The smell of wood smoke wafted skyward Wednesday as downtown passersby sipped hot chocolate, roasted marshmallows and played Kubb, a Swedish lawn game, on the snow.

It was part of a winter solstice celebration that had an ulterior motive: Bring some life and vitality to a vacant lot near the Green Line Central Station in St. Paul.

"This is the kickoff event for a yearlong effort to add vitality and safety to the Central Station area, outside and in the skyway," said Max Musicant, whose Musicant Group was among a consortium to win a $75,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. "Now, the ground cover is wood chips and dirt, but later there will potentially be a wood deck, gravel, places for food trucks to pull up and park, seating. At some point, the property will be developed with a building. Until then, we want some life."

Over the next several months, the area near Fifth and Minnesota streets will host a series of pop-up events designed to make the vacant space more appealing to transit riders, downtown workers, area residents and visitors. On Wednesday, Melissa Cortez and her 7-year-old brother Gabe, rode the train downtown to be among the first to partake.

"Events like this allow people to gather and share spaces in a variety of different ways," she said, as Gabe tossed a small wooden club at wooden blocks set up in the snow.

"Often, you don't have space like this in the middle of the city, where you can do activities in the winter."

As several Metro Transit police officers moved about, roasting a marshmallow here, talking to an area resident there, they said this area often draws juveniles who hop off the train and then, bored, get into trouble.

They said Musicant's plan to fill the next several months with lawn games and food trucks — community interaction — will not only help chase away crime with more eyes in the area, it will give those young people something positive to do.

Activities for all ages

Margaret Jones, St. Paul's 8-80 Vitality Fellow, said this project is one of many meant to bring life to otherwise underused areas.

"The idea behind 8-80 is to have activities that are welcoming for an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old," Jones said. "How do we make spaces more welcoming and feel safer?"

Jazz Molina, who moved to St. Paul from Mexico City more than a decade ago, comes through downtown often. There is a new vibe here, he said, a feeling of bustle that was the norm in Mexico City. Having an inviting plaza at the center of downtown, even if it only lasts a year or so, is a welcome addition, he said.

"It's hard to find a good open space downtown, any downtown" he said. "Downtown St. Paul is adding life, activity. This is part of a positive trend."

To Samuel McCormick, who lives in St. Paul and said he's familiar with trouble downtown and has even broken up fights near the Central Station, having games and activities there this spring and summer is welcome news.

"That would be good for the community. You have a lot of people who come down here, mostly young kids, who have nothing to do," he said, sipping a hot cocoa and eating a fresh s'more. "We need more positive things out here, especially downtown."