The vestiges of the brash and bold Bridges of St. Paul development project on the Mississippi River remain on view in Jerry Trooien’s riverfront office. Color renderings line the wall behind his massive conference table; hydrology studies and marketing plans are stacked next to books by Joseph Campbell, the mythology scholar whose ideas he often quotes.
It’s been nearly three months since the St. Paul City Council squashed Trooien’s dream: a $1 billion-plus retail, hotel, condo, marina and public space project on the banks of the Mississippi across the Robert Street Bridge from downtown St. Paul.
The problem? Oh, critics had lots of problems: It would ruin the view; it would suck commerce from the aging downtown; it was too big, too bold, too Trooien-like.
Trooien disputes all those concerns passionately, while at the same time recognizing that without the necessary zoning approvals, the project for now is dead in the water, or dead next to the water.
Riverfront his trump card for Trump-like vision
The site, on the south bank of the river mostly on land he owns between the Robert Street and Lafayette bridges, is St. Paul’s trump card when it comes to development, Trooien says. And he believes his Donald Trump-like vision for the site is the only way to make it work.
“People said we wanted a gated community for the rich. No. This was all about making great public spaces, with gazebos, fountains, a walkway along the river. And if you don’t have the size and scope that we proposed, you can’t have those great public spaces,” he says.
“The objections were based on mischaracterizations and misrepresentations. You have to think big. With the (cost of) deep pilings and the parking, there’s no other plan that works. We hired master planners and big thinkers and worked with what the lay of the land and the river will allow on that site. The proximity to the water here is unique; you can’t get to the water on the other [downtown] side of the river with the bluffs and railroad tracks and Shepard Road.
He’s made the speech a hundred times: The retail and restaurants along the river are crucial. So is free parking. A hotel by itself wouldn’t work, but will with the right mix of stores and housing. Lots of people listened and believed. But not those taking the votes.
To them, he again issues the challenge: “If someone has a better plan, step up. But don’t just flap your jaws. It’s irresponsible and disrespectful to a community that’s in serious need of some economic activity.”
Trooien says the renderings, studies and other remnants of the $20 million he has spent so far will be cleared soon from the conference table, when he gets a spare moment from running his other businesses, the real estate, aviation and airport parking ventures.
So what’s next?
“I don’t know. I’ve done everything I can to get the story out. But we need the political will,” he says.
He tried to change that political will during this past City Council election, donating tens of thousands of dollars that ended up with candidates who favor his project. But it didn’t change the outcome, and Bridges opponents remain in charge of City Hall.
In September, he brought the media to a scheduled meeting with Mayor Chris Coleman and the director of the city Planning and Economic Development department. But the mayor thought it was a private meeting and wasn’t prepared to negotiate in public, so the meeting didn’t happen. And there’s been no attempt to reschedule.
Says Trooien: “I hear comments that they want development on the site, but this just isn’t the right kind of development. So what is the right kind? The city leadership has abrogated its responsibility to take the issue seriously. I’m ready, willing and able to move ahead. But I will not do a bad plan.”
Public office still a possibility
After the council defeat, Trooien seemed to hint that he might consider running for public office as a way to get his version of common sense back into the public arena.
So I asked him last week: Will you run for office?
He laughed and said: “If I tell you now, I’d have to shoot you.”
I didn’t want to be shot, certainly not in the midst of a fruitful, wide-ranging discussion of downtown, philosophies and attitudes. A little later, I tried again.
This time he said: “Well, I will not be running for mayor.”
City Council? Legislature? County Board? Soil and Water Commission?
“Let’s just leave it there. I’m not running for mayor, but I’m not saying I won’t run for office.”
He speaks forcefully and philosophically about his interest in public service: “I’m trying to listen to my life. I don’t have to do things just for the money. I care about what happens to humanity. And it’s not just an ethical requirement; I do it for adventure. The real adventure is giving of yourself. The great spiritual leaders were all public servants. Life at its highest and best form is to get outside the self and serve others. I’m not looking for accolades. I enjoy the quest and I’m just getting started.”
Trooien, a top high-school and college athlete who remains in excellent shape as he hits age 60, likes the occasional sports analogy: “Not every pitch is perfect, but you’ve got to keep on pitching… . My worst nightmares as a child were not being allowed to get in the game, or I couldn’t get my equipment adjusted.”
And he sees his recent Bridges setback as just one bad inning in the ongoing game.
“I wasn’t surprised with the City Council vote. Anyone could see that coming. I was disappointed, of course. I felt disappointed for my community. I felt they stole something really important from my city. But I’m way too healthy to be dismayed by temporal things. To paraphrase the Buddhist saying: Get over it.
“It wouldn’t take but a heartbeat to restart the whole project; we’ve laid all the groundwork. But we can’t do anything more without the city approvals,” he said.
“Every businessman in town thinks I’m an absolute idiot for spending 20 million bucks on this. But we had to do the research and marketing to know that it was a real deal. And it is.”