University United no more?

Brian McMahon has led University United for more than a decade. (MPR file photo/Jennifer Simonson)

St. Paul's best-known evangelist for rethinking the Midway area was initially coy about the next phase for his organization, University United.

"There's more to announce on Tuesday," said Brian McMahon, executive director of the community-planning group.

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But here's the gist: University United will morph into a nonprofit developer, focusing on refashioning industrial buildings for small manufacturers, McMahon said.

He acknowledged the group has been beset in recent years by a lack of funding. A recent tax form shows University United's annual grants and other forms of public support have decreased from $529,000 to $192,000 over a five-year period starting in 2006.

McMahon is known for his grandiose plans, which at times have put him at odds with elected officials and business leaders. Many of his dreams have gone to die on University Avenue.

But since taking the job in 2001, he has scored some important triumphs. McMahon championed the wonky ideals of "transit-oriented development" years before University Avenue was selected to be the route for light-rail, and now TOD is a common design goal for the corridor. He also helped defeat a proposal for a new Home Depot near one of St. Paul's busiest intersections, arguing that a big-box store didn't belong in an urban transitway.

His next project is to sell Midway industrial-property owners on the idea of paying into a special fund that would go toward improving their areas.

They're called business improvement districts (BID), and they're more common in McMahon's former stomping grounds of New York.

"In Minnesota, it's like, 'What the hell is a BID, and why would I want to pay more taxes?'" he said. "I have to sell it."

Establishing the districts would require a majority vote by property owners within the improvement areas. Once the district is set up, local government would collect the money, but the property owners themselves would decide how to spend it, McMahon said.

His initial plan was to explore a betterment district for University Avenue, but he backed off that idea, given that a lot of small businesses are struggling during light-rail construction.

Why focus on warehouses and manufacturers?

"By organizing property owners to work together, it will give them a voice," he said."We see the industrial area being threatened by light-rail -- which as you know, I'm greatly supportive of, but there is a threat that it can encroach into an industrial area."

University United is not the only local nonprofit mulling a business-improvement district. A panel presentation.pdf on Tuesday will bring together business associations and community development groups representing Lake Street, West Broadway Avenue, the West Bank, and Northeast in Minneapolis, along with Rice Street in St. Paul.