city, design

Rails and the City: the Central Corridor LRT


Progressing … around the corner

Last weekend allowed me a good walk though most of downtown Saint Paul, as I needed to pick up my race packet, and wanted to get some blood flowing in legs that hadn’t run in seven days. On a Saturday morning, it’s a relatively quiet urban area, with various relics indicating that it was more busy, in years past. These include fine stonework on some buildings, the huge, hard-to-ignore St. Paul Union Depot, and in spots, sections of old trolley lines that have been mostly buried in asphalt.

I took this photo (at right) of the newer rails being put into some of the streets, as part of the Central Corridor rail line that is under construction. The project has posed a challenge to citizens trying to navigate the already-confusing one-way street arrangement downtown, and it’s also posed challenges to some businesses that are situated near the construction zones. Still, I’m very excited for this project’s completion, as I love trains, dislike the overuse of passenger cars, and hope that it brings some vibrancy back to this city.

What caught my eye about the scene at the time was the powerful bend of the rails: so powerful, it seems to have knocked down the road-block signs. The upwards/to-the-right directional movement signified progress. I imagined taking the train to Dinkytown for music at the Varsity, or over to Minneapolis for a Guthrie show, in the near future.

Several days later, I see the rest of the picture and I feel a little discomfort. Check out the ways the physical elements here have added on to each other, with apparent disregard to intent – like a wad of gum on pavement. It’s not attractive, the way that beige skyway feature bisects the mural, the way the ductwork on the red-painted area doesn’t blend in, and how the weight and shape of the train-station pergola seems a little at odds with it all.


Urban Chard: on Kellogg Boulevard

On the other hand, in terms of urban design, it indicates a willingness to work with the materials available, to adapt the environment, and to keep working toward a functional solution for human living. It may not be as simple as razing an entire block to build something shining and new, but it has an elegance that reveals honesty about how a city evolves. This brings to mind an insightful book I read a few years ago: Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built and of a presentation I attended by Larry Millett, about his Lost Twin Cities book and photographs.

Still, I really wish that skyway stretch was invisible.

How do you insert a train into a city that never had one, or hasn’t had one in years? As a Saint Paul citizen I’m aware mainly of various town meetings and ballot items that were related, but I’m all the more impressed by my architect, urban-planner, and politician friends for their training and ability to consider and work with so many intertwining systems.

Some communities find less … enormous alternatives to rail. This summer I went to a screening of Gary Hustwit‘s “Urbanized” film, along the Minneapolis Greenway. In one segment, we learned that Bogota, Colombia solved some of the infrastructure and expense issues by developing a city bus system so that it functioned like, and had a similar public image as, an urban rail system.

I’m so excited for the LRT that I’m almost ok with the fact that I was completely unable to get to Cupcake for a race-reward cupcake, hours after my 10-mile race on Sunday.