NewStudio Architecture was bursting at the seams of its suburban offices, and it was time, Adam Jarvi said, to find fresh digs. So NewStudio took a look at the western slice of St. Paul's Midway, drawn by its easy access to the Green Line for the company's young, transit-oriented professionals.
But there was something else, he said. The area itself has become "super interesting," with breweries, restaurants, a soccer stadium under construction and a slew of other new ventures.
"We are a creative business, and we want to be somewhere where there's a little energy," Jarvi said of NewStudio's move in May to a former furniture factory that his firm redesigned into an airy showplace of brick, timber and glass.
Over the past couple years, the nondescript wedge bordered by Prior Avenue, Hwy. 280, Interstate 94 and Pierce Butler Route has quietly become an economic development heavyweight. St. Paul's Creative Enterprise Zone (CEZ), featuring potters and playwrights, builders and brewpubs, boasts more than 43,000 jobs and a bigger tax base than downtown St. Paul, according to a report done for the CEZ.
Now those who helped transform once-empty factories and warehouses into creative spaces are seeking the city's help to preserve the area's character.
Worried that growing popularity could attract the kind of development that would price out artisans and entrepreneurs — similar to what's happened in the Lowertown district of downtown St. Paul — a coalition of area business owners and residents is asking St. Paul leaders to support policies that encourage growth while preserving the area's creative vibe. They want a meeting with Mayor Melvin Carter.
"This area is rapidly developing. We are in the bull's-eye of the Twin Cities," said Catherine Reid Day, chairwoman of the CEZ's board of directors. "The economic future of the city is here."
But Bruce Corrie, St. Paul's Planning and Economic Development director, said he wants to help the CEZ continue its roll.
"I was a fan of the Creative Enterprise Zone before I took this job, for the simple reason they are introducing a unique tool to economic development, which is art and art space," he said. "I certainly want to encourage the growth. … But as developments occur and we become aware that growth may not benefit all, we can ask, 'What can we do to help?' "
A 'cultural' start
The CEZ traces its roots to 1992, when the city designated the area surrounding the intersection of Raymond and University avenues as a Neighborhood Cultural District. Since then, creative businesses drawn to inexpensive space in old, large and underused industrial buildings have continued to fill a void.
To preserve that creative identity, the St. Anthony Park Community Council in 2009 initiated what would become the Creative Enterprise Zone. The matter of preserving the neighborhood's character took on special urgency, Day said, with the arrival of the Green Line and the uptick in housing in the light-rail corridor.
Tom Fisher, director of the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota, said the CEZ is on the right track and that St. Paul officials should work to accelerate the creative re-use of the zone's otherwise dormant manufacturing space.
"Creators are important to the future of cities around the world," he said, adding that 80 universities are examining urban neighborhoods like the CEZ. "Yet, there still is really a lot of underutilized land and underutilized buildings in the CEZ."
What St. Paul should do, he said, is tweak its zoning and regulations to encourage "creative industrial" uses of the area's old warehouses, such as live-work spaces for craft manufacturers, artisans and sculptors.
"It is hard for the arts community to find big loft spaces," he said. "Lowertown had some but they weren't as tall. This could be one of the most productive spaces in the state."
Because the area also is an Opportunity Zone, making tax credits available, Fisher said the city could offer incentives to promote artistic-industrial uses and help prevent old warehouses from being torn down to build more traditional housing.
For now, Day said, they want to raise awareness among city leaders and the St. Paul Port Authority about the economic benefits that St. Paul reaps from the CEZ. The focus will be on how the city can help enhance and protect it. One idea is to fly in London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a champion of enterprise zones who is offering grants to test their feasibility in his city's boroughs.
A report done for the CEZ makes several recommendations. They include workspaces ranging from 150-square-foot studios to 10,000-foot production lines with a variety of rents, help for creative businesses to own their properties and allowing property owners to improve existing buildings without "triggering a host of unneeded renovations," Day said.
To Peter Hansen, artistic director of Gremlin Theatre who recently moved into a converted mattress factory, perhaps the biggest thing the city can do for the zone is promote it.
Hansen's theater has entertained 10,000 audience members and hosted hundreds of artists over 20 seasons at three different facilities. Not bad for a neighborhood theater, he said. But city help in promoting the area would do even more.
"Artists make an area attractive," Hansen said. "If things here are community-based and community-supported, the people will want to retain it."
Herbert Tousley is principal and chief development manager for Exeter Group, which owns the building now occupied by NewStudio Architecture as well as several others. He agreed that the area's identity is attractive and pointed to a burst of creative businesses drawn there, such as Can Can Wonderland, saying it's "important to the fabric of the area" to maintain a continuing artistic presence.
Still, he said, he's not sure how much the area can be insulated from the kind of development that often follows the artistic wave.
"I don't know that there's a magic bullet that would save the area from being gentrified," Tousley said.
Pointing to tenants in nearby Exeter properties that include breweries, advertising and marketing firms — even a company that makes things out of waffles — Tousley said he doubted the neighborhood would lose its "creative vibe" anytime soon.
"Creators like to be around each other," he said. "Creative users are a natural fit for these types of buildings. And the demand for that space is growing. The more you can build that base, the more the demand to come into that area."