For a century, the Boys Totem Town campus in St. Paul was used to separate troubled teenage boys from their families. Now that Ramsey County's juvenile detention campus is closed, some neighbors and housing advocates say its 72 acres should be used to heal the community in the form of affordable housing.

"I would like to see the site have a use that benefits the same community that had to live there when it was used as a detention facility," said John Slade, an organizer with the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing. "We mostly imprisoned kids of color."

But another group of neighbors wants to turn the largely wooded property into a park. Neighbor Patty McDonald has organized the Boys Totem Town Land Preservation Group, which supports a park with amenities including a community center, a nature and interpretive center honoring the Dakota people and a community garden.

"This site — with its topography, its environmental and archaeological possibilities and reuse possibilities of existing structures for building community — can be so much more for our city than houses," McDonald wrote in an e-mail.

It's been more than a year since Ramsey County closed the campus, a result of declining juvenile crime and a consensus that troubled teens do better when they get treatment in their own communities.

Now the future of that campus, a rare redevelopment opportunity in the heart of the Twin Cities, has sparked intense debate as neighbors push differing visions, threatening to turn it into Ramsey County's new battlefront for affordable housing.

County commissioners agree on the need for affordable housing, but they face blistering headwinds. They say they are listening to the community and weighing all options for the future of the Totem Town site. Other ideas include a community gathering space, a marketplace for small vendors and even land devoted to urban agriculture.

The hilly site is lightly developed and already has a parklike feel with mature trees. It's surrounded by midcentury single-family homes and a large apartment complex.

"I do think the potential there is so much more than green space," said Commissioner Jim McDonough, who represents the East Side district. "This piece of property can add so much value to the community in so many different ways."

'A rare gem'

Bonnie Watkins, who has lived a few blocks from Totem Town for three decades, wants to see a portion of it developed as affordable housing and that the property's use should reflect the community's changing demographics.

Watkins said the push to make it a park despite the obvious community need for housing feels like a not-in-my-backyard exercise and that the Battle Creek-Highwood Hills neighborhood already is flush with parks and green space. Some neighbors "are afraid of high-rise, high-density, low-income slums," she said, but she thinks the land can be developed in a way that benefits and even improves the neighborhood.

"What is worse for your property value than a prison?" she said.

McDonald said the land's steep topography, drainage and runoff issues — plus the area's designation as a tree preservation zone — would make new housing difficult if not impossible to build. She said more than 80 households belong to her Land Preservation Group, which is partnering with the Native American-led nonprofit Lower Phalen Creek Project to study the land's cultural, historical and environmental significance to the Dakota people who lived in this area.

"It is almost unheard of today to have the opportunity to preserve a large parcel of land, of which approximately 60 acres are basically undisturbed, for current and future generations," McDonald said. "Just think what New York would be like without Central Park."

Maggie Lorenz, executive director of the Lower Phalen Creek Project, agreed. She said the county shouldn't squander a chance to preserve largely untouched natural space.

"The benefits of urban green space cannot be understated, and this site is a rare gem, having been determined to be old growth oak savanna," said Lorenz, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe. "One of the oldest oaks on the property has dated back to 1776, the same year Jonathan Carver came to stay with the Dakota people living here … This is truly something worth preservation in terms of local ecology."

Meeting area's needs

For working-class and lower-income families living in the area, the need for safe and affordable housing is urgent.

Omar Syed owns Chilly Time Coffee, just blocks from the Totem Town campus. He said he often speaks to anxious Somali families searching for affordable housing, a hunt that's especially challenging for larger families.

"If they build something, it should be housing," said Syed. "There is already a park there and there," he said, gesturing from behind the counter toward Battle Creek Regional Park, a 1,800-acre expanse just blocks from the Totem Town site.

But Syed said he'd also like to see green space and community meeting space. He said many in the Somali community want more places for their children to play, such as a soccer field, and that the immigrant community often feels unheard.

"Green space is what I want to see. It's so beautiful," said Amin Omar, who has lived in the nearby Afton View apartments for almost 20 years.

Omar said he'd like to see the property turned into a park, and the existing buildings renovated for community gatherings. He said the Somali community supports keeping it as green space.

County commissioners said they understand the desperate need for affordable housing. Ramsey County is earmarking $8.9 million in next year's budget for affordable housing and is exploring a new property tax under its Housing and Redevelopment Authority that would be used for affordable housing and redevelopment.

County Board Chairwoman Toni Carter said she is listening to the community.

"We want to use this land — the resources that Ramsey County has had and employed for the past 100 years — to meet the needs of the community for 100 more," she said.

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037