A plan driven by property owners to transform a sleepy stretch of 4th Street in downtown St. Paul into a lively pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly district appears to be gaining favor among city and county officials.
On Tuesday, proponents of the proposal — dubbed "4th Street Market District" — told Ramsey County commissioners that a feasibility study, funded by $40,000 from St. Paul and the Riverfront Development Corporation, will be completed by mid-November. Once the study is complete, elements of the project could find their way into city capital improvement plans, said Rich Pakonen, developer of the Pioneer Endicott Building at 4th and Robert streets. Now is the time to gather more allies, he said.
"We are seeking a partnership with the city and other people with a place at the table," Pakonen said after a presentation to the County Board, acting as the Regional Rail Authority. "You guys are invested in this street, just like we are."
The Green Line light rail train runs down parts of 4th Street, with its last station in front of Union Depot, which the county spent $243 million to renovate.
Introduced by building and business owners in March, the project seeks to develop new ground-floor retail, bike facilities, public art, lighting, landscaping and activities all along 4th Street, from near CHS Field and the Farmers Market in Lowertown to Rice Park near the Xcel Energy Center. Building and business owners raised $10,000 for the "vision report" unveiled in March.
The project would consist of three segments: murals to add visual appeal and "active spaces" at the western end, sculptures and bicycle parking in the middle section, and redevelopment of the former Station 4 rock club building, plus better pedestrian access and a Farmers market expansion onto the Union Depot lawn on the eastern end.
All along the route, pedestrian and bicycle traffic would be promoted and encouraged. Vehicle traffic would be limited in some areas, such as the eastern end of 4th where light rail has reduced street traffic to a single lane.
"So the question is now what?" said Joe Spartz, president of the Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association, who joined Pakonen and Stephanie Weir of St. Paul Smart Trips in presenting to the County Board. "How do we keep this momentum going forward?"
Pakonen praised city public works staff for their willingness to help the group give shape and form to the idea. The praise is mutual. Kathy Lantry, St. Paul's public works director, said the group's energy and enthusiasm has already won many allies for the Market District.
"How they talk about this project is just contagious," she said. "Rich [Pakonen] has just been a wonderful partner in downtown St. Paul. It's really hard not to support this."
Lantry acknowledged that it is unusual for a project to originate from the private sector rather than from the city. But she has no qualms about the project becoming part of the public works project discussion. Still to come will be engineering plans, cost estimates and funding requests. But Lantry said the city is excited that an active group of business owners are driving the discussion.
"We have to be more accessible to businesses who have a vision," she said. "Our job is to put some reality to it. How do emergency vehicles get through? How do we put everything in place to make this work?"
There will be more meetings between city and county staff and property owners, Pakonen said. Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega, chairman of the Regional Rail Authority, echoed his peers' enthusiasm for the project Tuesday and offered to meet with the group to hash out what the county's role might be.
"We're not trying to create a cookie cutter vision of what 4th Street could be, but realize there's a unique nature to 4th Street," Spartz said. "It can be a magnet for people — and a magnet for investors."