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A wish list from loyal downtown residents in St. Paul

MinnPost photo by Judy Keen
Evelyn Carey: “St. Paul looks like a sleepy town, but it’s very vibrant.”

We’ve lived in downtown St. Paul for three months now, and we’re getting used to the city’s moods and rhythms.

We love the palpable history, the proximity to the Mississippi, the innovative restaurants, music at Mears Park and the Farmers Market.

After living in downtown Chicago for seven years, we’re still getting used to the empty sidewalks in the evenings and on weekends and the absence of street-level commerce.

Many of the standard urban services—dry cleaners, shoe-repair shops and little restaurants—are on the skyway level, of course.

My husband was unfamiliar with the whole skyway ethos, and when I took him on his first tour, he thought the system, with its narrow hallways lined with small businesses, looked like airport concourses.

When my sister visited us last month from Sturgis, S.D., she decided to take her two middle-school-age daughters for a walk while I prepared dinner.

“Which way should we go to see all the cool shops?” she asked.

“Well,” I replied, “there really aren’t very many downtown. They’re in other parts of the city.” They ended up at the Minnesota Science Museum instead.

I have my own wish list for additions to downtown St. Paul as more people move into condos and apartments and as we await the opening of the St. Paul Saints ballpark in 2015 and the arrival of Central Corridor light rail trains next year.

More on my hopes later. I decided to talk to people who live or work downtown—and know the city far better than this newcomer does—what they like and dislike and what they’d like to change.

A move from Bethlehem, Pa.

Chris Thomforde and his wife moved here in July after he retired from his job as a college president in Bethlehem, Pa.

“We lived in downtown Bethlehem and liked being able to walk everywhere,” he says. Downtown St. Paul, they decided, gives them the same sort of experience.

They like the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, biking along the river, the museums and the diverse population here.

“I grew up in New York City and I always feel safe here,” he says.

“What we’re frustrated with,” Thomforde says, “is the lack of retail.” They wish they didn’t have to drive to shop for clothing, groceries and almost everything else.

He’s eager for the spring 2014 opening of Lunds grocery at 10th and Robert. “That will be terrific,” he says.

Thomforde only recently got his first glimpse of the skyway system and hasn’t really explored it yet. He saw a sign for a Caribou coffee shop and wandered into the skyway when he couldn’t find it at street level.

Chris ThomfordeMinnPost photo by Judy KeenChris Thomforde: “What we’re frustrated with is the lack of retail.”

Maureen Murphy has worked downtown for the state government for 12 years and has watched St. Paul evolve.

“The parks are fabulous,” she says. “I love the skyway. I hate that there’s no place to shop.”

She remembers when the downtown Macy’s store, which closed in March, was a Dayton’s and still laments its demise.

Add Doug Thompson to that list. He opened Metropolitan Watchworks on a prime spot near a skyway food court last November and wishes Macy’s were still around or that Target would open a downtown store. More shoppers mean more foot traffic and more potential customers for his business, he says.

“Something like a Super Target would be huge,” he says. “It would help the 40,000 people that work downtown, too.”

Chad Walstrom, who has worked downtown for a computer company for four years, likes St. Paul’s vibe. “It has a bit of a closer-knit feel than Minneapolis,” he says. “It’s more comfortable.”

Still, he says, “I would never live downtown.”

Why not? Walstrom says he hates the confusing parking rules and doesn’t like the city’s school system.

True believer

Evelyn Carey, on the other hand, is a true believer. She and her husband moved to Lowertown more than nine years ago from Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood.

“We fell in love with a building that was being renovated,” she says. “Our kids were grown and we wanted a new adventure. … And part of the reason we moved was smelling the basil in the Farmers Market.”

Their friends in Uptown, Carey says, all thought, ‘What are you doing?’”

The Careys were part of the first wave of downtown residents; the city estimates that about 10,000 people now live in the area. She’s a little concerned that the Saints’ stadium will alter the neighborhood’s character by attracting more bars.

Carey and her husband love St. Paul Chamber Orchestra concerts, the sense of community and tending two garden plots in Mears Park. They rarely return to Uptown.

“St. Paul looks like a sleepy town, but it’s very vibrant,” Carey says.

OK, back to my St. Paul to-do list. More shopping would be great: I wish there were antique stores like those on 7th Street West. Boutiques like those clustered at Selby and Snelling would create more energy.

I wish there were more reasons for the people who turn the skyway into a human freeway at midday to hit the sidewalks instead. And I’ll be thrilled when there’s a decent grocery store in walking range.

That said, I’m already a little protective of my St. Paul neighborhood.

There’s a reason I chose not to live in downtown Minneapolis.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 09/03/2013 - 10:59 am.

    Shush, you are suppose to keep that quiet.

    Dear Ms. Keen,

    As a new comer you will be forgiven once but don’t do this a second time or people will put you on a boat to Minneapolis. We like to keep the good news about St. Paul quiet. Let those noisy folks on the other side of the river make all the ballyhoo about their town on this side of town we just go along and live and let live.

    Interestingly I have always felt more at home in Chicago than in Minneapolis and found it to be more like St. Paul.

    If I were to live in a city St. Paul near Mears Park would be it.

  2. Submitted by Beth Barron on 09/03/2013 - 11:26 am.

    Thank you. Who is listening ?

    Thanks for this article. As my boyfriend and I were wandering around the edge of Lowertown and Downtown, yesterday, we once again wished for more flourishing commerce… As Lowertowners we crave a coffee shop that specializes in really good, rich, robust espresso. A shop that is sparklingly clean, well lit, with trained baristas, and delectable nibbles. Wide spaces, stable tables, lots of outlets for computers… Strong Wifi….Big windows to help beat the winter blues. A place to bridge the Downtowners and the Lowertowners and create diversity and community… a beautiful space where people without offices can go to and be in a work friendly atmosphere. To sketch, to write, to create spreadsheets, to do the myriad tasks we all need our computers to do. Or to quietly meet others …. a bustling serene city vision…Surely, not an impossible task. A little icing on an already lovely area…

  3. Submitted by Jim Buscher on 09/03/2013 - 03:56 pm.

    Downtown needs more people

    The biggest hurdle facing downtown St. Paul in its quest for more retail is the number of people working and living there. What the area needs more than anything is more office workers and residents. The current population wasn’t sufficient to support Macy’s. Nor is it enough to make it worthwhile for the current retailers and businesses to stay open in the evenings and weekends. I’ve lived in downtown for six years and plan on living there for the foreseeable future. But lets first focus on gettng more people living and working here and then let the retail development follow. The city tried it the other way in the 1980’s and look how that turned out.

    If we want more retail and more people out and about in the evenings, then we need to focus on filling our vacant office space and developing our empty surface lots with new housing. I think the city is heading in the right direction though. Light rail, Amtrak, Saints baseball, and the Lunds store are all good moves. We’ll need to capitalize on those investments to make sure we do attract businesses and more housing development in the future.

  4. Submitted by Dave Peterson on 09/03/2013 - 10:23 pm.

    Reestablish the original 7th Street

    Before the failed Town Square and World Trade Center retail malls were built, downtown St. Paul retail was centered on the original 7th Street (now 7th Place). It’s time to reestablish the original 7th Street as a retail street. The full reestablishment would require uncovering the parts of the street now occupied by the Wells Fargo (World Trade Center)/ Macy’s complex and the Town Square complex. This isn’t as far fetched as it may seem since the Macy’s store is already closed and will likely be demolished. The hotel at Town Square was recently purchased by the Ojibway tribe and will likely be remodeled. Part of the remodeling could include a renovation of the complex to rebuild the street. A revived 7th Street would serve to connect both ends of downtown, from Lowertown to the area near the Ordway/ Xcel Center, and serve as an attractive retail corridor of several blocks. Downtown residents as well as visitors would have an enjoyable street to stroll and shop. Retail would benefit from a designated street instead of being spread around downtown in hard to find skyway locations.

    • Submitted by Bjorn Awel on 09/04/2013 - 08:26 am.

      I second this above suggestion — a great prospect for downtown. For the cost of the stadium, I bet the city could re-establish 7th street and make into a great pedestrian street also with bicycles and a circulator bus from Lowertown to West 7th area. This would be really cool. I agree — I think something could be figured out to uncover the area of the World Trade Center and Town Square without disrupting the towers there. The city should at least do a feasibility study to see what the possibilities are. Connected to the article’s interviews, I would make the argument that the lack of good pedestrian streets (that this would be) and actually too much attention on creating the skyways (a network bound only to offer retail during daytime hours).

      • Submitted by Jim Buscher on 09/04/2013 - 04:26 pm.

        Reconfiguring the podiums of Wells Fargo and Town Square is a pipe dream, sorry. I’d rather see some money spent on reopening the park in Town Square instead.

        Also extending the 7th Place Mall isn’t really practical. Going from east to west (St. Peter St to Wabasha) you run smack into the entrace to WF. That isn’t getting demo’d. Sorry. The only practical option is whenever Macy’s is torn down, to add a pedestrian walkway between WF and whatever new building occupies the Macy’s plot. There is also a big elevation change W to E. Almost a story high between Wabasha and Cedar Streets. Just walk up or down 5th Street to get an idea. And when you do get to the bottom (at Cedar St), your going to come face to face with light rail tracks and overhead catenary wires. Not very pleasant.

        Hopefully the Ojibwe tribe does something nice with the exterior of the hotel in Town Square. But I think it’s more configured towards Minnesota St than Cedar. But there is funding and a plan to remodel the transit station at the corner of 5th and Cedar (part of TS). So that will at least be more inviting in the near future.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/06/2013 - 05:13 pm.

      I Wish!

      In the last couple of years I’ve wondered about the wisdom of putting Town Square smack in the middle of the main drag, which I have dim memories of. Was that as bad as or worse than the Lake Street K Mart?

      But getting that street back open would be a monumental effort, hugely expensive and very difficult.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/04/2013 - 11:07 am.

    I grew up in downtown St. Paul

    I remember as a 12 year-old kid, riding my bike from our fabulous Selby-Dale abode down to Woodcraft Hobby store to spend hours racing my slot cars on their huge track, then buying a plastic car model and stopping for a giant slice of pizza at the Woolworth lunch counter or a candy bar at Fanny Farmers before heading home.

    I remember being dropped off on Sunday afternoon at one of the many movie theaters like the Paramount, Lyceum, Orpheum, Riviera, Strand, and the World. At Christmas time I would spend hours browsing the many department stores looking for the perfect gifts for my brothers and sisters. Stores like the Emporium, Grant’s, the Golden Rule, Shueneman’s, and then in 1966 the new one, Dayton’s, were packed with holiday shoppers young and old.

    But times change. The downtown stores and movie theaters couldn’t compete with the new suburban shopping malls with free parking and everything under one roof.

    And now Amazon and Netflix are probably going to make shopping malls obsolete over the next few years. Retail and theaters will never be coming back to the downtown areas because they can’t compete.

  6. Submitted by Richard Swanson on 09/04/2013 - 12:25 pm.

    A few suggestions….

    1. Convenient short-term parking by the new downtown Post Office.

    2. Downtown transporter shuttle with a few established “home bases” and a reliable schedule (figure out a sound schedule: Farmer’s Market, Ordway, restaurants, etc) .

    3. Get the Galtier movie theatre open again, even if it isn’t first run flicks. Art flicks? Foreign Films?

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