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St. Paul’s next hot neighborhood? Put your money on Payne Avenue

It’s weathered exits and foreclosures, but now the proud old neighborhood is home to a hot new bar/restaurant, Ward 6, that’s a force in a wider renewal.

Bob Parker of Ward 6
Photo by Bill Kelley
The Line

The 1885 building that houses the Ward 6 restaurant/bar in the Payne-Phalen area of St. Paul’s East Side looks like an old-fashioned saloon. Inside the dimly lit restaurant, a vintage hand-carved wooden bar harks back to a different era, when the old Hamm’s Brewery owned the place. Bob Parker, a driving force behind the 50-seat restaurant, says, “The first thing people say when they come in is how charming that bar is.”

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Through the years, the building has seen a variety of uses, even serving as a private home at one point. Parker says that he and his business partner, Eric Foster, “wanted a place where East Siders would come in and say, ‘this is our place.’ ” As a tribute to that intention, the restaurant’s name is hyperlocal: it refers to the city ward in which the bar is located, at St. Paul’s northeast corner. “A big part of the name is to re-brand the area,” Parker says.

That re-branding is happening. Ward Six is a major player in a redevelopment process that is binding together long-established businesses and newcomers to turn around a neighborhood that has experienced a lot of challenges in recent years, including the loss of such industrial mainstays as 3M and Whirlpool, plus a struggle with foreclosures. This corner of the “Rockin’ East Side” is on the rise.

A new Northeast?

The Ward 6 restaurateurs see plenty of potential in the area. “We knew the demographic was here and we could see the promise that exists here, what the East Side can become,” Parker says. He thinks of the East Side as an earlier-stage version of Northeast Minneapolis, on the cusp of becoming, like Northeast, a hotspot for beer, art and food.  And he points to affordable housing, projected light-rail transit, and the possible return of streetcars to the area as additional advantages.

Ultimately, the pair want to “build community and be a successful business,” Parker says, adding that they both live in nearby Dayton’s Bluff.

ward 6 sign
Photo by Bill Kelley
Ward 6 stresses local, sustainable food, with vegetarian options and grass­fed beef, plus live music on occasion.

A previous owner had tried but failed to bring a coffee shop to the space. Parker and Foster set out to expand on that idea, with a plan for a full-fledged eatery that would offer high-quality pub fare, coffee, cocktails, and craft beers. Parker is a veteran of the restaurant industry while Foster, who purchased the building, brings his experience as a nationally ranked beer judge to the venture. With their complementary skill sets, “We’re going for a comfortable kind of sophistication,” Parker says.

Ward 6, which opened in December of 2012, stresses local, sustainable food, with vegetarian options and grass­fed beef, plus live music on occasion. Sustainability in its operations is also a priority for Ward 6.

“Years of experience will allow us to make sound business choices including water usage, low waste/ composting, and recycling,” a prepared statement reads. And Parker adds: “There’s nothing else like this in this price range on the East Side.”

A new vision for the East Side

Anne DeJoy, a spokesperson for the East Side Neighborhood Development Company (ESNDC) says Ward 6 is a welcome addition to a neighborhood that also includes destinations like Yarusso Bros. Italian Restaurant, East Side Thai, and By More Taqueria.

yarusso restaurant
Photo by Bill Kelley
Yarusso Bros. Italian Restaurant is an East Side destination.

She’s glad to see the business open in a building that was once slated for demolition. “The actual historic preservation component is good for the neighborhood and the avenue,” she says. Payne Avenue is “home to a large number of historical treasures we would like to preserve.”

In an “area of focus for the neighborhood and the city,” Ward 6 complements recent developments like Kendall’s Ace Hardware and the Senior Lofts complex. The bar has been a catalyst for renovations of existing businesses too. For example, a major renovation underway at Eastside Thai “capitalizes on the new business Ward 6 has created,” says DeJoy. “New destination customers are in the area that other businesses can draw from.”

phalen lofts photo
Photo by Bill Kelley
The Phalen Senior Lofts

Nearby, the Payne Maryland Recreation Center and Library, which aims to be a community hub, is in development as well. Soon, a paved path, part of the Bruce Vento Regional Trail, will come close to the bar. Plus, the bar’s offerings “fit in with today’s mindset about purchasing local, fresh healthy products,” DeJoy says.

Focusing on the neighborhood’s assets

Scott Wende of the St. Paul-based Lunning Wende Associates, Inc., who has led various planning efforts in the neighborhood, agrees. In 2007, “We started to work with the residents, talking about the problems in the neighborhood with vacant houses,” he says.

The firm also undertook an assessment of vacant and for-sale buildings so that, in Wende’s words, “we could get an understanding of the building stock and why these buildings weren’t moving.” The community said, “’Let’s figure out what are our assets,’” he says.

In those early conversations about rehabbing the neighborhood, people’s “initial thoughts were that the green and sustainable approaches were only for their better-off neighbors,” says Wende. But it wasn’t long before many community members realized that going green could help make the area’s commercial buildings more attractive in the marketplace, particularly via physical improvements dealing with energy and lighting.

The firm, which was the architect behind the new Kendall’s Ace Hardware building nearby, designed it to be as energy-efficient as possible.

kendalls ace photo
Photo by Bill Kelley
Lunning Wende Associates, Inc. designed the new Kendall’s Ace Hardware

Within a handful of blocks around the hardware store and Ward 6, “We’re looking for a multiple-use kind of project to revitalize the area there,” he says.

A number of dilapidated homes nearby have been demolished, which helps make way for parking that’s tucked away from the main drag, he says. Other projects, such as the repaving of Payne Avenue, sidewalk replacement, and new tree plantings along the street, amount to significant public investment in the area. That’s something the neighborhood wants to expand on, Wende says.

Politicos vote for Ward 6 — and Payne

Scott Renstrom, a legislative aide in City Council member Dan Bostrom’s office (Ward 6), says Foster and Parker “saw the vitality and vibrancy going on there. They’re bringing their piece to the mix. It’s quite an investment on their part.”

It’s another example of the fact that “There’s a lot going on on Payne Avenue,” he says, adding, “It’s kind of happening.”

Erik Hare, who lives close to downtown St. Paul, has known Parker for many years. Going into Ward 6 on opening day, he thought, “There it was, Bob’s dream just like I had heard for many years … in the wood, the tile, the light, the feel of the place,” and in the food. Hare, a neighborhood activist who has worked to promote places like this, says, “Seeing something like this come on Payne is very dear to my heart.”

It’s just what the avenue needs, he says, “to continue the impressive turnaround that has taken place alongside public investment recently.”

Michelle Filkins, who works on Metropolitan State University’s East Side campus, went to the bar after hearing about it from a couple of friends who were eager to check it out. Filkins, who has been there for lunch and happy hour, gives the place high marks: “The space is welcoming, the wood bar is gorgeous, and the staff is friendly,” she says.

And then there’s the political buzz. During Filkins’ first visit, Mayor Chris Coleman sat at the table next to hers. “A steady stream of staff and customers circulated to his table to chat,” she says. Other politicians, like U.S. Sen. Al Franken, have also been known to stop by the restaurant.

That’s just another example of how Ward 6 has, as Filkins puts it, “a great community vibe,” and how the community it’s in is getting its vibe back.

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Anna Pratt is Development Editor of  The Line.