Q&A: Donna Drummond, city planning director, St. Paul

Four city planners, four different plans for the future. In a bonus series to our special package on the built environment, we ring major U.S. cities to find out what's next. Today's subject: St. Paul.
Written by Stacy Lipson, Contributor

Four city planners, four different plans for the future. 
As an addendum to our inaugural special package on the built environment, SmartPlanet take the pulse of what's going on across the United States -- through the eyes of four planners in cities across the country.

For the third edition of our four-part miniseries, we check out what's going on in St. Paul, Minn.

Donna Drummond is the director of planning for the city of St. Paul, Minn.

SP: How long have you been a city planner?

DD: Twenty-nine years.

SP: How long have you worked in city planning for St. Paul?

I started with the City of Saint Paul right after graduating with a master's degree in planning from the University of Minnesota.

SP: What do you love about St. Paul from a planning perspective?

Saint Paul has a rich tradition of citizen participation. The city has an organized system of neighborhood district councils that are partially funded by the city. Neighborhood district councils provide grassroots input into all types of city decisions, and many organize extra efforts around crime prevention, neighborhood clean-up, and block nurse programs.

When we do our planning work, we often are working with neighborhood-based task forces of community representatives that include residents, property owners, business owners, institutional representatives, etc., and we rely on the district councils to assist in these processes. This makes our planning work more community-based and results in a better product.

SP: What are some other plans St. Paul is working on to improve the city?

We're getting our second light rail [line] downtown in St. Paul to travel through one of our key commercial corridors. We've been working quite a bit in the past five years on development planning that will be triggered by public infrastructure investment. We want denser, more pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented development.

We had a market research firm do market demand analysis for us. We were part of a metropolitan area that has a metropolitan council that oversees the planning for the whole region and cities in the region; they have growth projections for each city, and we are supposed to be planning for a city with enough capacity to meet growth at those levels. We certainly try not to do our planning in a vacuum, and work a lot with the community with what's there.

In our adopted plans, one of major places where the city can grow -- and should grow -- is along the light rail line. The higher density is appropriate, and city policy backs that up. We've completed a zoning development to allow higher density for taller buildings, and we also reduced or eliminated the parking requirement. Development can decide how much parking is needed, and we'll see a shift away from so much “auto-oriented” development and customers arriving by transit.

We think it makes sense to build more housing along the corridor, and get by without a car or two cars. It would also be good for the environment.

This is a good policy for the city. We're encouraging growth along that corridor by making some public infrastructure investments. We are invested in an improved streetscape so it can attract new investment. We’ve been using decorative lighting, trees, and have paved along the sidewalk. We want to make the whole corridor much more attractive for development, so we're focusing quite a bit on that.

We also have a large Ford Motor Company facility in St. Paul. Despite our efforts and the efforts of the governor, as well as the department to keep the plant open, they’ve decided to close it. This is a 122-acre Ford plant that will go to some other use, so we've been doing a lot of work preparing for it.

We knew Ford was going to close it for a number of years. It's located in a really desirable neighborhood in St. Paul, where there are a lot of nice homes -- but there is a lot to work on, with five development scenarios. A lot of it will depend on additional environmental testing that Ford will do now that the plant is closed.

Planning staff have also worked on a neighborhood plan for the North End/South Como area. It addresses land use conflicts, between residential and industrial, in one part of the neighborhood. In many cases, the residences not well-kept and are blighting influences. The plan calls for gradual elimination of those properties in some areas as they come up for sale, then assembling those properties with adjacent parcels to create larger development sites that can attract industrial business development. Hopefully it will add jobs and tax base to the city. The plan also includes improvements to the streetscape around a major commercial intersection in the neighborhood, making it more green and pedestrian-friendly and attractive for new business development.

Finally, another project currently underway is a study on zoning code changes to make it easier to operate farmers' markets in the city, use vacant land community gardens and commercial agriculture purposes, and raise animals for food -- chickens, bees, et cetera. Another aspect of the study is to work on a standard lease agreement that can be used by various city departments with vacant land to make it easier to lease those spaces for community gardens. There is a burgeoning interest in local food, and this study will help facilitate that.

We're also working on a variety of other types of projects that aren't considered traditional planning work, such as overseeing a federal energy grant to develop and install electric-vehicle charging stations in public parking ramps and on city streets, and working with the Department of Public Works to develop a "Complete Streets" manual to design streets to serve multiple modes of transportation: cars and trucks, public transit, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Make sure to come back tomorrow for the final edition of our four-part series: Baltimore, Md.

Illustration: City of St. Paul Planning Department

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