South St. Paul is ready to face the plain, unvarnished truth about itself.
Since November, the city has sought public comment on issues such as land use, transportation and quality of life in and around the so-called Southview-Marie area, as part of its downtown revitalization plan.
Officials said a planning study was undertaken to provide a conceptual framework for shaking up the mix of residential and commercial use in the survey area, whose boundaries are roughly from Marie Avenue to Southview Boulevard and 7th Avenue to 12th Avenue. Any public input will be woven into a concept plan for the area, officials said.
But residents and local business owners expressed increasing frustration with the city at a well-attended open house at City Hall last week, the second since November. Reactions varied, but one message was consistent: Most people felt that the city could be doing more to stoke new business development in the Downtown Redevelopment Project Area.
“People liked the walkability of the area. They kind of liked the feel; they felt it needed to be refreshed,” city planner Peter Hellegers told Planning Commission members at a November meeting. “There’s a lot of people who made the comments that it’s a nice area; they just felt it felt a little downtrodden and needed a face-lift.”
Hellegers said last week that the results of the study, which is being conducted by Stantec, a Roseville consulting firm, will be released in late February.
Once a prosperous blue-collar town of stockyards and meatpacking plants on the Mississippi River, the city of roughly 20,000 fell on hard times when those industries declined.
A cornerstone of the revitalization project is the site of the Big John’s Corner Bar on Southview Boulevard, since torn down, which sits adjacent to another key property, a former auto-body shop, according to city officials. Also discussed was updating zoning regulations, which city officials say haven’t been refreshed since the 1970s.
The city is hoping to lure developers and businesses in an effort to compensate for the loss of retail business brought on by “the construction of the highway system and the emergence of Robert Street” as a commercial corridor in nearby West St. Paul, said Paul Bilotta, a project manager at Stantec.
The area also dates back to a time when “Woodbury and Mall of America did not exist,” Bilotta said.
Some business owners at a recent open house complained that there isn’t enough traffic in the area to sustain business over time and were skeptical about whether the new plan would succeed.
“It does sort of feel like it got a little neglected because it has all of this traffic moving around it,” Hellegers said. “Here, because of the street patterns and because of the way that things developed around it, you don’t get the same type of movement there” that you would elsewhere.
And then there is the matter of what to call the area.
Among the names suggested at a recent open house were the Hilltop, Peace Haven, the Shops of South St. Paul and Grand Marie.
David Gerkovich, who attended the January meeting, said he has seen retail businesses come and go for years, with little resistance from the city. As he spoke, he paced behind the glass counter at B & G Crossing, the men’s and women’s clothing store he owns and a local institution for more than eight decades. It sits on a scruffy block of Marie Avenue that also contains a barbershop, an instrument retail and repair shop, and administrative offices for the South St. Paul school district.
“They’ve been looking at redeveloping this area for the last 30 years. And they’ve done studies, paid big bucks for companies to come in and do these studies,” Gerkovich said.
“I might fault the city a little bit for letting it happen,” he said.
A few blocks away, on Southview Boulevard, Kevin Rosen, who was also at the meeting, said he came away feeling more optimistic about the direction of the city. Still, he suggested that it could be doing more.
“The only concept that I thought would work was to clean it up,” said Rosen, who runs a photography studio with his wife, Sarah. “Make it look more like a Main Street.”