Dan O'Gara stood before more than 100 of his neighbors and tried to answer the question: Why?
Why tear down an Irish pub that has been at the corner of Snelling and Selby in St. Paul since 1941? Why put up an apartment building, with a smaller bar, at an intersection that is already maddening at rush hour?
Why make even more changes to a neighborhood that already is going through so many changes, as new restaurants, apartments and even a soccer stadium to the north encroach?
"We needed to do something drastic to stay here," the third-generation owner of O'Gara's told neighbors who gathered Monday at the Union Park District Council's land use committee meeting. "This is an emotional thing for my family and me, to be honest with you."
The meeting is just the beginning of the conversation with neighbors as O'Gara and the developer, Ryan Cos., kicked off the process.
With young staff members armed with markers ready to jot down "Top Opportunities," "Top Concerns" and "Big Ideas" on sheets of paper stuck to the wall, O'Gara and Tony Barranco of Ryan seemed well aware that they need the neighbors on board. They hope to begin work in the fall, and possibly have the project completed by spring 2020.
But much remains to be done before workers can start demolishing the 110-year-old building that has housed O'Gara's since Dan's grandfather, Jim O'Gara, opened the pub 77 years ago.
"No," they answered to a question about whether any of the original building can be preserved or incorporated. Even saving the brick facade would prove too expensive.
Yes, Barranco said, they would look at ways they could work with the city to help "calm" traffic in the area.
And, they said, they sure would consider ways to preserve three houses to the south, which are owned by O'Gara's, that have been home to bar employees and neighbors for years.
Together, they assured neighbors that their input over the next several months is not only welcome, but needed. O'Gara said that Ryan's community involvement on the nearby Vintage project was a major reason why he chose them to develop the new building that he hopes will save his family business for generations to come.
Barranco, who elicited laughs from the crowd several times during the presentation and seemed totally at ease, said: "The part with you guys [neighbors] will be really critical to us."
O'Gara said they have not yet completed drawings for the project, wanting the neighborhood to weigh in first. Some things are relatively certain: The bar will be significantly smaller, as a space that was expanded to hold 900 customers at a time when college students flocked to listen to live bands now is lucky to host a third of that. The pub will be the only commercial tenant in the building, occupying about 4,000 square feet in a complex that will be smaller and shorter than the Vintage and Whole Foods store across Selby. And most of the parking for the new building will be below ground.
There are things that those in the crowd said they would like to see: Apartments that are affordable enough for O'Gara's employees to be able to live there. Some said they would like to see small, locally owned shops join O'Gara's in filling the ground level. And it would be awfully nice if the new building could at least mimic the classic brick look of the old one.
Barranco and his staff members scribbled it all down. After all, he told the neighbors, the things they have done to transform their neighborhood over the years have made projects like this possible.
"Because of all the work you guys have done to make this a special neighborhood, people want to be here," he said.