All day long, cars speed down Rice Street, tires spraying water up over snowbanks and onto slushy sidewalks. The few pedestrians tempt fate as they wait for rare gaps in traffic and then run across the four lanes.
The county highway runs like a wall through St. Paul’s North End, home to some of the city’s newest residents, and some of its poorest. Just north of the Capitol, the North End seems merely a place to get through quickly on the way downtown.
Council President Amy Brendmoen, who represents the area and lives in the south Como neighborhood, is working to change all of that, with the support of her council colleagues.
A year ago, Brendmoen launched “10 for the North End,” a campaign to spur $10 million of public and private investment in 18 months and make the neighborhood a desirable place for people to open businesses, buy houses and spend their time and money.
Brendmoen marks progress with a drawing of a thermometer on her office wall. It’s filled in a little less than halfway, showing $4.4 million worth of planned and completed projects from streetlight banners on Rice Street to new courts at Marydale Park for playing the Southeast Asian sport sepak takraw, also known as kato. The money comes from a number of sources, including the city, the Metropolitan Council, the federal government, the Super Bowl Host Committee and nonprofit grants.
There’s more planned for 2018, but it’s not yet clear whether Brendmoen will meet the 18-month deadline.
“The truth is, we really wanted to put the North End on the map,” she said.
Located at the northern edge of the city in St. Paul’s Fifth Ward, the North End begins 2 miles from City Hall and blocks from the State Capitol. Residential streets are lined with modest single-family homes, most built between the 1870s and the 1950s, according to the neighborhood organization.
Housing costs have stayed relatively low, for both renters and buyers. Kathy Mouacheupao bought a house on the North End in October, after selling her first house in the Rondo neighborhood. She fell in love with an old house and has since fallen in love with the neighborhood and its diverse population, variety of small businesses and close-knit community.
“There are a lot of great things that are there right now that a lot of people probably aren’t aware of,” she said, “but there’s so much potential.”
Rethinking Rice Street
When the people who live and work on the North End talk about the changes they want to see in their neighborhood, they always mention Rice Street.
“It’s a very hostile street if you’re not in a car,” said Ethan Osten, a North End Neighborhood Organization board member who bought a house in the neighborhood a year and a half ago. “I visit businesses along it all the time, but I get there by something other than Rice Street.”
Ramsey County conducted a safety study on Rice Street between University and Larpenteur avenues last year, and is planning to reconstruct segments of the road in 2019. According to the county, the road will get new pavement, safer intersections and other improvements for pedestrians.
In the meantime, small changes are visible. The North End Neighborhood Organization planted a garden last year. The city paid for bright blue “North End” banners. And federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) dollars are going toward facade improvements for businesses.
The Hmong Elders Center, located in a former warehouse, got a CDGB grant of nearly $100,000 to fix rotting exterior walls and put on a new coat of paint, covering up a jarring shade of aquamarine with an olive green.
On a recent morning, a few dozen Hmong seniors gathered in the wide-open space and danced, played pool and chatted at low, round tables. In the nearly five years since the center moved from Dale Street and University Avenue to Rice Street, new businesses have popped up nearby, said Executive Director Kao Ly Ilean Her. Though there are still changes she’d like to see — from more green space to less crime — Her said the momentum is heartening.
“It’s exciting that people are seeing this as an area of opportunity and [are] coming in,” she said.
Hoping for more
For some North Enders, the improvements along Rice Street and in other parts of the neighborhood haven’t hit home yet.
From behind the counter at Dar’s Double Scoop on Rice Street, owner Kevin Barrett can look straight out at the cars rushing past.
So far, 10 for the North End doesn’t seem to have made significant changes to life in the neighborhood, said Barrett, who lives within walking distance of his shop.
“I just haven’t really seen what’s being done,” he said. “And I’m not hearing about it, if there’s something being done.”
Many of the bigger projects counting toward the $4.4 million total will start in 2018 or 2019. And a plan to build a dozen Habitat for Humanity houses got derailed when asbestos was found on the site.
In Brendmoen’s view, no project is too small — and in many ways, 10 for the North End is just the beginning of her vision for what the neighborhood could be.
“We want our neighborhood to look loved and cared for and vibrant and we want it to be walkable and we want it to be safe,” Brendmoen said. “It’s not too much to ask for all of that.”