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Will LRT line bring downtown development to St. Paul?

The skyway link was temporarily severed last spring to permit the demolition of the vacant Bremer Bank.
Photo by Laura Baenen
The skyway link was temporarily severed last spring to permit the demolition of the vacant Bremer Bank.

Last week, St. Paul city officials hailed the restoration of the skyway link over Fifth Street between the University Club and the Alliance Bank Building in the downtown area.

What remains to be seen is whether they will have a chance to celebrate a "signature" development on the largely vacant block, adjacent to the light-rail transit (LRT) line being constructed there.

The skyway link was temporarily severed last spring to permit the demolition of the vacant Bremer Bank, which was situated immediately north of the University Club (formerly called the St. Paul Athletic Club) at Fifth and Cedar Streets.


As originally planned, the Central Corridor LRT Line was to run down Cedar Street and make a right-angle turn onto Fourth Street.

At the urging of St. Paul officials and their planners, the Metropolitan Council agreed to re-route the line diagonally through the block bounded by Fourth, Fifth, Cedar and Minnesota Streets and locate a station there.

This required the acquisition and demolition of the Bremer Bank building, along with the purchase of several other parcels on that block. The acquisition of the bank alone added $2.65 million to cost of the $957 million LRT project.

The city and its consulting team saw this site as "an unparalleled opportunity for new development in the heart of downtown," possibly attracting "a high profile national headquarters."

Glitzy tower
In their plan, they pictured a glitzy tower rising over the transit station and an adjoining plaza, creating an exciting new urban gathering space.

So far, there haven't been any nibbles from developers.

The city and its consulting team pictured as part of their plan a tower rising over the transit station and an adjoining plaza, but developers have shown no interest so far.
Central Corridor Development Strategy
The city and its consulting team pictured as part of their plan a tower rising over the transit station and an adjoining plaza, but developers have shown no interest so far.

"I think that diagonal development definitely will be realized," says Cecile Bedor, director of the St. Paul Planning and Economic Development Department. "But I don't think it will happen until the line is up and running."

Bedor says every city aspires to attract new headquarters companies, but that whatever development occurs on the block "will depend on the marketplace."

"You have a vision and a dream of what you'd like to see there," she says. "Whether that's office or the condo market comes back or it's a combination of condos and a hotel — whatever it might be — we think the right developer will see the potential for that kind of development."

At the moment, downtown St. Paul does not suffer from a shortage of office space.

In 2011, downtown had a vacancy rate of 20.2 percent for competitive office space, according to the annual market study [PDF] by the St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA). That was up from 17.9 percent in 2010.

The vacancy rate for Class A space in 2011 was somewhat lower — 14.3 percent.

Development slowed
Bedor says development obviously has been slowed along the Central Corridor and throughout the nation by the stagnant economy and the reluctance of financial institutions to bankroll new projects.

"Lenders aren't lending as aggressively as the need to," she says.

In August, the Metropolitan Council researchers reported that commercial, industrial, and public and institutional (CIPI) construction activity [PDF] in the Twin Cities area slumped in 2010 for the fourth consecutive year.

The council said the building permit value total of CIPI construction projects declined from its 2006 peak of $2.2 billion to $610 million in 2010 — a four-year drop of 73 percent.

The contraction in CIPI activity hurt developed suburbs the least while the central cities were the hardest hit, the council said.

Despite the challenging economic conditions, Bedor says, excitement is starting to build as the LRT tracks are laid and stations rise along the corridor.

"Habitat for Humanity is going to put their headquarters along the Central Corridor. Planned Parenthood's new building is under construction now. We had an outstate developer come in recently to talk about development opportunities along the corridor. So the interest is starting to heat up," Bedor says.

Once the line begins operations in 2014, she says, "I expect development activity will take off."

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Comments (10)

> At the urging of St. Paul officials and their
> planners, the Metropolitan Council agreed to
> re-route the line diagonally through the block
> bounded by Fourth, Fifth, Cedar and Minnesota
> Streets and locate a station there.

That's not quite right. The line had to go diagonally through the block due to engineering constraints. It's very difficult to do a sharp 90-degree turn with LRT. One can witness this at the Mall of America, where the train runs very slowly indeed through the turn to/from the parking ramp.

Still, I believe even without the engineering concerns, it was the right things to do. This is a prime redevelopment spot and a built-in LRT station is a huge asset.

In response to David Greene, the story as written is correct. The line originally was slated to make a right-angle turn at Fourth and Cedar, as it does in several other downtown St. Paul locations. The change to a diagonal turn through the block was made by the Met Council at the urging of city officials as part of the final project scope approved on Feb. 27, 2008.

"Habitat for Humanity is going to put their headquarters along the Central Corridor."

How appropriate. Because by the time this thing is finished the only people left in town will be the underclass and the bureaucrats who serve them.

It would be helpful for those of us not familiar with all of the players in St. Paul development circles if those posting would identify their connection to the topic under discussion, if any. For example, is Mr. Greene the same David Greene that sits on the City of St. Paul Transporation Taskforce? If so, and if Mr. Dornfeld is correct in identifying the source of the change in route at this location, then Mr. Greene either is being disingenous or displaying ignorance on a subject with which he presumably should be familiar.

I believe the current pop phrase is transparency. I still call it intellectual integrity.

I suspect that LRT-fueled redevelopment will move from west to east -- first around the University and out to the 280 area (happening now); then to the Midway area (in 5-10 years); finally to Downtown St. Paul (20 years or longer)

St. Paul planners are being overly-optimistic in their timeline, but identifying a vision for key parcels is still a legitimate component of the planning process. The CCLRT is a long-term investment that requires long-term planning.

(My title: casual observer)

Hmmm. If Mr. Hamilton’s guess is correct, it provides another reason why it’s helpful to know who the players are in a given situation.

The former planning commissioner in me assumes that the semi-rhetorical question in the article title is the goal of the responsible parties. In this instance, I define “goal” as being somewhere between “wish” and “policy.” Everything I’ve read in the past several years suggests that development will, in fact, follow LRT construction if recent history – going back a decade or a bit more – is any guide, but the bank collapse of the past few years makes the assumption of that outcome a bit more of a challenge.

As for Mr. Tester, it’s (fortunately) seldom that I see bigotry displayed so… to use Mr. Hamilton’s term of the day… transparently. “…Underclass…?” Really? I’d suggest that it’s difficult to actually believe in democracy if you start with the proposition that some people are more valuable, and therefore, more deserving, than others. That’s a nice philosophical base for aristocracy, but aristocracy doesn’t fit our national myth and tradition very well. And, given Mr. Tester’s prominently-displayed prejudices, I’m a little surprised that – as long as people were being disparaged – he didn’t go after the other new headquarters under construction. Perhaps that will come with the next post…

Huh. Interesting how character assassination plays out. MinnPost, you really should moderate that stuff better.

No, I do not sit on the "City of St. Paul Transporation Taskforce," whatever that is. Some years ago I participated in the transportation portion of St. Paul's comp plan process, as anyone could have by simply applying for the job. We covered mundane things like what roads should be designated arterials and such.

As I have told you before, James. Geez, you're getting to be as bad as Sheldon.

And I apologize to Steve. I apparently had bad information. I was told the change was made for engineering reasons. Is there truly a right angle turn anywhere on the line? 14th to 12th as documented here is close:

http://metrocouncil.org/transportation/ccorridor/CCimages/PlansJun10/DTS...

But that doesn't follow the roadway right-of-way that I imagined Cedar-to-4th would. But I never saw any engineering drafts of the originally envisioned Cedar-to-4th turn.

In any event, the diagonal is the correct choice. It avoids a tricky (if not impossible) turn and sets up a vacant block for redevelopment.

The headline reads: "Will LRT line bring downtown development to St. Paul?"

The short answer? No.

Certainly, the Xcel Energy Center, Ordway, Science Museum and Children's Museum have certainly helped with development on the west end of downtown and along West Seventh. The catch is that many of those businesses depend on the events and games at the "X."

Retail in downtown St. Paul is anemic, at best. I've worked downtown for most of my 30 years and have watched retail disappear at Galtier and the World Trade Center, and most storefronts. Macy's is nearing the end of their tax deal with the City of St. Paul and one has to wonder what will happen there. Factor out the fast food, convenience stores and coffee places that cater to the downtown workers, and you find there is not a whole lot left.

Restoring Union Depot will not yield the desired development until the day comes when there is more than one Amtrak train. One eastbound to Chicago at 0730 and a westbound at roughly 2230 each day is not going to inspire development either.

There are certainly opportunities for businesses to expand into the vacant space in downtown, but would that help create new retail opportunities without having to dangle more tax breaks for retailers considering downtown? I would be skeptical.

There's just something about certain area's of downtown St. Paul that make it dull, I don't know what it is. The architecture is gawd awful in a lot of places, especially at street level. Never been able to put my finder on it.

@Paul

You are correct. The architecture is gawd awful. However, I don't think that's a major reason downtown St. Paul struggles.

Has downtown St. Paul ever really been a place to go besides for work? As long as I can remember, all the night life has been in Minneapolis. Minneapolis has always been the freewheeling blue collar town to St. Paul's stuffy old money.

Turning back toward the river will help, but it will take time. Minneapolis started that process in the mid-to-late '80's and it only really started bearing fruit in the late '90's, early 2000's. It's going to take a focused long-term effort to revitalize downtown. Union Depot is a piece. This transit station is a piece. There are other pieces no one's thought of yet.

I think one big thing Minneapolis got right was to create public plazas. Target Plaza is an obvious one, but there are more than people realize. That's why they're great. They're fully integrated into downtown.

Cancer Survivor's Park
Gold Medal Park
Peavy Plaza
Government Plaza
Downtown East Station
Loring Greenway
Nicollet Mall
St. Anthony Main

They give the area a much more open feel than downtown St. Paul. That attracts street level activity, something the skyways tend to discourage. When I walk through downtown Minneapolis I enjoy the sights, sounds and atmosphere. When I walk though downtown St. Paul I just want to get to my destination. Without street level activity, there will be no downtown retail.