A vacant pawnshop. A closed restaurant. A shuttered brewery.
St. Paul's East Side is littered with empty spaces, from the former Strip Club Meat and Fish to a nearly 26,000-square-foot retail space on Suburban Avenue. Now city officials want the public to suggest their next incarnation.
Throughout most of January, five East Side properties have been featured on a website called Hoodstarter, which lists vacant buildings and lots throughout the metro. Users submit ideas for what each empty space could be, and vote for their favorite suggestions.
Council Member Jane Prince, who represents part of the East Side, said her hope is the Hoodstarter campaign — which lasts through Feb. 26 — will draw developers' attention to the area and spur the kind of development residents want.
"It's really an experiment for us," she said. "And we figured, let's give it a shot and see what happens."
The Hoodstarter campaign is part of a partnership between the website and Greater MSP. Minneapolis is also participating, and has listed one site in the Longfellow area and two on the North Side.
The sites each city submitted are a small fraction of the vacant buildings and lots they have. In St. Paul, the Housing and Redevelopment Authority owned 156 vacant properties in 2017 — that doesn't include privately owned properties, like the former Pawn America building at 1811 Suburban Avenue.
Peter Remes, president of real estate developer First & First, said the company has owned the Suburban Avenue building for about five years and has been trying to sell or lease it since last year, when the parent company of both tenants filed for bankruptcy. Retail would make the most sense there, he said, but the building could be turned into housing or another use.
As of Thursday afternoon, the eight Hoodstarter listings had generated nearly 70 ideas, from an indoor farmers market at the Hamm's Brewery site to a hotel on W. Broadway Avenue. The Suburban Avenue site has gotten the most attention of the East Side sites, with suggestions ranging from a taproom to an indoor skate park.
Peter Frosch, vice president of strategic partnerships at Greater MSP, said what happens to the sites remains to be seen. He declined to say whether any of the submitted ideas have piqued the interest of developers or real estate brokers.
The initiative is Hoodstarter's first collaboration with Greater MSP, but city officials have used the website before.
Minneapolis officials used the website last year to connect with residents and collect ideas for a city-owned building at 4146 N. Fremont Ave., according to city spokesman Casper Hill. A developer is proposing office and retail uses there, he said.
Hoodstarter co-founder Justin Ley measures success in projects that attract developers, like the one on Fremont Avenue, as well as in web traffic. One post about a property on the neighborhood social networking website Nextdoor can attract hundreds of visitors to Hoodstarter, he said — likely far more than would show up at a community meeting.
"They don't have to get a babysitter and go to a meeting on a cold Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m.," Ley said. "They can just log in and do it."
East Siders have experience with alternative ways of getting the word out about vacant properties. In 2016, residents in the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood led tours of six vacant houses the city had been trying to sell for years. The houses, slated for demolition, were all saved.
"We had already seen from that experience how big of a difference it made when neighbors themselves were involved in promoting a site," Prince said. "The idea is that we get as much input as we can from the community for this."