Site plan for 650 Pelham is rejected

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In a victory for neighborhood groups seeking development friendly to walkers and bikes, the St. Paul City Council voted Oct. 12 to reject a site plan put forth by St. Paul Port Authority and developer John N. Allen of Industrial Equities for an office and warehouse business at 650 Pelham Blvd.

Speaking after the meeting, Councilmember Russ Stark said concerns about parking for the site weighed heavily in his successful motion to grant the neighborhood groups’ appeal of the city’s previous approval of the plan.

“Even though it’s an industrial use, which we welcome, the site plan didn’t fit” with other plans for development of the area, Stark said.

Central Corridor area plans call for building right up to the street rather than allowing setbacks for parking lots, as Allen’s plan showed, Stark said. 

The site, now a grassy vacant lot, lies on the east side of Pelham, bordered by Interstate 94 to the south and Wabash Street to the north. It borders the planning area for the Raymond Avenue light-rail station, which shows a park called Wabash Commons to the north and undefined buildings abutting the street at 650 Pelham.

The site is surrounded by industrial uses, at least some of which would remain in place under the evolving plans. “We need to make industrial development fit into our hopes and dreams for the Central Corridor, because a big part of our vision is to attract good-paying jobs and new housing to the same area,” Stark said.

However, Desnoyer Park, a large residential area, lies just over the bridge across I-94, and neighbors noted that Pelham Boulevard is a north-south artery in the city’s bike plans and will serve as a pedestrian connection between their neighborhood and the light-rail line.

Neighbors questioned whether the plan really would boost employment and objected to aesthetic shortcomings in a neighborhood trying to establish itself as a center of creative arts.

District Council 13 (Union Park District Council) board member Anne White submitted a letter to the City Council on Oct. 11 asking that the challenge to Allen’s site plan be upheld.

“Now we’re faced with a site plan that is completely unsuitable for this key site that serves as Desnoyer Park’s gateway to what we hope will become a thriving TOD [transit-oriented development] district around the Raymond LRT station,” White wrote.

The St. Paul Port Authority has been working with Allen on a plan for a one-story warehouse with parking lots around it; tenants have not been identified. Under the Port Authority’s standard commitment to producing one job per 1,000 square feet of development, the site would be expected to yield at least 68 jobs.

White remarked in her letter, “196 parking spaces are planned for a one-story office-warehouse building less than 1/4 mile from a light-rail station—does this smell like a future park-and-ride?”

The Port Authority purchased the site from Pelham Properties for $2.6 million in March 2010, according to Ramsey County property records (which list the address as 620 Pelham).

Port Authority spokesman Tom Collins said his organization “put about $2.3 million into soil correction, demolition and upgrades.”

Collins said Allen has also “spent significant time and money” on plans for the site, and that he may have further interest in pursuing it, but that was not yet clear in the days immediately following the council decision.

“If he’s through with this property, then we would start all over again. We’re not sure he’s through with it,” Collins said.

Annie Johnson, the community organizer for Union Park District Council, said the 650 Pelham debate had “hundreds of community members involved from both Union Park and St. Anthony Park neighborhoods.”

She said neighborhood architects “have been brainstorming about this site for months,” looking for “something that the users of Pelham Boulevard will be proud of.”

Lauren Fulner, Johnson’s counterpart at St. Anthony Park District Council, said this case was an example of how Central Corridor is “providing unique opportunities for building alliances.

 “If you see there’s a line between neighborhoods, it doesn’t mean the interests stop there,” Fulner said.

Anne Holzman lives and writes in St. Anthony Park.