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How residents, business owners and elected officials are reimagining the corner of Rice and Larpenteur

The area, at the intersection of St. Paul, Roseville and Maplewood, has long been dominated by strip malls, parking lots and very wide roads.

The intersection of Rice and Larpenteur is a rare spot where three cities come together: St. Paul, Maplewood and Roseville.
The intersection of Rice and Larpenteur is a rare spot where three cities come together: St. Paul, Maplewood and Roseville.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

The corner of Rice and Larpenteur has two big things going against it. First, almost every nearby building is a strip mall or a drive-thru, low-slung affairs set away from the street and fronted by parking lots that swallow up pedestrians like a frog eating a fly.

Second, the intersection is a rare spot where three cities come together: St. Paul, Maplewood and Roseville. For most people, the intersection is literally and figuratively marginal, a place that disappears on a city map, occupying the far edge of anyone’s attention.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. For five years now, a group of residents, business owners and elected officials have been changing the narrative and landscape of the neighborhood. Called the Rice-Larpenteur Alliance, a project run by the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, they’ve been slowly trying to tweak the parking lots, sidewalks, streets and stories to improve both the corner, and the lives of the people who depend on it.

“Three cities together, each… their own communities,” said Trista MatasCastillo, who represents the north part of St. Paul on the Ramsey County board. “There’s pretty broad ethnic diversity. It’s a white neighborhood, it’s a black neighborhood. It’s a Karen, Nepali and Burmese neighborhood. There are lots of Latinos in the area as well. It’s pretty diverse.”

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Any glance at the strip malls confirms that sentiment. In the St. Paul corner, Thai Street Market and Hearthside Pizza bracket a large thrift store. On the Maplewood side, you’ll find fried seafood joints and Nepali restaurants among the pawn shops and chiropractors. Roseville brings a Burmese café to the table, interspersed between the dollar stores, smoke shops and pharmacies.

An image from the LarpenTOUR, held last year, where for one day the parking lots blossomed with community activity.
The Musicant Group
An image from the LarpenTOUR, held last year, where for one day the parking lots blossomed with community activity.
The Rice-Larpenteur Alliance is trying to change people’s perceptions of the area through a years’-long focus on economic development, and small-scale improvements that encouraging people to re-imagine the corner.

‘I came here to honor the community’ 

“There’s still a lot of work to do, and we all know that,” announced Roseville Mayor Dan Roe, who was one of the assembled politicians at the celebration this past weekend at Lake McCarrons Park. The event was to celebrate the completion of a mosaic by South Asian-American artist Shakun Maheshwari, which now glimmers on the wall of the park’s main shelter building.

McCarrons is one of the Twin Cities’ rare suburban lakes that’s easily accessible by transit. Its beach has been an escape for everyone from Rice and University to Vadnais Heights for a hundred years. Today, the lakefront park remains a well-used community gathering spot; it’s one of the biggest assets of the Rice-Larpenteur neighborhood.

At first, compared to the windswept tarmac-feel of the nearby corner, the new mural at McCarrons Beach seems small. Once you get closer, the ceramic details reveal themselves. Dozens of colorful flowers bloom in a green field, while a delighted honeybee surveys a landscape of opportunity.

For two months, Maheshwari worked on the mural in the park’s public environs. As she describes it, the mosaic evolved into a public engagement project as passersby stopped to chat and, eventually, help make the mosaic.

“I came here to honor the community,” said Shakun Maheshwari. “I came up with the idea but everyone helped.”

Along with her other nearby work — a decorative rose sculpture, and the painted pillars of a picnic shelter — the flowers represent the diverse people of the neighborhood.

Shakun Maheshwari shown standing in front of the mosaic she created on the park’s main shelter building.
Courtesy of Rice-Larpenteur Alliance
Shakun Maheshwari began working in this area a few years ago as part of the Roseville IN Bloom project, which scattered public art around the city.
“So many people stopped by and participated in it,” Maheshwari said. “I don’t even know their names. Some became friends. They came every day, stopped by, talking to me. I said ‘would you like to do it [work on the mural]?’ And they said, ‘I’d love to do it; can you teach me?’”

In that way, dozens of people put the mural together, changing the design through conversation and experimentation. It’s similar to how, piece by piece, leaders like the Rice-Larpenteur Alliance’s Executive Director, Kim O’Brien, hope to change the neighborhood.

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A changing corner

There’s a long way to go. If you ask most people about Rice-Larpenteur, they’ll think only of the Lamplighter Lounge. Today it’s the last strip club in St. Paul, a city once synonymous with whisky-soaked ribaldry (albeit back in the 19th century). Neighbors have campaigned for years to have city regulators shut it down due to allegations of criminal activity in the club and parking lot.

But the presence of the Lamplighter is more than offset by the other businesses making their home on the corner. The latest, largest incarnation of Willebski’s Blues Saloon — a legendary St. Paul venue — is just across the street, and nearby, a dozen restaurants and markets commingle with the pharmacies, affordable housing and parks.

A decorative rose sculpture, also by Shakun Maheshwari.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
A decorative rose sculpture, also by Shakun Maheshwari.
One step forward for the area has been the traffic calming work on Larpenteur Avenue, led by Commissioners MatasCastillo and MaryJo McGuire. After a fatal crash two years ago, when two people were killed by a driver while crossing the street, the county removed a lane of vehicle traffic to improve safety for people on foot.

Leaders hope to keep up the effort and re-center the public spaces around the people who live nearby.

“It’s a dense and diverse community,” explained  MatasCastillo. “Is there a way we can work together and the neighbors at McCarrons and Maplewood. Does the manager at the Larpenteur Village neighborhood need better safety? Do they need investment?”

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Making public space

I’m not sure that local “placemaker” Max Musicant has ever had a larger challenge than working on the Rice-Larpenteur project. His firm, The Musicant Group, was hired by the Chamber to do public-realm improvements at the corner. Compared to tweaking the lobby of a downtown Minneapolis office building, it’s a tall order. (Disclosure: Musicant is on MinnPost’s Board of Directors.)

“We helped bring in the first food trucks to the intersection as a proof of concept,” said Musicant. “The new public space [on the corner] provides an opportunity for name recognition for the district in general, and also provides a staging ground for small-scale activation, for transit riders, and other things like that.”

Any kind of attention paid to the bleak public space is an improvement. Max’s firm has unleashed a creative and aspirational mix of tactics to spruce up the public space: movable furniture, games in the parking lot, painted flower pots, outdoor seating, and micro-grants for businesses.

The highlight was a big event last year — The LarpenTOUR — where, for one day, the parking lots blossomed with community activity. Again, it was a “proof of concept,” a chance to illustrate that the corner could have a different future.

“I think something we also heard coming into this work: this was intersection, the only public narrative was negative,” explained Musicant. “[People talk about it] only when something bad happens. That is what it is, but there was nothing to counterbalance that, no community narrative.”

Making the most the strip mall

If you’re speeding past at 45 mph on the arterial roads, you might not get a chance to pause and look at the area around the intersection of Rice and Larpenteur. Most people don’t. But since it’ll be a key stop on the announced Metro Transit aBRT project — the G Line — one of the biggest planned transit investments in Ramsey and Dakota Counties, perhaps it’s time to give it another look.

The Rice-Larpenteur Alliance does have ambitious plans for redevelopment, infill mixed-use projects and much-needed investment on this corner. If you look at the renderings, it’s easy to get excited that a different future is possible.

Given the economic climate of the area, I wouldn’t hold out hope for new buildings in the near-term. It’s more likely that this will continue to be strip mall central for another decade. But that’s what makes the work that people are doing here so impactful. If you can improve the public space here, you can improve the public space anywhere.

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“The summer block party served to show people that there are a lot of wonderful things that are already here, wonderful people that are already here,” said Musicant. “Working with the existing context, pedestrian seating and transit improvements are all happening within the existing suburban context. This place deserves to have great experiences for people that use it every day.”

If you want to experience a different future for the corner in person, stop by the Winter Warmup on Saturday December 4th. There’ll be market vendors, food, activities and art. If you go, I guarantee you’ll never look at the parking lot in front of the strip mall thrift store in the same way again.