St. Paul's Lowertown has gotten hot without losing its charm

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 18, 2012 - 8:13 AM

Relax with a "Macho Camacho" margarita at Barrio. Savor a Béarnaise sauce with French fries at Faces. Buy peonies at the Farmers Market. Dance barefoot in Mears Park to live jazz and blues. Maybe someday stroll into an artsy new St. Paul regional ballpark that's home for the minor-league Saints.

More than a decade after artists began migrating into the downtown St. Paul neighborhood near the Farmers Market, Lowertown is a boomtown, one of the hottest destinations in the metro area.

"Now it's a 24-hour neighborhood," said Terri Cermak, whose architectural firm has been in the Northwestern Building at 275 E. 4th St. for about 15 years. She and her husband, Todd Rhoades, said they chose the location for the price and the mojo. "There are so many artists down here, it's a really nice creative atmosphere," Rhoades said.

Once a sleepier part of town, Lowertown has burst onto the urban scene in recent years with new apartments and condos, music festivals, bars and restaurants. The 58 city-built luxury rental Lofts at Farmers Market were fully leased even before the building's grand opening. In the next couple of years, the Central Corridor light-rail line will be rolling into a busy, remodeled Union Station. More city-built apartments, a Lunds grocery store and a new city park are planned. The biggest prospective coming attraction is a Saints ballpark that would play host to an anticipated 150 events a year, drawing up to 7,000 people each time.

Mayor Chris Coleman is bullish on St. Paul's prospects for snagging the $27 million state grant needed to begin digging for the minor league ballpark to replace the deteriorating Midway Stadium. Word is expected by midsummer.

"Even though it will be a very popular place, it's always going to be a small part of [Lowertown]," Coleman said.

Kae Peterson, 96, has watched the area develop for the past 20 years from her home on the top floor of Galtier Plaza. "Lowertown is developing beautifully," she said. "We really want that ballpark and we're happy about the light rail."

Lowertown's identity started with the Farmers Market, followed by rent-controlled artists' apartments and galleries along with smaller start-up businesses. The past decade has brought eateries, market-rate apartments and higher-end condos. Live music in Mears Park is now an integral part of summer in Lowertown.

The Mississippi Riverfront trails connecting to Minneapolis' Grand Rounds are within walking distance, as is the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.

Lowertown has kept its laid-back bohemian vibe while drawing computer pioneer Cray Inc. and keeping public affairs firm Goff Public.

The city doesn't track separate data for Lowertown, but overall the number of residents downtown has inched upward since 1990 when 4,410 people lived there. Ten years later that number grew to 5,743. In 2010, downtown had 7,057 residents.

Mike Zipko, a principal at Goff who also worked for former Mayor Norm Coleman, said Lowertown's tipping point was the arrival of the Bulldog and Barrio restaurants. "They start feeding into each other," he said of the cluster of eateries that now includes Bin, the nationally renowned Heartland, Kelly's Depot Bar and Station 4.

Zipko said the neighborhood has developed steadily on its own, adding, "There's not a master plan for Lowertown and that's probably why it works."

But Faces owner David Fhima said Lowertown needs a more defined identity, such as the Uptown neighborhood in Minneapolis and 50th and France in Edina. At 10 p.m., people go to Uptown for nightlife, while the Edina area is a daytime spot.

Fhima, raised in France, praised Lowertown as a melange of younger and older people and "European charm" and "American ingenuity." But the stew "creates confusion about what Lowertown is about," he said.

Drawn by the mix of ages and incomes, former St. Paul Council Member Jerry Blakey and a partner opened a liquor store in Lowertown in 2004. "You hear about starving artists, but they like their craft beer," Blakey said, adding that he's definitely looking forward to a ballpark. "We'll be Tailgate Central."

Lowertown's "got life now," said Golden's Deli owner Jim Golden. "It's finally grown to expectations. It's really happening."

Golden started his business selling bagels at the Farmers Market in 1984. He graduated to operating from a $25-a-month closet, eventually opened a serving window in the Northwestern Building, grew slowly to a full-on restaurant and just received his liquor license.

Like Blakey's store, the deli is festooned with rotating works by neighborhood artists. "I hope it stays the same," he said of the area's creative culture. As for an influx of people for possible St. Paul Saints and other ballgames, Golden said, "Ultimately, I think everybody would do better."

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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