For the first time in 45 years, St. Paul looks to have cracked the ranks of cities with populations of more than 300,000.

That's based on preliminary estimates released Monday by the Metropolitan Council. It reported that as of April 1, 2014, St. Paul's population was 299,641 — a scant 359 people short of the 300,000 mark, which the city last officially achieved with the 1970 U.S. census.

But the Met Council's figures also show that St. Paul's population grew by 14,573 from 2010 to 2014, setting a pace that likely has pushed the city over the 300,000 mark by now.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau & Metropolitan Council

The speculation may be put to rest Thursday when the U.S. Census Bureau will release its own 2014 population estimates.

But whatever the precise numbers show, it's clear that St. Paul has picked up as many residents in the past five years as it did in its last population spurt during the 1990s, when it grew by nearly 15,000 people.

"That's great news," Mayor Chris Coleman said Monday, "because it's a real affirmation that all the work that we're doing is making St. Paul an attractive place to live and raise your family."

Overall, the Met Council's latest estimates show that the population of the seven-county metro area last year was 2,977,455 — an increase of nearly 128,000 people since 2010, or 4.5 percent.

Households in the region grew by 47,282, and housing units by 34,982.

According to the Met Council, growth is happening throughout the metro area. Cities are growing largely because of new apartments and condos, it said, while new single-family homes and townhouses are fueling suburban expansion.

For instance, Wayzata and Lilydale achieved high growth rates owing to new complexes for senior citizens.

Minneapolis' population last year was estimated to be 411,286, with 175,124 households. The city added nearly 29,000 residents from 2010 to 2014, according to the Met Council figures.

When Minneapolis passed the 400,000 population mark last year for the first time since the 1970s, Mayor Betsy Hodges set a population goal for the city of more than 500,000 within the next 20 years, in part by adding denser housing along transit routes.

Downtown popular

Coleman didn't set a similar goal for St. Paul. But he did say that with the housing projects now underway, including upscale downtown apartments such as Custom House and low-income housing near the Green Line — not to mention future development at the vast Ford site in Highland Park — it's possible that St. Paul within a few years could top its high-water mark of 313,411, set in 1960.

"I remember a couple of years ago talking to a student at the University of Minnesota Law School and I asked her where she lived, and she told me 'downtown St. Paul,' " Coleman said. "When I was in law school, that would not have been a response. Now it is."

Minneapolis also grows

St. Paul's growth largely tracks that of Minneapolis and other cities, where young people more and more are opting for the amenities, convenience and transit choices of urban life, and empty nesters are shedding suburban homes for the same attractions.

In 2014, St. Paul issued permits to build 676 new residential units, valued at a total of $111.9 million, according to city figures. The city numbered 115,304 households last year, an increase of 4,303 since 2010.

St. Paul's population has ranged above 270,000 ever since 1930, when it was the 31st largest city in the United States. It added more than 40,000 residents during the years spanned by the Great Depression, World War II and the postwar period.

The city's growth plateaued above 300,000 during the 1960s and then plummeted by 40,000 during the 1970s, as an increasing number of baby boomers followed employers to the suburbs.

Coleman said that the number 300,000 allows St. Paul to compete with larger cities for more quality-of-life comparisons, and opens the door to more marketing for business.

But whatever the number, he said, the main thing is that St. Paul is moving in the right direction.

"Whether it was 290,000 or 301,000, the most important piece is that it's trending upward," he said. "For many years people were moving out of the city, and now they're moving back."

Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035