Between the new apartments and restaurants of Lowertown and the busy breweries and stores of W. 7th Street, the heartbeat of downtown St. Paul remains barely audible.
Even as city leaders celebrate the growth of the past several years, they’re turning their eyes to the Central Business District, where glossy corporate offices are just steps from vacant storefronts and not much happens after 5 p.m.
“We’ve made such great strides in downtown St. Paul over the last decade,” said Joe Spencer, president of the Downtown Alliance. “We want to encourage that to continue to grow ever more strong, and grow toward the middle, which I think it is.”
Local government officials are courting startups, planning park improvements, budgeting to rebuild streets and advocating for more transit. Long term, they envision major projects — including new skyscrapers — that would transform the face of the city.
It’s an ambitious undertaking, one that Mayor Melvin Carter said he hopes outlives his time at City Hall.
“I see absolutely nothing but opportunity for downtown,” the mayor said in an interview. “We want downtown to look like a place that you’re there, and you say, ‘This is where I want to plan my dream.’ ”
Those already downtown remain hopeful, but they also have seen big plans fall short.
Joe Furth moved his Eclipse Records to Wabasha Street from University Avenue in 2011. While he likes being downtown, he said, he’s worried about the lack of activity — even with new development, like the Treasure Island Center on the former Macy’s site.
“There was all this talk about how it was going to bring a ton of people downtown, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case,” he said. “There just really isn’t enough to drive them down here.”
City investments come first
The downtown Central Business District is home to corporate offices, including Securian Financial and Ecolab, museums, theaters and government buildings. Though its location isn’t clearly defined, it falls between Interstates 94 and 35E to the north and the Mississippi River to the south.
Under former Mayor Chris Coleman, the city spent $62 million to overhaul the Penfield apartment complex before selling the building to a real estate firm in 2016, and oversaw the renovation of the historic Palace Theatre, which reopened as a concert venue in 2017 after a decadeslong closure.
There’s more to come. The City Council will hold a public hearing Wednesday on the $1.3 million sale of the former Public Safety Annex building, which includes an overhaul of the adjacent Pedro Park. Half a mile away, renovations to Rice Park are expected to be completed next month.
In Carter’s view, city infrastructure investments are key to attracting private investment downtown. The mayor’s 2019 budget includes $3 million for rebuilding downtown streets.
Early this year, Carter and other elected officials joined local business leaders to form the Downtown Alliance, a nonprofit focused on bringing new development and jobs to the city’s core. For the first time, there will be a downtown Special Service District, which will allow the city to collect fees to pay for better lighting, landscaping and other improvements.
“It’s not like there’s a secret, like, how do downtowns get activated, and how do they get ambassador programs that show people around, and how do they get better signage and garbage cans?” said Council Member Rebecca Noecker, whose ward includes downtown. “This is how they do it.”
Noecker said she wants existing buildings filled up and new buildings constructed on vacant lots — including, she said, a “skyline-defining tower” next to the Central Station light rail stop. She’s also advocating, with other council members, for multiple downtown stops on the proposed Gold Line bus rapid transit route.
According to the Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), the number of people living downtown nearly doubled between 2010 and 2018, from 4,862 to 9,457. The group’s biannual retail survey, conducted this summer, found the number of square feet devoted to retail has grown, though the number of retailers has dropped.
Meanwhile, about 19 percent of the office space in the Central Business District is vacant, according to BOMA.
Back to the river
City leaders have recognized for years the unrealized potential of the Mississippi riverfront, which offers a dramatic overlook but is sparsely visited.
In 2016, the city unveiled a master plan for the River Balcony, a 1.5-mile overlook and walking path stretching from the Science Museum to Union Depot. Planners said construction could begin as early as 2017, but the city has since taken a step back.
“It was literally just a concept and we really need to understand, what is it, and do people support it, and then go into schematic design,” said Mary DeLaittre, manager of the city’s Great River Passage initiative, which includes the River Balcony and other projects.
DeLaittre said the group is pulling together $600,000 in public and private money for a River Balcony design.
Meanwhile, the city wants to build a new RiverCentre parking ramp with a hotel or other development attached, and Ramsey County is in talks with developers for the former West Publishing site.
One of the potential West Publishing developers, Los Angeles-based AECOM, proposed four skyscrapers — which would potentially include a hotel, multifamily residential, retail and office space — for the site.
Waiting for change
Like other downtowns across the country that have yet to recover from the death of destination department stores, downtown St. Paul is short on retail. Retailers who have opened downtown say they worry about the vacancies around them.
Sue Zumberge moved her business, Subtext Books, from Cathedral Hill to Fifth and Wabasha streets less than four years ago. In that time, she said, she’s watched fellow downtown shops close their doors.
“I would like to have more people here,” Zumberge said. “I would like to have more actual retail in downtown.”
Both Zumberge and Furth, of Eclipse Records, said they have customers who travel specifically to visit their stores. The Palace Theatre has brought business to the record store, Furth said.
Though business sometimes is slow, both store owners said they want to stay downtown as long as they can — in part because they want to see what happens in the Central Business District and along the riverfront.
“It’s like for every two steps forward, you take one step back, but I see the trend going in the right direction,” Furth said. “Some of these things take a lot longer than you want them to take.”