Developers and Ramsey County officials are still bullish on an ambitious proposal to redevelop the downtown St. Paul riverfront, even as workers only trickle back to offices post-pandemic.
But while architects work on details for buildings along Kellogg Boulevard, county leaders are focusing on finding money for a public park that would span train and vehicle traffic all the way down to the Mississippi River.
Developers want to double the site's nearly 5 acres of park space along the river bluff by building a "land bridge" over working railroad tracks and Shepard Road. County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo said the $40 million the county plans to seek from the Legislature next session is its top bonding priority.
"We are asking for state bonding for the public realm part of this, to fill in the missing access to the river," MatasCastillo said Monday. "The riverfront has been unutilized space for a long time. This is really activating our river space and giving access where there wasn't access before."
AECOM, the Los Angeles-based developer of the nearly $800 million project, will pay for the housing and commercial buildings. Original plans called for a 168-room hotel, 56 condos, 350 apartments, 30,000 square feet of retail, 1,600 parking spaces, nearly 1 million square feet of high-end office space and an urban park overlooking the river, but not going right down to it. How the pandemic — and the exodus of workers from downtown — affects that remains to be seen.
Other questions remain, too.
Creating a park that drops from a bluff to the river while passing over a road and railway is complicated. Officials also must see whether the rail companies will go along with the idea, said Josh Olson, project manager for Ramsey County. He said the county's good relationship with Canadian Pacific Railway and Union Pacific Railroad, forged through the development of Union Depot, should help.
What the entire development will look like also must be decided. The most common rendering available shows four futuristic window-covered towers overlooking the river. But another rendering shown during a recent St. Paul City Council meeting was "hideous" and looked like '60s-era public housing towers, said Council Member Jane Prince.
"In fairness to the county, they don't seem to be showing that design," she said, adding that she heard it was mainly to show height variances that might be needed. "But big blocky density could have a negative impact on the way it relates to the river."
County Commissioner Rafael Ortega said that while many decisions must be made, the developer is enthusiastic about RiversEdge. Developing a park that goes all the way down to the river could be a real difference-maker on what will be built and where, he said.
"It's still on course. But, for the class-A office space, we're just going to have to wait to see how quickly things come back," he said. "If you think about it, it is prime property along the river, and the potential for the park makes it even better."
Kari Collins, the county's economic development director, said the county is seeking state help to pay for the park because officials consider it "a truly regional piece of infrastructure" for what will be a signature development.
"AECOM is eager to get financing in place for the public realm space. That helps sell it, and it is the primary part of the public investment," she said. "Our focus is on the park. … It's key to this getting off the ground."
James Walsh • 612-673-7428