It’s been said that all politics is local, and there isn’t much that gets more local than land use planning in St. Paul.
So I’m not surprised when people’s eyes glaze over and they try to exit the conversation when the subject of Jerry Trooien’s mega-project “The Bridges of St. Paul” comes up in casual conversation. “Oh, it’s one of those St. Paul things,” is the usual response of those not quick enough to know to slip away.
Opinion: Why St. Paul’s ‘Bridges’ project matters
But the project does matter.
It matters if we want to think about how and why American cities, especially rust belt cities, deal with the changes in land use and the future and vibrancy of our center cities. It matters if we want those decisions about public space and public money to be made by people who aren’t just out to make a buck. It matters if we want the tools of democracy to function without interference by those with the cash to control them.
For the uninitiated, the “Bridges of Saint Paul” is a large project proposed to be built directly across the Mississippi river from St. Paul’s struggling downtown. Consisting of luxury hotel and condominium space, a retail shopping mall and a rather unconventional plan for a museum devoted to mythology, it’s a huge real estate plan being pushed by a developer with more money than sense.
It’s also a project completely out of step with the long-term goals that city, state and federal agencies have for that segment of the river. It is anticipated to need a public subsidy by way of tax incremental financing of at least $125 million, no small sum. It is being promoted by a developer who is so completely sure of his personal vision for his project that he refuses compromise, despite massive public opposition to its scale and design.
The approval or disapproval of this plan matters for other reasons as well. While any project needs to be evaluated on its own merits, the history here is one of a developer who has used his money to subvert democratic processes on many levels. One neighborhood-based group found its Board of Directors taken over by a slate sponsored by the developer using loopholes in the group’s bylaws. At least one vocal opponent found to his surprise that his photo was placed in a full-page advertisement with a quote praising the project. There have been allegations of strong-arm tactics used by people carrying petitions door-to-door. Meetings aimed at seeking compromise have been disrupted by hecklers in the audience who are paid staff of the developer. The divisions that have been intentionally created in the surrounding community at the hands of a bully who consistently rejects collaboration will take years to heal.
The West Side flats in Saint Paul is a site long due for improvement. But Saint Paul, like every other city facing such challenges, shouldn’t have to say yes to a proposal that is opposed by virtually every environmental, civic, governmental, neighborhood and business organization save for the Chamber of Commerce and those controlled by the developer.
The redevelopment of our former industrial lands is crucial to cities beyond Saint Paul. But it matters that development takes place by the hands of our elected leaders and the populations they serve working with private interests. What we do on the West Side Flats is important, but it’s equally important how we do it.
Diane Gerth is a resident of St. Paul, has served as President of the West Seventh/Fort Road, and was an appointee to the Tri-District Council that attempted to seek compromise with Bridges developer JLT Group, Inc.