A gray morning, six white hard hats, six green ceremonial hammers and a yellow backhoe belching black smoke.

On Wednesday, those colors combined to make one big green — as in soon-to-be-green space along the Green Line in St. Paul.

City officials and leaders of St. Paul's Hmong community gathered in a parking lot on University Avenue to kick off what in a few months will become Little Mekong Plaza, a privately owned but public space where the community can congregate and celebrate.

The space isn't that big; it's home to a small, vacant cinder-block building at 402 University Av. W. that's being demolished. Yet community members hope it's a catalyst of more to come.

"I hope it becomes the model for the outreach we do and the public spaces we create," said Dai Thao, who represents the First Ward on the St. Paul City Council.

Little Mekong Plaza will be one of the first privately owned public spaces along the Green Line, officials said. The space will reflect Hmong, Vietnamese and other ethnic communities in the area. In a neighborhood short of open space, even a tiny green plaza is a step forward, said Bao Vang, president and CEO of the Hmong American Partnership, the lot's owner.

"I hope this is the beginning of bigger things," she said.

The project is a collaboration by the Asian Economic Development Association, the Hmong American Partnership and the St. Paul Department of Planning and Economic Development. A $300,000 grant from the city's 8-80 Vitality Fund will help pay for demolition of the building.

Little Mekong is another effort to add green space to the area along the light-rail Green Line. With the help of money raised by the Trust for Public Land, the city recently bought vacant land to make a park near the Skyline Tower low-income housing high-rise and Gordon Parks High School. Frogtown Farm, a mile to the west and north of Mekong Plaza, is starting its second season as a park and working farm. It, too, was purchased with help from the Trust for Public Land.

The Hmong American Partnership will own Little Mekong Plaza and coordinate programming and maintenance with the Asian Economic Development Association and other partners. The space will become the new home for the Little Mekong Night Market, which has brought a thriving Southeast Asian street market — featuring food trucks and street vendors — to the area the past two summers.

"This gathering space will be a valuable asset for many community events such as the upcoming Night Market on July 23 and 24," said Va-Megn Thoj, executive director of the Asian Economic Development Association.

James Walsh • 651-925-5041