St. Anthony Park tries to unite before arrival of light rail

St. Anthony Park residents
St Anthony Park is known for its community of artists, and residents used crayons to draw their ideas for the neighborhood on long canvasses at a meeting in October.
Photo courtesy Tom Borrup

Construction on the proposed Central Corridor light rail line in the Twin Cities is underway, and people living along the route are preparing for the inevitable changes it'll bring.

St. Paul's St. Anthony Park, at the corner of Interstate 94 and Highway 280, is trying to strike a balance between protecting the character of the area and welcoming new development.

The neighborhood is known for its community of artists. Plans call for a light rail stop on the neighborhood's main thoroughfare.

About 50 St. Anthony Park residents got together on a recent evening at the old neighborhood gym. The group, much like the neighborhood, was a balance of all ages and races.

They had a chili and cornbread dinner, and then got down to work, huddling around tables and scribbling the things they want to preserve on yellow post-its.

Resident John Whitehead, a documentary filmmaker, doesn't want to lose the neighborhood's mix of, well, everything.

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"The halal grocery, the Vietnamese grocery, the Vietnamese pool hall, the Midwest School of Bartending, the reptile store ... it's just this crazy urban fabric that has both economic diversity and ethnic diversity and layers through time," Whitehead said.

This is their first meeting, so the ideas are pretty vague. Organizers are just trying to get an idea of what's important. They also ask the group to fill out another set of post-its with ideas for developments that might improve the community.

Experts say neighborhoods like St. Anthony Park that are already popular will be the first target of developers seeking to capitalize on the new light rail line.

It may already be happening.

A developer just bought a nearby building that's long-provided cheap offices for many artists, who now have to move. The purchase alarmed the neighborhood and spurred this meeting.

The Central Corridor isn't a done deal yet - it's still awaiting a federal agreement that would pay for half the nearly $1 billion project. Minnesota planners are optimistic that will happen this spring, in spite of Republican opposition to funding earmarks in Washington. Two lawsuits are still pending against the project, including one filed by Minnesota Public Radio.

But if the project is coming, these residents want some control over it. They could do that by changing zoning rules or recruiting developers of their own.

St. Paul City Council member Russ Stark, though, said the pieces aren't in place yet for the community to take action.

"What we're missing now is someone in between the residents and stakeholders in the area and the city who can be the project leader," Stark said, "whether that's an existing nonprofit, or a new nonprofit created for this purpose."

Stark isn't sure where money for that new organization may come from. And the Metropolitan Council, the coordinator of the light rail project, said working with neighborhoods is the city's responsibility.

Using grant money, St. Anthony Park has hired a consultant, Tom Borrup. He said at some point, residents are just going to have to wing it.

"You can plan and you can work and you can get there, but all the mechanics and the challenges you're going to face you can't know until you get there," Borrup said.

Borrup said residents must prepare for those challenges by uniting behind the same goals. And that's something St. Anthony Park organizer and artist Catherine Reid Day knows will take time.

"The task of sustaining energy will be critical for us," Reid Day said. "How do you have enough peaks along the way to keep people interested and sustain the long-term view?"

The answer isn't clear, but Reid Day said the St. Anthony Park neighborhood will keep searching for it.