Thursday, September 30, 2021

Two Ways to Do Things in the East Metro

On Monday this week, September 27, 2021, there were two divergent stories in my two local newspapers, both about the east metro area.

One was in the Pioneer Press: Mega-centers planned for east metro. It told how four different east suburbs will soon see giant warehouse trucking centers or fulfillment centers built, totaling 109 football fields of floor space. Just one of them will be the equivalent of 31 normal supermarkets. All of the projects' occupants are currently unidentified. The various suburbs are psyched about the developments because they will build the tax base (commercial uses pay a much higher property tax rate than residents), plus jobs jobs jobs.

According to the story, it's likely at least some of these mega-centers will be used for Amazon-like fulfillment of home-delivered goods, further undermining local retailers. One of the buildings has the ironic name Project Belle (shall we make bets on whether it is in fact beautiful?). It will be visited by 140 trucks (I assume that means semis) per day going into (and out of?) the site. That one will have 500 jobs, jumping to 1,000 during the holiday season.

All of these projects are being developed on currently undeveloped land in relatively remote suburbs, even exurbs in some cases. There is no mention in the story of how the thousands of employees will get to their jobs, of course... it goes without saying that they will drive there in personal motorized vehicles from however far away they live. There is also no mention of how well these jobs will pay, but I bet it won't be enough to live in the suburbs where the mega-centers are located, since these places have generally done their darnedest to keep out affordable housing.

The other story was in the Star Tribune, with the headline Port Authority wants Hillcrest housing at hand. The secondary heading was "Up to 1,000 jobs at site could be close to home." The story was about plans for the now-closed 112-acre golf-course on the East Side of Saint Paul, where the city is outlining spots for buildings that would offer a thousand jobs and up to a thousand "units of largely affordable housing." The story goes into some detail about how the people who live in the housing would be given a fair shot at getting the living-wage jobs, with the ability to learn on-site for at least some of the positions. Other large Saint Paul employers who have followed this model in the past are quoted about their success building in the city, like the president of a local appliance company who says, "Our workforce is here in the urban core... So you don't put the factory far from the workers. You put it right where they are."

The general manager of a company that provides uniforms notes that their company's location is near a bus route, and that having a lot of entry-level jobs means a lot of people will rely on Metro Transit to get to you. And that being near where workers live would be even better "from a work-life balance perspective." East Side residents currently commute more than 30 minutes for their jobs. Twelve percent of households do not have cars, and many that do have a car have one per family.

Reading those two stories on the same day, I was outraged by the lack of awareness of the climate crisis in the Pioneer Press story. No one cares how the workers will reach these far-flung warehouses and fulfillment centers, or the acres of asphalt that would have to surround them.

Why is there no way to say "no" to this kind of development on a regional level? We have a Metropolitan Council for a reason. We know that Metro Transit, for instance, can't suddenly set up routes to serve all these disparate locations that pop up in the middle of nowhere in various suburbs.

It's a tragedy of the commons, with each distant suburb greedily thinking of its own tax base with no interest in anything else. And it won't even serve them in the medium or long term, either, as they build out street, water, and sewer infrastructure to serve these big boxes, then have their streets beat to hell by semis constantly and hear complaints from the nearby neighbors about noise, pollution and so on.

There may be corporate demand for all this trucking and fulfillment in our current economic phase, but if the answer was just NO for an entire metropolitan region... what would these companies do about it?

Meanwhile, Saint Paul has figured out a better balance already: Jobs close to where people work, and also closer in, where transit can work or already exists. Probably paying better wages, also.

But then (plot twist!) on Wednesday, September 29, there was a letter in the Star Tribune in response to the story about the Saint Paul Hillcrest development plan. The writer, who lives in the nearby suburb of Maplewood — maybe right along the north edge of Hillcrest — decried everything about the city's Hillcrest plan, mourning the loss of the golf course, but in a nasty way. He doesn't acknowledge the fact that the development plan keeps 20 acres of open green space among the housing and jobs, or seem to have any idea that Saint Paul has more people coming to live here who need homes. He has his house, and he's used to having a golf course for a neighbor, and that's all that matters. He throws around a lot of rhetoric ("fat cats" will create an "industrial wasteland" with "crummy apartments") and accuses the planners of being "absentee landlords." He claims the nearby single-family homeowners will not be able to sell their houses once the Hillcrest development is done. That kind of claim is made all the time by NIMBYs, and yet... houses keep selling and their prices are going up, not down. He also doesn't acknowledge (or maybe doesn't know) that the site is contaminated with mercury and the trees he blames the city for not saving cannot survive when that is remediated. (Does he like living next to a toxic site, even if it's covered in grass currently?)

This guy, obviously, thinks everyone should drive in cars to some distant place for a job while the glaciers melt and forest fires approach.

And then yesterday I listened to a webinar from the national Vision Zero Network, which works toward the day when no one will die or be severely injured from traffic collisions. At one point during the discussion, a panelist said that the best way to create safer streets for everyone (pedestrians, bikers, drivers) is to make it possible for people to live close to where they work, so there is less need to drive in the first place. And I thought of Hillcrest.

Take that, NIMBY letter-writer. That's another way you're wrong.

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