St. Paul's Riverfront Corp. adapting to new role in a new era

The St. Paul nonprofit now works citywide, but focuses more on design than managing projects. And it’s working in Wayzata too.

The St. Paul Riverfront Corp., the nonprofit that spearheaded downtown development in the halcyon 1990s and early 2000s, is looking beyond the riverfront.

Time and the economy have shrunk its role in managing projects and fundraising, and its board and staff are smaller than before. While it used to get more foundation funding for its operations, it now seeks grants for specific projects.

But now it provides design services for the entire city. And for the first time it has branched out beyond St. Paul, contracting with Wayzata to help develop a lakefront plan there.

Even its Great River Gathering, the city’s annual civic celebration at RiverCentre on Thursday populated mostly by St. Paul’s movers and shakers, is less about celebrating the corporation’s achievements than the city’s overall progress.

The focus today for the 19-year-old Riverfront Corp., said executive director Patrick Seeb, is on “high-quality urban design and placemaking as a core value that we believe over time will distinguish St. Paul and give it a competitive edge.”

Unlike the past, he added, “Much of our work is what we call value-added, where we are not the lead organization.”

Its primary tool is the St. Paul Design Center, three architects employed by the Riverfront Corp. — and assisted by city staffers — to review the design of private projects and make sure they meet St. Paul’s goals for a lively and welcoming city.

In the past year, the Riverfront Corp. also has taken part in community dialogues on how urban design can boost economic growth.

This week it helped sponsor events led by Katherine Loflin, a nationally known consultant on a project that found residents best connect with places that offer plenty of social venues such as entertainment, feature lots of green space and attractive structures, and welcome diverse groups. She will be the keynote speaker at Thursday’s banquet.

Riverfront Corp. board member Anne Hunt, environmental policy director for Mayor Chris Coleman, said that the organization has evolved like most nonprofits over the last 20 years. But she said it has always enforced the city’s commitment to good urban design. “You don’t just get a vibrant city without thoughtful due diligence and planning,” she said.

Mike Hahm, St. Paul’s parks and recreation director, said the Riverfront Corp. was a key collaborator in the city’s Great River Passage master plan, a thick land-use document the City Council approved last month to guide development of St. Paul’s 17-mile river corridor for the next several decades.

The Design Center also has been immersed in planning for the Central Corridor, Hahm said. “From our perspective, the Riverfront Corp. is still incredibly relevant,” he said.

Current Riverfront Corp. jobs include about a dozen Central Corridor-related projects, the Lowertown ballpark, West Side Flats development and the Payne Maryland Project on the East Side, Seeb said.

Design Center staffers are currently working with Metropolitan State University officials to find a different location for a parking ramp that the school wants to build along E. 7th Street, a potential streetcar route that city officials want to make safe and walkable.

About half of the corporation’s $1.1 million budget comes from foundations, and the other half comes from sponsorships and project income, Seeb said. It receives no funding from the state, and the only city support comes from donated staff time for the Design Center, he said.

In an unprecedented move last year, the Riverfront Corp. signed a $100,000 contract with Wayzata to engage residents in a community discussion about the city’s lakefront and help develop a 10-year improvement plan. Officials chose the Riverfront Corp. over nine other bidders for the project, City Manager Heidi Nelson said.

“We really felt like they had the breadth of skills and work experience that we were looking for to help us address issues here in Wayzata,” she said.

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