Developer Jerry Trooien's riverfront office doubles as a model of his proposed Bridges of St. Paul project. He says he's already spent tens of millions of dollars on full-scale condominium showrooms designed to dazzle you into buying one.
"This first unit is, as you can see, very well-furnished and decked out, if you will," says Trooien.
The models are big-city sophisticated, with stunning views of downtown St. Paul. Trooien says nearly 200 units are already reserved.
The Bridges is much more than condos, though. It's a self-contained neighborhood, what Trooien calls an "urban village." The Bridges plan calls for about 1,100 condos, a movie theater, a glass-enclosed conservatory, dozens of shops and restaurants and an indoor theme park about mythology.
Trooien also recently cut a deal with the Westin Hotel chain to build 250 hotel suites and 82 luxury condos at the site.
Even though Trooien has been marketing the Bridges aggressively for months, he has no permission or permits from the city to actually build any part of it.
The Bridges would require St. Paul to rezone much of the land, and acquire about 10 percent of it through eminent domain. Trooien is also expected to ask the city for an estimated $100 million in tax increment financing.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman is skeptical the city could afford Bridges.
"I do think we have to be realistic about what the nature of this project is," Coleman says, "and what the cost to the city is going to be."
While Trooien says the subsidy would be for concrete infrastructure only, Coleman points to other city costs associated with such a big project, such as traffic lights and widening roads.
Coleman says he's troubled that Trooien has made deals with the Westin and has taken deposits for condominiums. He's also frustrated that Trooien hasn't yet come to the city for the appropriate approvals.
If I am accused of making significant investment in this city to make it better, and to bring a great project, then I am guilty as charged. Guilty as charged.Developer Jerry Trooien
"This is a developer who is going to be coming to the city for a rather major level of participation. And we think that if we're going to be partners on this thing, it means being partners from the beginning, not just being brought in at the end," says Coleman.
Trooien sees the city's lack of involvement in the Bridges project very differently. As Trooien puts it, the last thing the city council or anyone in the community wants to debate is a speculative project.
"I realized quite early on we couldn't just talk about it," Trooien says. "We had to go do it."
But many who live in the neighborhood say they resent Trooien's "build first, ask later" approach. Community activists, architects, and planners say the Bridges of St. Paul disregards several design and development principles for the area, called the West Side Flats.
Carlos Garcia Velasco is an organizer for the West Side Citizens Organization. He says his group worked directly with Trooien, the city of St. Paul, and design and waterfront planners to come up with a master development plan for the area. Velasco says the Bridges doesn't deliver on master plan guidelines like accessibility, affordability and job creation.
"To me, personally, it feels like a gated community fortress that the West Side might get a couple of jobs out of," says Velasco.
Condominiums at the Bridges site range from $200,000 for a studio or small one-bedroom, up to $2 million for a three-bedroom.
Others raising concerns about the Bridges project include the St. Paul Riverfront Corp., a nonprofit created to steer development along St. Paul's 26 miles of river frontage.
The group's executive director Patrick Seeb says while the Bridges project includes key elements like high-density and mixed-use, it misses the mark in several other areas. For example, he says its location would encourage more car traffic, and it's out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood.
The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce supports the Bridges project, according to a statement released by the group.
The chamber calls the project "bold," with potentially "tremendous impact on our community." But chamber officials also recognize the neighbors' concerns, and suggest Trooien continue working with the city.
"We urge all stakeholders to allow the proposal to cointinue to evolve, and for market forces to continue to shape the project to the point where a final proposal can be presented and evaluated," says the statement.
Trooien says when he took part in the effort to develop the master plan for the west side several years ago, he did it in good faith. Even so, he says he's come up with a better plan than what was proposed.
"If I am accused of making significant investment in this city to make it better, and to bring a great project, then I am guilty as charged. Guilty as charged," says Trooien. "We have to demonstrate that it is not a make-believe deal. And how could someone take offense at that?"
Trooien says he plans to submit his financial proposal to the city council in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, he's still making deals and taking reservations. His extensive promotional materials say the development is scheduled to break ground this year, and open in 2008.