Ballpark not the end of St. Paul’s development challenges

Courtesy of the Saint Paul Saints
The 7,000-seat, $54 million baseball stadium to be built in Lowertown complements other development projects in the area.

St. Paul officials and civic boosters understandably were excited last week when Gov. Mark Dayton allocated $25 million in state bonding to help build a new Saints ballpark in the city’s already bustling Lowertown district.

The 7,000-seat, $54 million facility, which also will serve amateur baseball, will complement the bars and restaurants springing up in Lowertown. It also will generate event ridership for the Central Corridor light-rail transit (LRT) line now under construction between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.

“The ballpark will bring hundreds of thousands of people to downtown, will create hundreds of new, well-paying jobs, and its construction will represent our community and our values,” said Mayor Chris Coleman. “This is a defining moment for our city.”

It will build upon the success of Xcel Energy Center, the NHL hockey and entertainment venue secured by another Mayor Coleman (Norm) in another defining moment for downtown.

map of stadium location
Courtesy of the Saint Paul Saints
The new ballpark will be located on Broadway near Fourth Street, adjacent to the maintenance facility for the new Central Corridor LRT line.

But the new ballpark — slated for completion in 2015 — hardly spells the end of the serious economic challenges facing the downtown area of the region’s smaller twin.  Among the daunting questions:

Will Macy’s remain open?

As of  Dec. 31, Macy’s will be free to close its downtown St. Paul store without being required to repay a $6.3 million city loan, plus interest. In 2001, to retain its only remaining major retailer, the city gave what was then Dayton’s a forgivable loan to help renovate and downsize the store in the heart of downtown.

However, the St. Paul store often resembles a ghost town, even during the holiday shopping season, with clerks almost as hard to find as shoppers. Earlier this year, the store reduced its hours, closing at 6 p.m. on weekdays and all day on Sunday.

Cecile Bedor

Cecile Bedor, director of the city’s Planning and Economic Development Department, says she and her staff are in “constant contact” with the management at Macy’s and “we don’t have any indication today that they plan to close.”

While not making any grim predictions, longtime Twin Cities planner John Kari says, “I think they need a Plan B” for the Macy’s site.

Will Union Depot succeed?

Ramsey County and its project partners have sunk a hefty $243 million in public funds into the acquisition and renovation of St. Paul’s historic Union Depot. They have touted it as “the premier multimodal transportation hub of the region,” as well as “a new platform for growth in St. Paul.”

The county has hired the Chicago firm of Jones Lang LaSalle at $300,000 a year to manage and market space in the building, which has 56,000 square feet of leasable retail/restaurant space and 38,000 square feet of public space.

The challenge will be building up enough foot traffic in the depot to make it attractive to prospective tenants. The depot will be served by just two Amtrak trains a day, plus Metro Transit and Jefferson Lines buses. Greyhound has decided not to stop at the depot and instead will operate all of its buses out of downtown Minneapolis.

LRT trains will stop at a station in front of Union Depot, but riders will have little reason to enter the depot unless there are attractions to entice them.

While construction is scheduled for completion this fall, county spokesperson Josh Collins said this week they are not yet prepared to announce when trains will start using the depot or whether any new tenants have been secured. (The lobby area long has been home to the Greek restaurant Christos.)

Will LRT attract downtown development?

During the final stages of LRT planning, city officials persuaded the Metropolitan Council to re-route the rail line diagonally through the block bounded by Fourth, Fifth, Cedar and Minnesota streets and locate a station there. 

a proposed structure at near the new Central Station LRT platform at Fifth and C
Courtesy of the City of Saint Paul
A proposed structure near the new Central Station LRT platform at Fifth and Cedar would provide a vertical connection of the skyway.

The Met Council’s original plan was for the line to make a right-angle turn at Fourth and Cedar. But city officials and consultants saw the block with an LRT station as “an unparalleled opportunity for new development in the heart of downtown,” possibly attracting “a high profile national headquarters.”

The change in plans added $8 million to $10 million in costs to the LRT project, including the acquisition of four properties, the demolition of the former Bremer Bank and the construction of a new, block-long skyway.

Bedor and city planner Lucy Thompson say they continue to believe Central station is a prime site for redevelopment. Thompson says there has been “a little bit of interest” in the site so far and that she expects a lot more interest once light rail begins operation in 2014.

In the meantime, they say they are focusing on developing a vertical connection from Central station to the skyway system. Thompson says they have identified a location on Fifth Street and developed a schematic design for this structure but still are working on the financing. “We are really committed to it and intend to have it built, probably next year.”

Kari, a planning consultant and the Met Council’s leading planner for several decades, believes downtown St. Paul’s days would be numbered in the absence of light rail, but he sees little likelihood of the city landing an office tower at the Central station site. “I think what they need to do is make it into a really nice transit plaza — a central plaza for St. Paul.”

Indeed, Kari believes city officials would be well advised to start thinking about downtown as an “activity center” rather than a traditional downtown, capitalizing on its strengths as a government, entertainment and cultural center, and as a place to live.

While downtown employment has declined and retailing has all but disappeared in recent decades, the downtown population has more than doubled since 1980, climbing to more than 7,000. Downtown also has prospered as an entertainment center with the Ordway Music Theater, the Science Museum of Minnesota, the Children’s Museum, the Xcel center, the nearby Minnesota History Center, plus smaller attractions.

“I think downtown St. Paul has a bright future,” Kari says. “But the economy has changed. Banking, retailing — so much of it is done online. It is never going to be the downtown it was in the 1970s.”

Like many of its peers, downtown St. Paul has had considerable difficulty attracting new development. For most of the last decade, Ramsey County has been marketing the site of its former jail and the former West Publishing building on Kellogg Boulevard overlooking the Mississippi River as a major redevelopment opportunity.

Opus Northwest briefly had an option to purchase the six-acre site, hoping to build a $200 million office, hotel and housing project. But the firm relinquished that option in 2008, and not much has happened since.

In addition to the depressed economy, there simply is no shortage of office space in downtown St. Paul. The latest report from the St. Paul Building Owners and Management Association (BOMA) indicates that 21.1 percent of the competitive office space in downtown is vacant. That includes 14.3 percent of the Class A space.

In the last several years, city government has become the developer of last resort for downtown. The city rescued and completed The Lofts at Farmers Market, a 58-unit, $13 million apartment project at Fifth and Wall Streets in the Lowertown area.

The city also took over and downsized the troubled Penfield development just south of I-94 between Minnesota and Robert Street. With the help of a $41 million federal loan, the city is now building a $62 million development with 254 apartments and a 27,000-square-foot Lunds grocery store.

Bedor says these two projects were “very unique.” In the case of the Lofts project, she says, the city already had “a hole in the ground” when the developer fell by the wayside. Bedor says the city stepped in and “really proved the market” for high-end apartments in the downtown area.

In the Penfield project, Bedor says, it provided an opportunity to not only expand the supply of high-end apartments, but also “capitalize on Lunds’ interest in being downtown.”

Nonetheless, she adds, “We don’t have any interest in being a developer. We think the private sector does a really good job at that.”

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Nick Magrino on 09/21/2012 - 12:40 pm.

    I love St. Paul to death, but we’re wasting a mind-boggling amount of public money from a very limited pot of funding to pretend that the Twin Cities are even close to identical twins. We blew $250 million dollars on the Union Depot to build our “central station” in the wrong county. Now Amtrak is basically tied up using that as a station so it doesn’t look like a boondoggle (because two trains a day makes it not a boondoggle) and so they’re stopping ten miles from where the demand is.

    Plus the Lowertown ballpark getting $25 million and the Southwest LRT getting $2 million?? That’s absurd. I realize it was supposed to be kind of a given after getting Ramsey County DFL legislators to play ball with the Vikings stadium, but these are decisions with actual ramifications for the future of our metro area. Minneapolis is by far the more important city, and I worry what the future holds for this arrangement. Probably lots of empty, expensive trains.

    • Submitted by Dave Peterson on 09/21/2012 - 08:22 pm.

      Nick, you probably live in Minneapolis and believe all state funds should be invested in your city. I disagree. The state investing money in St. Paul’s economy is not “wasting” money as you claim. The Lowertown Ballpark is an great example of what happens when the public and private sectors work together. The ballpark will bring even more vitality to an area of downtown which has seen tremendous positive change. Besides a growing population, Lowertown has a vibrant arts community and many popular bars and restaurants.
      Your dig that the central station is in the wrong county is also off the mark. The Union Depot will serve as a grand central station for the east metro. This strategic public investment along with the Central Corridor Light Rail Line will help bring more investment into St. Paul.
      While I like Steven Dornfeld’s take on the local economy, he tends to trend negative. Don’t fall for it, St. Paul is a great city that has seen much improvement and has a great future. I invite you to spend some time here.

      • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 09/23/2012 - 08:14 pm.

        I have lived in St. Paul for nearly 25 years

        And I agree with Nick – the Saints stadium is a complete waste of money.

        St. Paul claims that the economic impact of the stadium will be $10 million per year, but there is no evidence to support that number. In fact, the economist who St. Paul used for their economic analysis thought the benefit would only be $650,000 to $950,000 per year. Your claim about brining vitality to lowertown just isn’t supported by the facts.

        St. Paul is a great city, but it makes me sad to see us close rec centers and cut library hours, while throwing money away on this boondoggle.

  2. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 09/21/2012 - 02:29 pm.

    St. Paul Retail Center move 30 years ago

    Nick Magrino is correct. The new minor league ball park used for a few games during the Summer months is a ridiculous and wasteful expenditure.

    St. Paul’s retail center divided and moved to University and Grand Avenues 30 or more years ago. Macy’s will without a doubt close in 2013.

    Most of the traffic on the light rail will be State government employees going to and from work. They won’t be able to afford to shop and eat in downtown St. Paul. As middle class incomes wane, fewer and fewer will be able to afford tickets to hockey and entertainment events in the Excel Center.

    The taxpayers shouldn’t be wasting money on trying to keep a retail corpse alive.

  3. Submitted by Matt Brillhart on 09/21/2012 - 04:09 pm.

    I agree with everything Nick said, but I’m not sure anything will change in St. Paul. I can’t see anyone winning an election on a “downtown St. Paul is dead, long live Minneapolis” campaign. That said, I think John Kari nailed it– city officials would be well advised to start thinking about downtown as an “activity center” rather than a traditional downtown, capitalizing on its strengths as a government, entertainment and cultural center, and as a place to live.

  4. Submitted by Stewart Van Cleve on 09/22/2012 - 03:19 pm.

    I’m a Minneapolis resident, and I love it very much, but I don’t share the prevalent belief that it is the “more important” twin of the metro. Both cities need the other to thrive. In fact, the dynamic and competitive relationship between the two cities has historically contributed to our prosperity. Attempts to make the two cities the same undermines this productive arrangement, so I agree with Nick that we should not repeat the “here/there” downtown investment mistakes that have given us City Center/Town Square and Gavidee/Galtier, among others.

    But in agreeing, it seems that I’m also disagreeing. There is a logical problem with criticizing the “identical twin” paradigm and then supporting its contributing beliefs. Right now, the metro is poised to have one city with direct access to an international airport, and the other with direct access to a regional/national rail network. I think that this arrangement bolsters inherent distinctions within a bipartite regional center in a way that evokes, but does not mimic or resemble, the relationship between Portland and Seattle in the Pacific Northwest. I also love St. Paul–perhaps not to death–and I want to see it thrive right alongside the bigger twin.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/23/2012 - 08:58 am.

    Ballpark boongdogles.

    You would think after the extensive debates over the Twins and Vikings stadiums no would still be making these bogus economic claims, but there Coleman is. Fortunately the Saint’s stadium is small enough and inexpensive enough that is won’t damage the economy too much. If the tickets are cheap enough they may be able to build an entertainment areas around the new stadium that will encourage people to stay around.

  6. Submitted by Jeffrey Peterson on 09/25/2012 - 08:20 pm.

    Downtown entertainment

    I think you undersell downtown St. Paul as an entertainment center by not recognizing what you might characterize as “smaller attractions”. You failed to list the mid-sized History Theatre and Park Square Theater as well as the somewhat smaller Actor’s Theatre and the Minnesota Centennial Showboat on Harriet Island. Both the Fitzgerald Theater and the Artist’s Quarter are also located in this area and all worthy of recognition in this compact but increasingly vibrant performing arts neighborhood.

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