In the end, the St. Paul City Council decided that building a small park downtown — coupled with the potential for new jobs in new office space — was better than no park at all.
By a 5-2 vote, the council approved plans to transform a .45-acre patch of vacant land in the heart of St. Paul into a city park, complete with trees, walking paths and a pool of water stretching into a playground. Officials expect work on the park at E. 10th and Robert streets to be finished in 2019.
All of it was made possible by the city’s sale of the former Public Safety Annex building on the same block. The Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) and City Council voted to approve Minneapolis-based Ackerberg Group as developer of the former annex building, built in 1925. Ackerberg plans to redevelop the building into modern office and retail space.
Ackerberg is paying $1.4 million for the annex and will contribute another $40,000 a year for 20 years to maintain and operate the park. The rest of the money for the $3.8 million park will come from $200,000 in parkland dedication funds and $2.23 million from the city’s capital improvement budget.
Neighbors of the park, some of whom held signs saying “Keep the Promise,” said they felt betrayed.
They have long sought a larger park, something they said the city promised to do once the Public Safety Annex was razed. Instead, city officials last year decided to sell the building and create a much smaller Pedro Park instead.
Neighbors say they were willing to wait for what they wanted. Now, they fear that option is off the table.
“It’s trading a long-term vision for a short-term gain,” said Patricia Flaherty, who said she was heartbroken by the process. “We see it as designated parkland. The city doesn’t.”
Bob Mike, another Pedro Park neighbor, said the city is wasting an opportunity to develop a much more valuable park for downtown’s booming residential population, a park that would increase property values and attract additional neighboring investment.
“This is about the only green space potential that is left, and the city is looking the other way,” he said.
Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm said the park still could expand into other nearby properties. Without the annex sale, he said, there would be no money to build a park.
“The resources that are on the table now are very specific to this opportunity,” Hahm said. Without it, “we wouldn’t be talking about making improvements on this block.”
The Pedro family donated the site of the former Pedro Luggage building to the city in 2009 to use as a park, and the city had planned to eventually demolish the Public Safety Annex and combine that lot with the donated land to create a larger park.
But last year, city officials started soliciting potential buyers to turn the annex into office space. In November, the HRA gave Ackerberg Group tentative developer status.
Ackerberg’s offer is for more than the appraised value of the site, Planning and Economic Development officials said, and a redeveloped annex could eventually house 150 to 170 full-time jobs and contribute at least $50,000 a year in property taxes.
Friends of Pedro Park Expansion sued St. Paul in August, arguing that the city is violating its comprehensive plan and multiple ordinances — as well as promises to the Pedro family and residents — by selling the land.
Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents downtown, voted against the deal. “I do not believe we need to sacrifice community trust for more jobs,” she said.
She offered an amendment to raze the annex building and keep the larger lot as open space until money is raised to turn all of it into a park. Doing so would cost the city $2 million, she said, about the same as what the city is putting into the smaller Pedro Park. There are other spaces downtown available for offices and retail, she said.
Her plan may take longer to get a park, she said, “but I just reject the notion that it has to be this.”