The proposed Bridges of St. Paul development is aesthetically unlike anything in the Twin Cities. Watercolor renderings of the 32-acre development show a bustling, self-sufficient space complete with a movie theater, two botanical gardens, a river promenade, restaurants, a marketplace and condos with views of the Mississippi River. Made of pale pink and yellow stone, the buildings are designed to evoke an "Italian village."
"I have seen many things that have really energized the city of St. Paul," says Bill Buth, president of the Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association. "But as they say, 'ya ain't seen nuthin yet.'"
Buth and other business and community members spoke at a news conference in support of the project. Supporters say it will provide hundreds of construction and retail jobs and bring in millions of dollars in sales and property taxes for St. Paul.
Developer Jerry Trooien is the man behind the Bridges.
The 58-year old has been called the Donald Trump of St. Paul because of his high profile approach to selling his project. He says Bridges will be the second largest tourist attraction in the region, after the Mall of America.
"It's an incredible site," says Trooien, "with a great mix of reasons why a person would want to come over, including great free public parking."
We think it would have the effect of massively degrading the historic and scenic landscape of this very special place in St. Paul.
The design also includes 65 retail shops, an amusement park and about 1,200 condo units and a 250-room Westin Hotel.
Trooien's vision is big. And tall. Some buildings stretch as high as 30 stories.
That's just one of the reasons the project is facing major opposition. The majority of the city's community councils oppose it. Also opposed are neighborhood groups and environmentalists.
"We think it would have the effect of massively degrading the historic and scenic landscape of this very special place in St. Paul," says Whitney Clark, executive director of the Friends of the Mississippi River, a river conservation group.
Clark and others argue the massive towers violate a master development plan for the area.
Carlos Garcia-Velasco of the West Side Citizens Organization shares the same concerns about the project being out of character for the city's west side. But he's particularly concerned the Bridges would be exclusively for the rich and shut out most of the area's middle-to-low-income residents. Condominiums at the Bridges range from $200,000 to $2 million each.
"We're talking about a studio apartment at $200,000," Velasco says. "A $200,000 home on the west side should be a three or four bedroom so that a mother, a father, grandparents, and children can be there. Now, if we're asking westsiders to try and get into that, it's going to be the few people that are on his payroll."
Despite major opposition, Trooien has been selling condos at the site for several months. He says half of the 400 residential units in the project's first phase are already reserved.
What's remarkable about the project is not necessarily the fact that Trooien is aggressively advertising and selling the units, or that he's spent several million dollars on building models of luxury condos. What's surprising is the fact that until now, Trooien had not sought required city approval for the site plan and zoning changes.
City officials have raised concerns about Trooien's approach and the project's cost. Trooien's plan relies on securing $125 million in tax increment financing from the city. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman's spokesman Bob Hume says Trooien's TIF request is "unprecedented." He says it's one-fifth of the city's overall budget in any given year.
"There's no question that Mr. Trooien has a vision for his site, and that he believes he is proposing something that's in the best interest of this city," says Hume. "However, the approach thus far, it seems, has almost been to corner the city into a place where we can't have a say in this thing."
Trooien maintains he has responded to city and community concerns. He argues that the project, not the city, bears all the financial risk.
Even those who oppose the Bridges project say they do want some kind of development on the west side riverfront. Trooien now has to convince city officials and his strongest critics that he's got the best plan around.
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