St. Paul’s downtown booster group is asking commercial property owners to pay for neighborhood ambassadors, a new public safety communications center and other amenities, the benefits and costs of which will largely bypass downtown’s biggest property owner.
After years of planning — and recent delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic — the Downtown Alliance is sending a petition to commercial property owners on Monday that will ask them to pay into an improvement district similar to Minneapolis’ Downtown Improvement District (DID). Following city approval, the district could launch this year, said Joe Spencer, Downtown Alliance president.
The district would include much of St. Paul’s downtown business core but exclude several blocks east of Cedar Street where the majority of property owner Jim Crockarell’s downtown holdings are located. Those properties include Park Square Court, 375 Jackson, the Empire Building, the First National Bank building and U.S. Bank Center.
Crockarell declined to comment Friday.
State law allows owners of 35% of the land area in question to veto a special service district. Crockarell, who owns more square footage than any other downtown property owner, could single-handedly veto an improvement district that encompassed the whole of downtown.
The law also limits payments to commercial and industrial properties, so residential properties that Crockarell owns within the proposed district would be exempted.
Spencer said the improvement district’s proposed geography is based on a pilot program last summer and conversations with property owners. As the district gets established, he said, it could expand to include other interested property owners.
“We crafted a proposal that really is concentrated in the place where we had the most amount of support,” Spencer said. “These are programs that are meant to be by business and for business.”
Programming will phase in gradually, out of consideration for the economic pressures that downtown property owners are facing as a result of the pandemic, Spencer said. The first step is launching the downtown “fusion center” — a civilian-staffed communications hub for law enforcement, private security and social service agencies to share public safety information.
The Minneapolis DID uses a similar model with its Safety Communications Center, located at the First Precinct. Downtown Council President Steve Cramer said the center has been built up over a decade and “was instrumental in helping to avert major, significant damage in the downtown environment during the period of unrest in our communities.”
St. Paul’s fusion center will be housed in the 401 Building, where the St. Paul Police Department has an office, Spencer said. In 2020 — assuming that property owners and city officials sign off — it will be paid for with $100,000 from Mayor Melvin Carter’s $1.7 million community-first public safety budget and $200,000 from the Knight Foundation, St. Paul Foundation, F.R. Bigelow Foundation and John and Ruth Huss.
Next year, commercial property owners will split the fusion center’s $600,000 cost, at a cost of 3 cents per square foot and about $6 per linear foot of street frontage, Spencer said. A downtown ambassador program will be added in 2022, he said.
Council Member Rebecca Noecker said constituents often contact her with ideas to make downtown more inviting, from holding block parties to adding greenery. She said she’d like to see those ideas come to life, along with things like signage and color-coded neighborhoods to make downtown easier to navigate.
“The thing that’s exciting to me about having a downtown improvement district is just that there’s a group and there’s a source of revenue to make all of these great ideas happen,” she said.