The last time North St. Paul had a building boom, city leaders say, Elvis Presley was crooning on the jukebox. But suddenly the Ramsey County suburb is awash in activity.

Best known for its weekly classic car show in the summer and its giant smiling snowman off Hwy. 36, North St. Paul has nearly 400 new townhouses and apartments in the works on four different sites, in or near downtown. The city of 12,500 is starting to appeal to new home buyers seeking affordable and authentic communities close to work, and developers are looking to meet that growing demand.

“The last time a hundred homes went in North St. Paul was in the 1950s. This is really an exciting time for us,” said Scott Duddeck, interim city manager and a lifelong resident. “There is a lot of work and activity, but these are all good problems to have.”

Reviving the city’s sleepy downtown has been on the city’s agenda for decades, but in years past developers typically zipped right by on their way to the Woodburys and Maple Groves of the metro. Mayor Terry Furlong said residents are beginning to understand that growth is needed to keep Main Street in business.

“People understand that for the survival of our downtown, we need some sort of population,” Furlong said.

The first new homes are expected to go up this year. M/I Homes will build 100 townhouses on half of the old Anchor Block manufacturing site on McKnight Road. A model home is expected to be built by fall.

The townhouses, to be called Gateway at McKnight, will range from 1,700- to 2,100-square feet with 2- and 3-car garages. Prices will start in the high $200,000s, offering buyers a chance to live in an established neighborhood without the fixer-upper hassles of older homes, said Allison Boreen, M/I internet sales manger.

“Building new in an existing area is really attractive. There is already culture. There are already things to do,” Boreen said. “It’s not cookie-cutter and sterile. People like that.”

Taking the initiative

It’s not only market forces driving North St. Paul’s boom. City leaders have been actively partnering with developers and buying up pieces of land that can be assembled into larger parcels, said Molly Just, city planner. That legwork is paying off.

“To be talking to this many developers at one time, that is unheard of,” said Just, who is a senior planner with the Minneapolis firm WSB. “This sort of reinvestment, particularly in the downtown, is really precedent-setting and an example of how North St. Paul is open to exploring all kinds of projects.”

For instance, the city bought two side-by-side dentist offices on Margaret Street and is working with developers to turn the property into 75 market-rate apartments within the next year. It’s doing the same with the former city hall building and surrounding lots on 7th Avenue, slated to become 87 new apartments with restaurant space.

The northern half of the former Anchor Block manufacturing site could be transformed into 100 or more apartments, Just said, and city officials are talking with the landowner and a potential developer.

City leaders say they’re confident that if they add 1,000 more residents to downtown, restaurants, coffee shops and additional shopping will follow.

Like the State Fair

North St. Paul has good bones for a Main Street revival, leaders said. The city, surrounded by Maplewood on three sides, was founded in 1887 by Henry Castle, a Civil War veteran who owned the St. Paul Dispatch. Castle swiftly turned a portion of his 1,200-acre farm into “a workingman’s community” with a “resort atmosphere,” building 100 cottages and stores between May and September of 1887, according to a history on the city’s website.

The footprint of that downtown area still exists today along 7th Avenue and Margaret Street. There’s an eclectic smattering of businesses that include a handful of antique shops, an auction house, a bookshop, florist, a bar, post office and Chinese restaurant.

Every Friday evening in the summer, the downtown fills with people and classic cars for the “North St. Paul History Cruze Car Show.” The event, featuring live music, food trucks and dozens of classic cars, draws thousands each week and keeps many of those downtown shops in business.

“The car show is unbelievable,” Furlong said. “Every Friday in the summer, there’s a couple thousand people here. It’s like being at the State Fair.”

North St. Paul antique dealer and resident Deb Hooge said she supports the city’s growth, especially the owner-occupied townhouses now planned for McKnight Road. “It will be great to have more people and their dollars in our little town,” she said.

Carolyn Howard, who owns La’ Garage vintage gift and home decor shop with her husband, Del, called downtown North St. Paul a hidden gem that would benefit from more people discovering it. She is optimistic about the new homes and apartments, which will provide space for more young families.

“This is a beautiful community. It’s a small-town feel nestled right in the metro area. We are close to everything,” Howard said. “It’s great to see families walking down the street pushing a stroller.”