St. Paul rethinks drainage

As part of a $3 million project, the city will adapt brownfields to protect water resources.

by Taya Banjac

Over the next two years, St. Paul officials will try to bring stormwater use issues to the surface.
St. Paul received a grant in March to study the cost of building and maintaining new stormwater infrastructure. Meanwhile, officials are developing three unused industrial sites to clean and protect the area’s water resources.
St. Paul was one of four cities in the U.S. chosen by the City Accelerator, a program where Living Cities and the Citi Foundation gathered $3 million  to fund studies on infrastructure projects that would impact low-income residents.
The city will build these projects at unused tracts known as “brownfields.”
“Developing brownfields requires working partnership, community engagement and shared vision for improved land use,” said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman in a press release, adding the new program will continue the city’s sustainability efforts.
The Ford site, which once housed the Ford Motor Company assembly plant on 135 acres along the Mississippi River, is the largest location the city plans to develop into a neighborhood. 
Similar research is also underway in the other cities that won grant money.
Pittsburg will study how to finance repairs to hundreds of municipal stairways and San Francisco hopes to finance stronger seawalls to protect heavily populated areas.
Washington, D.C., will study how to improve school facilities and install smart street lights. 
The grant gives St. Paul access to expert consultants and covers travel expenses to the other pilot cities, for a total of about $1.16 million. 
“What we are hoping to do through the Accelerator [program] is to create a model for how we do this,” said Kristin Guild, St. Paul’s deputy director of planning and economic development.
Stormwater is usually managed in a network underground, but the city’s plan would change that.
“We’re looking at ways to bring those systems out of being buried and turn them into assets on the property,” Guild said. 
The main areas of the study include using stormwater in ponds, wetlands, streams or integrating it into buildings like CHS Field, which uses stormwater to flush toilets and irrigate the baseball field.
But Guild said the price to build, manage and maintain such proposals will vary significantly from site to site.
The proposal also outlines financial barriers to investing in the newer systems because of high initial costs. 
Bob Close, a senior research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Metropolitan Design Center, said natural approaches to managing stormwater can often be cost effective.
In North Minneapolis, Sumner Field in Heritage Park uses natural biological plant processes and basins to clean and treat water with low maintenance.
“It’s [about] understanding this cycle of water and beginning to be much more aggressive about managing it and understanding it’s value,” Close said
He said the past decade has seen a paradigm shift in how cities and architects view and use stormwater. 
“The management of water has become a really important consideration as people recognize it as a resource. It’s something to be used and not just dumped into the river,” Close said.
He said sustainability and stormwater management are being legislated and added to guidelines for developers. 
“People just became more and more conscious of what it is we were doing,” he said. “In one respect, it had a lot to do with realizing we’re killing our precious resources … and wanting to stop it.”