.

nwgdc said...

okay...so what do you do about it?

SteveQ said...

I was waiting for Londell to respond, as he does this stuff for a living.

Nic, I don't have a good answer, I just don't believe there's easy answers to complex problems. The city, when founded, should've had a plan to follow and adjusted it when necessary, but with people moving in and out, continuity is lost. I think the obvious answer for my neighborhood and not for the whole city would be to try to rebuild a local economy based upon the local resources - it could've become a hub for outdoorsy businesses, from Johnson (boat)Motors to Vertical Endeavors, though there's a problem then with the age gradient of residents.

Colin Gardner-Springer said...

I'm assuming you know the Janice(?) Quick featured talking about the Lake Phalen area on TPT's "Parks for People" documentary? Your sister, perhaps?

Those Quicks sure know their local history!

SteveQ said...

Colin, Janice is indeed my sister. She's really embarassed about her 10 seconds in that documentary. She's written a book on Phalen.

Jean said...

That was an interesting local history lesson, Steve. And you are right, a lot of cities are going to face similar issues. Maybe not the five lawsuits with the city elections, but there will be issues nonetheless!

Don said...

Wow. I've lived nearby (Woodbury and Lake Elmo) for 40 years(!) and still much of this is news to me.