Nighttime visitors to downtown St. Paul are familiar with the dead zone.
They head to the event superblock that holds the Ordway, RiverCentre, Roy Wilkins Auditorium and Xcel Energy Center, or to the Lowertown scene, with CHS Field and the bars and restaurants near Mears Park. That quiet stretch in between? After 5 p.m., it's a no man's land — one that even City Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents the area, said she tends to avoid.
But a group of building and business owners along the quiet stretch hope to change that, debuting a plan Monday for what they call the "4th Street Market District." It would try to transform the street with new ground-floor retail, bike facilities, public art, lighting, landscaping and activities.
"There's a lot of investment" in downtown St. Paul, said Stephanie Weir, who works at the nonprofit St. Paul Smart Trips and will lead community outreach for the project. "Connecting it all up, having downtown as a whole be a place people want to visit, is really exciting."
The Market District concept does not yet have funding or a timeline. But the discussion among area property owners about how to change 4th Street has been going on for a couple of years. A report written in November after a workshop with business and building owners outlines additions and changes along three segments of the road, including limiting vehicle access in some places.
Illuminated panels and murals are suggested between Washington and Cedar streets, as are "active spaces," such as a place to play ping-pong in front of Landmark Towers and a splash pad at Rice Park. From Cedar to Sibley streets, the group wants a sculpture walk, public bathrooms and bicycle parking, and better use of the plaza in front of the federal courthouse. And between Sibley and Broadway, the building that once housed the Station 4 rock club should be redeveloped, alleys should have better pedestrian access and the Farmers Market should be expanded into the Union Depot plaza, the report says.
Unlike the continuous layout of Minneapolis' Nicollet Mall, the Fourth Street plan consists of varied designs and uses planned along the streetscape, Noecker said at a discussion of the project Monday, and would include designated space for bicyclists and pedestrians that would connect to the broader network of nearby trails.
Noecker said she sees the district as separate from the bicycling commuter loop planned around downtown. The 4th Street path, she said, would be for walkers and cyclists to "amble leisurely."
"It's about the walk being interesting and safe," Noecker said. While there is not a timeline for the project, she said she is "determined to move it forward urgently."
Lorraine Dixon, who owns Legacy Chocolates on 4th Street with her husband, Mark Dixon, said she has mixed feelings about the plan. She wants the area to be family- and cyclist-friendly, but said vehicles will still need access. She said she anticipates such concerns will be addressed as the plan advances.
Weir said she plans to start gathering public feedback this summer.
"There's definitely flexibility in it, and I think there's definitely room for more ideas," she said.
It's unusual for a project to originate from the private sector rather than the city, said Tracey Kinney, with the Saint Paul Riverfront Corp., which is helping with the 4th Street effort. But she said the group of business and building owners wanted to continue the momentum that came with the Green Line light rail and CHS Field, as well as the renovation of Union Depot. The group raised $10,000 for the vision report.
"Often, as a city, we come up with ideas from the top down and try to come up with support for them," Noecker said, adding that it's exciting to have the reverse happen with this project.
Joe Ellickson, spokesman for the city's Public Works Department, echoed that sentiment. For now, he said city officials are just "listening and observing."
City staff will get more involved as the project progresses. The public and private sectors will have to dive into the details and make sure "the vision meets what's happening on the road," Kinney said, then come up with cost estimates.
The next stages of the project will likely be paid for with a combination of resources, including city money, cash from property owners and grants, said Joe Spartz, president of the Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association.