Rice Street and Larpenteur Avenue is the busy intersection where Ramsey County's three largest cities meet. But leaders in St. Paul, Roseville and Maplewood admit the site and the working-class neighborhood surrounding it had fallen off everyone's radar.
"I think it just got lost," said Maplewood Mayor Marylee Abrams. "We all had our backs to each other and were looking at our own cities."
The once-forgotten intersection is now at the center of a neighborhood revival. Ramsey County and the three cities formed the Rice & Larpenteur Alliance in 2016, each committing money and time to the endeavor. After five years of work, they are seeing tangible results including new parks, businesses, housing, sidewalks and other pedestrian and road improvements.
"The transformation is unbelievable," said Kim O'Brien, the alliance's executive director. "It is all happening as a result of three cities coming together."
City leaders are also cracking down on problem spots, including a now-shuttered nightclub in Maplewood, a rundown apartment complex in Roseville and St. Paul's only strip club.
"We are just all in," said St. Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen, whose ward includes the North End. "It's taken a long time to get visible changes, but we've finally crossed that critical mark."
It was Brendmoen who invited the Maplewood and Roseville mayors to lunch five years ago to discuss the problems and potential of Rice and Larpenteur. The area, filled with modest mid-century homes and apartments, has long been an affordable immigrant enclave. Many Hmong, Karen and Nepali families call it home.
In 2016, the intersection was dotted with strip malls, fast food restaurants and some stand-alone storefronts, including a shuttered gas station.
"We really decided to change the way it feels," said Brendmoen, but with a big caveat: "We didn't want to displace people there. The decision we made is to serve the existing community."
The alliance formed with each city committing money to study the area and hire a full-time executive director, whose position is housed within the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. Each city has made investments and taken enforcement action against problem properties.
Roseville converted an empty lot into Unity Park and playground, and worked with a developer to tear down an abandoned gas station and build a shopping area.
The city also revoked the rental license for the 277-unit Marion Street/The Brittanys Apartments, prompting the owner to hire a new management company and make more than $1 million in health and safety improvements. No residents were displaced, and the license has been reinstated.
And some of the first new housing in years is being built on Roseville's side of the intersection: Villas at McCarrons Lake will include 20 single-family homes on 5.5 acres with access to the lake.
Meanwhile, St. Paul has addressed one of the most glaring and embarrassing problems at the intersection: There were no sidewalks on the capital city's corner, forcing pedestrians to navigate what Brendmoen described as a dirt "cow path" that paralleled the strip mall's uneven parking lot.
"It was really a travesty," Brendmoen said. "Getting that changed was a big deal."
The city worked with the property owner to repave the parking lot and add a sidewalk and parklet complete with benches, fencing and greenery. The parking lot is now the site of seasonal festivals and community events, and a Rice & Larpenteur neighborhood sign will go up next year.
At the same corner, the St. Paul City Attorney's Office is investigating the licensing of the Lamplighter strip club at the City Council's direction. Police frequently visited the club for a host of disturbances including assaults, brawls and gunfire, and a young woman was shot and killed in the parking lot in the summer of 2020.
Brendmoen said the investigation is ongoing, but the club's owners are "on notice."
"They are no longer in the forgotten corner of the city," she said. "We are paying attention."
After a surge of violence and shootings, the Maplewood City Council cracked down on the Stargate Nightclub on its corner of the intersection. The club owner agreed to surrender his liquor license in 2017, and the site is now a market and eatery called Groceries and Nepali Kitchen.
The alliance and Maplewood leaders are also working with developers on new housing at the 13-acre site of Rice Street Gardens, which St. Paul Regional Water Services owns. Mayor Abrams said they are exploring a partnership with Twin Cities Habitat For Humanity, with the goal of adding affordable housing while keeping the community garden.
Ramsey County, which maintains the Rice and Larpenteur roadways, has invested in vehicle and pedestrian safety. In response to two pedestrian fatalities, the county in 2019 converted a stretch of Larpenteur from four driving lanes to two and added a left-turn lane. The county also added crosswalks in front of the Community School of Excellence charter school, and more improvements are in the works.
"The beauty of this project is the true public-private partnerships with three cities, one county and beautiful diversity of community coming together to make big investments," said Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo.
An overarching goal of the alliance has been nurturing a sense of community identity, celebrating strengths and getting residents and business involved.
Katheryn Schneider, a St. Paul homeowner and landlord, said she is committed to the neighborhood and thrilled that these investments — from the playground to new trash cans — are making it more inviting.
"I really love what they are doing," said Schneider, who is on the board of St. Paul's North End Neighborhood Organization and an organizer at Rice Street Gardens.
Schneider said she's also glad city leaders are having candid conversations about displacement and gentrification, with a focus on serving the people who live in the neighborhood now. She said she enjoys the local hole-in-the-wall restaurants and could see the area flourishing one day as an East Metro version of Minneapolis' Eat Street.
One of the most visible investments is the $30 million Community School of Excellence on Larpenteur Avenue. The school, focused on Hmong language and culture, enrolls 1,500 students and employs 150 staff. It opened in 2017, and its leaders are already talking about expanding.
The school's chief administration officer, Kazoua Kong-Thao, grew up in the area and now owns a home there. The affection that she and other residents have for it wasn't always shared by elected officials, she said.
"This area has been an afterthought," Kong-Thao said. "There has not been a lot of development, love or support."
Kong-Thao and other school officials are alliance members, and she said there's still plenty of work to do.
Kong-Thao said she recently took her family on a picnic at Lake McCarron County Park and was dismayed to see broken glass and litter. She is already brainstorming ways the school and the alliance can address the issue.
"The little things we do really add up and make our community more vibrant. There is so much that is good in the neighborhood," Kong-Thao said. "We want to change our narrative: This is a vibrant community, and look at all the great things happening."