More residents arrived, prompting a makeover for Mears Park and new places to eat and drink. Union Depot, much of it dark for two generations, reopened in its former glory as a 21st-century transit hub. Light-rail trains began pulling up at 4th and Wacouta.
Now this month Lowertown, the downtown St. Paul warehouse district dubbed one of the nation’s hippest neighborhoods, adds an attraction expected to draw 400,000 visitors annually: CHS Field, the sleek city-owned ballpark anchored by the independent league St. Paul Saints.
Is Lowertown ready? You bet, say residents and merchants alike. Aside from the feared parking crunch.
“We think we’re in for a very fun summer,” said DeAnna Loux, general manager of Barrio.
“It’s going to be awesome, bringing in more sports to downtown,” Lowertown resident Debbie Coleman said.
Still, some worry about side effects. Marla Gamble, a custom jeweler who has lived at the Lowertown Lofts artist co-op for 30 years, said she has three concerns about the new ballpark: residential parking, unblocked noise and cleaning up after events.
“The Saints are great, they’re really friendly and they’ve created a relationship with the St. Paul Art Collective,” a group that represents Lowertown artists, Gamble said. “What we don’t know is what it’s going to be like to have all those people down here.”
‘Business as normal’
It’s taken years for Lowertown to evolve from a quiet artists’ quarter into an urban village worthy of the name. But clearly, that time has arrived.
Since January 2013, 18 percent of the building permits pulled for downtown St. Paul have been in Lowertown, amounting to $118.4 million in construction projects.
The biggest jobs include not just the ballpark ($42.3 million in permits), but remodeling the former main post office into the Custom House apartments ($43.1 million) and the Rayette Lofts ($12.9 million), and renovation of the KTCA-TV studios ($10.4 million).
About 160 events — most of them Saints’ and amateur baseball games, but also art shows, GrillFest, the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, the Walker’s Internet Cat Video Festival and the annual summer Beer Dabbler — are scheduled this summer at the new ballpark.
Sgt. Paul Paulos said that police have a comprehensive plan to deal with expected crowds (estimated attendance for the cat video festival: 10,000).
“Will you see more officers? Yes, but we increase or decrease the complement depending on events,” he said. “So I think it’s going to be business as normal.”
Alicia Hinze lives in Lowertown and figured it was ripe for business when she and co-owner Jennifer Lueck opened their popular Buttered Tin bakery and cafe two years ago at 7th and Wacouta. What surprised her was just how ripe.
“We already see a change in the amount of people that are coming down here, just from the train,” she said. “But now that they’re going to have reasons like the ballpark, there’s a ton more restaurants. And the more people think of this area for food, the luckier we are.”
Some growing pains
Before 1978, Lowertown was a windswept corridor of empty warehouses on the edge of downtown. Then-Mayor George Latimer persuaded the McKnight Foundation to provide a $10 million grant to generate investment there, and the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation (LRC) was created to lead the effort.
By 2006, the corporation had turned the original $10 million grant into $750 million in investment, helping boost the tax base to $5 million. The corporation closed two years ago, but its assets were taken over by the Lowertown Future Fund, which makes grants to innovative nonprofits.
Developer John Mannillo, who chairs the Lowertown fund, said the LRC “largely insulated the area from politics. … They were a catalyst for redevelopment, not a roadblock.”
The artists who settled in Lowertown are still there today, more than 500 and growing at last count, but they’ve since been joined by hundreds of other residents.
Although population stats aren’t kept for Lowertown (more than 7,000 people live in all of downtown), in the past 15 years it has added 284 market-rate condo and loft units and 520 apartments, about half of them affordable. In that period, new housing there made up one-third to one-quarter of downtown St. Paul’s housing stock.
Mannillo counts the McKnight grant as the biggest turning point for Lowertown, followed by Mears Park’s makeover and Ramsey County’s $243 million renovation of Union Depot. He’s less impressed with the ballpark and worried that there still won’t be enough visitors for the new pubs and restaurants.
“We only have the Saints 50 nights a year. You wonder how much we can support,” Mannillo said. “Short term, there’s going to be a lot of activity, and that’s good. Will that completely change Lowertown? Not really.”
What about parking?
If there’s a single issue that Lowertown locals worry about this summer, it’s parking.
A city-sponsored study recently found there was ample parking throughout downtown St. Paul — nearly 29,000 spaces — to handle current and future development.
Another analysis by the city two years ago located more than 7,500 parking spaces near CHS Field, not including contract spaces, parking east of the ballpark (which holds 7,000) or at Union Depot.
But less than 10 percent of available parking is on the street, which will fill quickly during events and make it tough for residents and customers to run errands.
“When you live here and you have to go two extra blocks to get your car or bring your groceries home or a new plant, it’s going to be a problem,” said Lisa Kloster, walking her dog Lola near her Lowertown condo. “We can’t plan any activities when a game’s going on because [friends won’t] be able to come down here.”
But Kloster looks on the ballpark as a plus overall.
“People will come down during the activities, and it’s going to be full of life, but I think Sunday morning I’ll still be able to walk around with my dog and it’ll be quiet and peaceful,” she said.
Jerry Blakey, a former City Council member who owns Lowertown Wine and Spirits on E. 4th Street, agreed.
“I only see it as a positive direction that we’re going,” he said. “There’s going to be a little bit of growing pains maybe, with the parking for the Saints and all that. But to me, I would rather have there be a problem in that sense, versus nobody’s coming down here.”