South St. Paul is weighing the fate of the massive gates that once guided workers to the Armour meatpacking plant but now present an obstacle for a developer who wants to build condos on the site.
The brick and limestone gates, once a small piece of the sprawling Armour meatpacking campus, are among the last vestiges of an industry that once defined South St. Paul.
Now, West St. Paul-based Langer Construction wants to build a 45,000-square-foot building on the 3.9-acre, city-owned property. It would be subdivided as condos for small businesses and could generate about $132,000 in property taxes annually, city documents said. Langer has already built several similar structures nearby.
But the gates pose a practical challenge to the project, since their presence would likely keep the developer from constructing a marketable building with enough square footage to meet city guidelines.
The property is triangular, which is already a challenge for developers, who would likely want to build a rectangular building, said Ryan Garcia, the city's economic and community development director.
"The gates, they really do kind of chew up that eastern 20 percent of the site," Garcia said, adding that the site would also need parking stalls and space to circulate.
The parcel is the last piece of vacant land the city owns, said Mayor Jimmy Francis, and it has sat empty for 30 years. It costs money to maintain the empty lot, which isn't bringing in revenue.
Previous plans materialized 15 years ago when a company called Armourgate wanted to construct a 49,000-square-foot office building and warehouse on the site. The deal ultimately fell through, and the company returned the property to the city's Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Interest has been fleeting since then.
Armour closed in 1979 and the buildings and factory were demolished a decade later, but the 20-foot gates remain near the corner of Armour and Hardman avenues. Each side is a tollbooth-sized structure that once housed an attendant who waved employees into the parking lot when they came to work.
Since then, the city hasn't maintained the relics and they're not noticed much at their location in BridgePoint Business Park, Garcia said.
Relocating the gates is one possibility, Garcia said. A cost estimate is $150,000 to $300,000 but varies based on where they're taken.
Other ideas include keeping them in place and designating public space on the site, replicating them elsewhere or incorporating them into the new design.
The city doesn't have the money to move the gates, Francis said, and shouldn't force a developer to include them in their plans. To do so would be a deterrent to development, he said.
"We can't make decisions based on nostalgia," he said. "We have to make decisions based on reality."
Dakota County Commissioner Joe Atkins said the gates have a special significance to people whose relatives once worked at Armour, himself included.
"I picture my grandfather and uncles crossing through those gates," he said. "They're more than just gates — they were symbols of hope for so many families. They were gates to a better life."
He said he trusts that the City Council will make a good decision but hopes the gates aren't demolished.
The council wants to think more about the gates' fate, Garcia said, but members also expressed support for new development.
At Tuesday's meeting, the council will discuss the gates. Garcia said the goal is to narrow down options.
Local historian Lois Glewwe said the gates are a helpful landmark when she takes people on South St. Paul tours, but the city needs to be realistic about the relics' future.
She would prefer they not be moved, she said, because their significance would be lost elsewhere. She said she hopes the developer can dream up a way to incorporate them into their design, like making them part of a picnic area or stretching a "welcome" banner between them.
"We just need to be very thoughtful about this," she said.
Erin Adler • 612-673-1781