At a time when St. Paul's S. Robert Street is being eyed as a site for several new rapid-transit alternatives, a local nonprofit is trying to inject new life into stalled plans to build a commercial building on a vacant lot along the busy street.
The Neighborhood Development Alliance (NeDA) earlier this year gained "tentative developer" status from the St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority for a city-owned parcel at 430 S. Robert St. in the District del Sol, across the Mississippi River from downtown.
This month NeDA got another boost when it received the same status for a much-needed neighboring parcel, which would be necessary to provide parking for the proposed office/retail building. Karen Reid, the nonprofit group's executive director, said her group and its neighborhood backers are "moving aggressively" to revive plans that were begun by others five years ago but fell through with the recession.
"Our goal is to build a really nice commercial property that makes a statement about the neighborhood and will spur further development and create new value along Robert Street," she said.
With the developer status in hand, the group now has a three-year window to raise an estimated $2 million for what is currently envisioned to be a three-story building featuring first-floor retail space.
The site was initially targeted for redevelopment in the last decade. For many years it was home to a gas station and had contamination issues. In 2008, it was owned by a private entity that partnered with another West Side community group, the now-defunct Riverside Economic Development Alliance, to secure cleanup grants from the state of Minnesota and the Metropolitan Council.
But then the economy soured and the redevelopment plans fell through. The city's HRA bought the site and used the grants to complete the cleanup. It has been vacant since then. Reid said NeDA then entered the picture, seeing it as an opportunity to capitalize on Robert Street's status as a candidate for a new streetcar or a bus rapid transit line to help bring new investment to the low-to-moderate-income neighborhood.
The major commercial thoroughfare, which stretches from downtown St. Paul through West St. Paul to Inver Grove Heights, is currently the focus of the Robert Street Transitway Alternatives Study, in which Ramsey and Dakota counties are assessing its potential to serve as a high-capacity mass transit corridor.
It also got high marks for development potential in the city of St. Paul's effort to pick out the best route for a "starter" streetcar line through the city, although this week the city gave the nod to a line spanning east and west Seventh Street for the initial route.
NeDA last year landed a $40,000 Met Council transit-oriented development grant to hire Lunning Wende Associates to draw up some initial architectural plans for the proposed building, which Reid said are exciting.
"We've been talking with the West Side Community Organization and the local business council about this project, which would be a 'green building' centerpiece with solar panels and a rooftop garden, and with the first floor having transit-oriented retail," she said.
Possible retail tenants, she said, could be chosen not only to fill gaps in District del Sol, but also to cater to hundreds of new residents moving to the area in the nearby West Side Flats apartments from developer Sherman Associates, which are set to open in March.
The ambitious project, however, faces many challenges before it can become a reality. Times are still tough for nonprofit community developers such as NeDA seeking to line up lenders.
"It's easy to plan beautiful buildings, but it's harder to get the financing," Reid said. "We'd be making a bigger building that would be more valuable than what's already on Robert Street. Future transit may increase property values, but it's not easy to do a premier project in a moderate-income neighborhood."
Don Jacobson is a freelance writer in St. Paul and former editor of the Minnesota Real Estate Journal. He has covered Twin Cities commercial real estate for about 10 years.