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The bleak article on downtown St. Paul and 5th Street in particular that was published in the Star Tribune on March 31 ("Imagining a new life for 5th St.") sent me into a downward spiral. I have had a bookstore on 5th Street for nine years, and I hardly recognized the hellscape described. How could I continue to operate in such conditions that could be remedied only by more construction that will negatively impact my sales?

We have infrastructure in both of our Twin Cities downtowns that would be the envy of people in cities everywhere who are considering how to live with the impact of the climate change that society seems unwilling to address in meaningful ways: skyways, indoor parks, empty indoor spaces that used to (and could easily) be vibrant sites for all the walkable needs of the residents within its core. But both City Councils, to my mind, seem unwilling to dream big about their downtowns. We create bike lanes that, while well-intended, put dessert before the actual meal of a walkable city.

We can convert most of the unused office spaces into residences, but unless we accept that those residents cannot live off of sports events and concerts or eat in restaurants every night, we will have downtowns that empty and fill on an irregular basis.

I am not a tax expert, but I have heard that there are benefits to leaving buildings empty with minimum upkeep. Can we take those benefits away or suspend them and perhaps come up with tax codes that reward occupying your building with the types of services that make an area livable: retail stores and medical offices, for instance?

Can we create meaningful programs by speaking with the young people who hang out at our metro stations and street corners with seemingly nothing better to do? I have spoken with a few of them through the years and, believe me, there are some incredibly innovative ideas in those heads. If we are not talking about their dreams we are truly missing the boat.

Is it time to admit that the assault on services for the mentally ill that has marked our descent into public spaces being used as wards for those struggling has been one of the greatest policy mistakes of the last 50 years? We cannot medicate our way out of our current crisis. But if you believe medication is the answer, then why not accept that many of our habitually unhoused or those living rough have chosen that option so that they can self-medicate in legal and illegal ways. Would it be possible to provide them that space, as some of the encampments have, so that they can be safe in the community?

We face challenges in downtowns across our country, but we should dream big dreams for these areas that, with innovation, could be some of our most livable spaces.

Sue Zumberge, of St. Paul, is the owner of Subtext Books.