The allure of living in downtown St. Paul is obvious to Rochester native Brianne Hamm.
Great music venues, inviting restaurants, funky night spots, the Saints, the Wild — and all within easy walking distance from her office in the Securian Center to her condo at the Lowry.
“I can walk from the Bulldog [in Lowertown] to Tom Reid’s [on West Seventh],” she said. “I have to truck it, but it’s possible. I just love it here.”
It is not an accident, demographers and city leaders say, that St. Paul has watched its population rebound to nearly 300,000 after years of decline and stagnation. Over the past decade, planners and boosters have cultivated a growing array of cultural, entertainment, sporting and fine dining attractions — along with a corresponding growth in housing options — to lure young professionals and retirees alike looking for walkable neighborhoods filled with amenities.
In fact, St. Paul’s population growth over the past five years has been so robust and sustained, Mayor Chris Coleman said last week that he expects the capital city to hit its highest population ever before the next census. In 1960, the city topped out at 313,000 residents.
“It’s very easy to see we will exceed the all-time high in the next few years,” he said, pointing to current housing projects such as the West Side Flats, the Penfield, and the Pioneer Endicott, as well as soon-to-be developed housing in the city’s north quadrant, downtown, along several transit corridors and at the former Ford plant site.
What’s happening in St. Paul mirrors what’s happening across the river in Minneapolis, too, and is part of a larger trend across the country, where urban centers and first-ring suburbs are experiencing a resurgence in growth.
“It’s absolutely in line with what we’re seeing nationally,” said State Demographer Susan Brower. “It’s a sustained trajectory or direction that we’re going in.”
Much of the Twin Cities’ growth has been driven by a new wave of immigrants, many of whom are drawn to the region because of the promise of jobs. Yet both cities are conscious of building on the momentum.
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges has set a city population goal of more than 500,000 residents ‘‘in the next couple of decades,” partly by adding dense housing along transit routes. In 2013, the city passed the 400,000 mark for the first time since the mid-1970s.
Coleman hasn’t established a population goal for his city, but said growth — and surpassing the 313,000 mark — is dependent on much more than just housing.
“We are not just creating places to live in St. Paul,” he said. “We are creating reasons to live in St. Paul that are attractive to millennials and others.”
Appealing to hipsters
From a developing Eat Street along Payne Avenue on the city’s East Side, to Grand Avenue shops, University Avenue Asian markets, an expanding downtown entertainment district and sparkling new minor league ballpark in Lowertown, St. Paul is developing an eclectic, unique identity, said former state demographer Tom Gillaspy.
And it’s one that is proving as appealing to young people in their 20s and 30s as it is to older folks looking to downsize.
“Young people, millennials, are really quite different from previous generations,” Gillaspy said.
Whereas previous generations at the same point in their lives wanted to live in a big house, in a rural or exurban area for more elbow room, Gillaspy said millennials burdened by student loans want don’t want to be tied to a house payment and do want to live closer to the city and spend less time commuting.
“Now, with young people staying closer in, things are growing up around them,” Gillaspy said. “Cool places to live, hang out, spend money. St. Paul now has more and more of those places.”
He added: “I heard a word describing them that I hadn’t heard in years — hipsters.”
Jon Oulman took a chance on attracting hipsters to St. Paul four years ago, when he opened the Amsterdam Bar and Hall on Wabasha in a downtown space that had been occupied by a failed restaurant. An art dealer and club owner (he has owned the 331 Club in northeast Minneapolis for 10 years), Oulman said he was convinced that if he built the right venue, the people would come.
“I had a history of engaging communities with culture,” he said. “I know that demographic.”
As a live music venue, the Amsterdam has featured metal, hip-hop and bluegrass, seating crowds from 50 to 500. It hosts comedians, trivia contests and spelling bees. “We’ve done weddings.”
Its vibe? “Scratch and dent,” Oulman said with a smile.
Oulman, who lives in a converted pool house in St. Paul’s Ramsey Hill neighborhood overlooking downtown, recently opened Como Dockside at the Como Lakeside Pavilion.
“I’m all in,” he said about St. Paul. “There is something unique to this place.”
Hamm, who lived in Las Vegas and Minneapolis before earning her MBA at the University of St. Thomas, said the Amsterdam “is one of my favorite places.” But she has several — rattling off the names of clubs and restaurants throughout downtown.
She recently moved from an apartment at the Pioneer Endicott to a condo facing the St. Paul Hotel. A hockey and baseball fan, she says St. Paul has just about everything she and her friends want.
“I have done my transition years,” she said. “This is where I want to settle.”
Coleman and his staffers are convinced that developing the historic Palace Theatre into another performance venue will help continue the momentum. The St. Paul City Council last fall approved $8 million to help turn the nearly 100-year-old venue into a 3,000-seat performance space.
Given who is moving to St. Paul, and why, Gillaspy said the mayor making a priority of developing arts and entertainment “is exactly spot-on.”
And the mayor’s projection of topping 313,000 by 2020?
“I don’t think it’s far-fetched,” Gillaspy said. “It’s not that far off.”