Catholic Charities’ ambitious plans to build a new Dorothy Day Center for the homeless near downtown St. Paul, rolled out to great fanfare by city and business leaders in December, have hit a speed bump on the East Side.
The Payne Phalen Planning Council last week asked Catholic Charities and Mayor Chris Coleman to pick another site “that does not further concentrate poverty, and which is not already saturated with services for at-risk populations.”
And Monday night, the land use committee of the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council heard from several residents and business owners who questioned why the site near Railroad Island — an East Side gateway — was chosen for a service center and shelter/housing facility with capacity for 470 people.
“With the burden of having a much greater population right in our midst, it’s hard to not be a NIMBY,” said Bob Parker, co-owner of Ward 6, a popular Payne Avenue gastropub.
Neighborhood support is critical because it could influence whether the Legislature this session awards Catholic Charities $22 million in state bonds and $17 million in housing infrastructure bonds for the project. That would cover more than half of the project’s $64 million price tag.
Tim Marx, CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, assured neighbors that the new Dorothy Day Center would be designed and operated in such a way that loitering would be minimized, grounds would be patrolled and residents would make their home in the facility and not nearby parks.
“Not only do we want to serve individuals, we want a strong and healthy community,” he said at the meeting.
There are other sites that could work, Marx said, but none with the size, access and availability of the Grove Street site just northeast of the junction of Interstates 35E and 94.
The issue is expected to go before the full district council board for a vote before the end of the month.
Concerns from the start
A mayoral task force drawn from the business, faith, government and nonprofit sectors chose the proposed location after examining a number of sites across the city.
About half the sites were on the East Side near Railroad Island because of their proximity to downtown and transit, the available acreage and the lack of zoning issues.
In December, the task force recommended that two buildings — a shelter and transitional housing facility similar to the Higher Ground building in Minneapolis, and a service center — go up on the Grove Street site, with a separate permanent housing facility to be built at the current Dorothy Day location.
While the project enjoys the support of St. Paul legislators such as Sen. Sandy Pappas and Rep. Carlos Mariani, Rep. Tim Mahoney, also of St. Paul, opposes the proposed site and thinks it’s being pushed by downtown business interests anxious to move Dorothy Day and unlock the commercial potential of the current site, near Xcel Energy Center.
Mahoney said Monday that the state-owned Grove Street site proposed for Dorothy Day may not be available for three years because it’s being used by crews working on the State Capitol’s restoration. Why, he asked Marx, can’t you build on the current site?
Marx replied that it would be hard to expand housing and shelter space there, and tough to provide ongoing services during construction.
“It would be logistically difficult and more expensive, but also not impossible,” he said.
East Siders expressed concerns from the start.
Sage Holben, a library technician who is chairwoman of the land use committee for the Dayton’s Bluff council, said Monday that she found out about the proposed site in the newspaper. It’s hard to win the neighborhood’s trust, she said, “when the immediate community [is] the last to know.”
Cliff Carey, a carpenter who helped turn the Stutzman Building on E. 7th Street into an East Side showpiece, said neighbors are worried that Dorothy Day may add to the area’s panhandling problems. Attorney Jane Prince, a former City Council aide, wanted to know if Catholic Charities had a plan to reduce homeless camps in East Side parks.
A local businessman who was not at the meeting, Danny Klecko, said he welcomed the prospect of having Dorothy Day nearby.
“I was nervous when we moved because I knew our neighbor was going to be the Union Gospel Mission. Will they deter our business? But they’ve been a tremendous neighbor,” said Klecko, CEO of St. Agnes Baking Co.
Marx said he understood the concerns but believed they would vanish once Dorothy Day arrives.
“After a year or two, or even six months, people will think what was the fuss over, because we will be adding value to the community,” he said.