The number of people living in downtown St. Paul has grown rapidly in recent years and restaurants have proliferated, but candidates competing for mayor said more must be done to improve the city's commercial heart.
The city needs to tackle crime in the skyway system and make sure businesses feel appreciated, mayoral hopefuls said Monday at a "Downtown Live" event, which was sponsored by such organizations as the downtown district council and the Building Owners and Managers Association.
The candidates drew the most applause when they talked about issues related to downtown livability, such as adding parks and keeping housing affordable.
St. Paul has had a plan to expand Pedro Park on the north end of downtown by getting rid of a police training building, but city leaders recently started looking into marketing that property for office space instead of tearing it down.
That has put a lot of community members who want a park there on edge.
Elizabeth Dickinson was one of many candidates who said the expansion of Pedro Park would create "an anchor" for the community.
"You need to have that as the center of a neighborhood. If you want to have young families, you need a place for them to go," she said.
Candidate Melvin Carter agreed that as more people move downtown, they need neighborhood amenities.
Downtown's population reached 9,051 last year and grew by 37 percent from 2010 to 2016, according to the Metropolitan Council. That growth is expected to continue, with the downtown population estimated to reach 14,140 by 2040, the Met Council projects.
As more people move downtown, concerns about crime have increased. The St. Paul City Council recently approved new rules aimed at increasing skyway security and regulating the behavior of people who use the skyways.
Mayoral candidate and City Council Member Dai Thao voted against the change, which included closing skyways earlier.
He said that would hurt people who are vulnerable, including people with disabilities, and would just push out people who are homeless without addressing their needs.
More affordable housing and jobs are needed to reduce homelessness, Carter said.
The candidates who debated Monday are angling to replace Mayor Chris Coleman, who is running for governor after three terms. Coleman's tenure has been marked in recent years by major projects downtown.
The former Macy's building is being turned into a practice rink for the Minnesota Wild with office and retail space below, the Palace Theatre reopened after decades and the city made money off the sale of the Penfield Apartment complex after completing an expensive overhaul of the building.
Candidate Tom Goldstein, who has campaigned on his opposition to such high-cost projects, said the city should be channeling such money into city infrastructure and resources for the community.
But he and many other candidates, like Pat Harris, expressed interest in another big downtown project: a 1½-mile pedestrian path on the riverfront.
"It's going to be expensive," Harris said, but it would help give people more access to the Mississippi River. "I think there are ways we could fund it."