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West Side : Development News

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Hoodstarter crowdsources solutions for vacant storefronts

Kickstarter connects you with people willing to fund the innovative idea you’re working on in your garage. Why can’t you get funding for the innovative idea you have for the vacant storefront down the block?
Hoodstarter may have an answer. Co-founders Justin Ley and David Berglund, who work together at UnitedHealth, recently finalized and launched a first-of-its-kind crowdsourcing/funding platform that allows users to post vacant properties, post and vote on ideas for new onsite businesses or public uses, and fund entrepreneurs willing and able to turn those ideas into tangible businesses.
Property owners, real estate brokers, entrepreneurs and Twin Cities residents mingle on its website, exploring property listings, offering ideas, gauging interest and forging new connections.
“The goal of Hoodstarter is to connect neighborhood and city residents — anyone with a stake in and ideas for the vacant space — with real estate brokers equipped to market empty properties, property owners looking to monetize their holdings, and companies or entrepreneurs willing to shoulder the risk of launching a new use,” says Berglund.
“We’re facilitating connections between all the parties to a typical real estate transaction,” adds Ley, “including community members directly and indirectly affected by the project. Basically, we’re taking a model that hasn’t changed in 50 years” — commercial real estate development — “and making it much more efficient, while also creating opportunities for businesses and ideas that might not have access to other sources of funding.”
Though the platform hasn’t yet provided direct funding for any nascent businesses, the founders follow the well-worn model used by other successful crowdfunding platforms: taking a five-percent cut of users’ contributions and passing the rest along to entrepreneurs.
Hoodstarter’s database includes vacant sites across the Twin Cities, from expansive, high-visibility spaces like the unoccupied retail level at St. Paul’s new West Side Flats to abandoned churches and petite storefronts along community corridors like Chicago and James avenues in Minneapolis.
In addition to listings with detailed information about the property, including its price per square foot (when publicly available), leasing agent and amenities, Hoodstarter has a social function that supports lively debate over user-generated ideas, posted properties and urban life in general. The community is largely self-policing: A recent post suggesting that a prime Chicago Avenue storefront be left vacant was met with swift, if polite, criticism.
Less than a year and a half since its initial launch, Hoodstarter is already gaining traction across the Twin Cities. “When you see a vacant lot or storefront, there’s an intrinsic desire to envision its potential,” says Ley, especially if it’s in your neighborhood. “You can’t help but wonder, ‘Why has that place been vacant for so long?’ It’s a frustrating feeling.”
The South Minneapolis resident speaks from experience. His commute takes him past the same vacant space every day — a retail storefront empty for so long that no one quite remembers what it used to be.
Ley’s “pet” storefront crisply illustrates the problems Hoodstarter seeks to remedy. The property sits on an otherwise busy corner, near Angry Catfish, the Baker’s Wife and other popular businesses. It has obvious assets: space for indoor and outdoor seating, corner visibility and a floor plan tailor made for a restaurant or cafe.
But before Hoodstarter approached him, the owner had legitimate concerns about developing the property, says Ley, or even finding a temporary tenant for the space. According to Ley and Berglund, even well-meaning property owners who care about their neighborhoods can be overwhelmed by the cost, time investment and risks associated with finding a commercial tenant or developing a space on their own.
And, counterintuitively, many owners prefer to leave their properties empty as commercial land values rise, in the hopes of cashing out as the market peaks. Hoodstarter’s success will depend on its ability to convince property owners that they stand to gain from filling vacancies now, not waiting to sell later.
If all goes well, the owner of the vacant South Minneapolis property may soon have a new tenant or buyer. Last fall, Hoodstarter held a Better Block event at the site itself, continuing the conversation that began online.
According to Ley and Berglund, this hybrid model — using in-person events to publicize vacant properties and build support for the best usage ideas — could be a big component of Hoodstarter’s model going forward. But first, they need to fill some vacancies.

St. Paul Bicycle Plan widens its scope

The City of St. Paul recently revealed the latest draft of the comprehensive St. Paul Bicycle Plan, which proposes adding more than 200 miles of bikeways to the city. Incorporating public input on a previous draft of the plan, the latest manifestation takes a wider look at bicycling in the city. The plan now addresses bicycle parking, traffic signals, bicycle counting programs and other topics.
“This is a very significant effort,” says Reuben Collins, transportation planner and engineer, St. Paul Department of Public Works. “This is the first time the city has had a stand-alone vision for bicycling across all the city departments and the first time that we’ve really looked at the neighborhood level to ask what are the bicycle connections.”
St. Paul residents voiced feedback on the plan at a series of open house events and through Open St. Paul, as well as in personal emails and letters. Much of the community input called for addressing questions around wayfinding, trail lighting and zoning codes that would require bike parking in new developments, and encourage the incorporation of locker rooms and shower facilities to better accommodate bike commuters. The plan was revised to include much of that community feedback, according to Collins.
In development since 2011, the plan’s major aim is to complete the Grand Round trail system originally envisioned in the late-1880s as a figure-eight loop encircling both Minneapolis and St. Paul. The plan would also add a 1.7-mile loop in downtown St. Paul, which has been a notable void in the city’s bicycling infrastructure.
There is currently a recognizable disparity in the geographical layout of bikeways throughout the city, as well. While bicycling facilities are relatively abundant in the western half of the city, historically, there has not been equal investment in bicycling infrastructure on the East Side of St. Paul, according to Collins.
“I think there are a lot of reasons for that (disparity), but it’s something we are very aware of and looking to change,” he says. “We are looking to address that and reach some sort of geographical equity throughout the city.”
While city-specific numbers are hard to come by—something the plan seeks to address with bike counting protocol and programs—regional studies show a steady incline in the number of people riding bikes throughout the Twin Cities.
Bicycling rates increased 78 percent in the metro area from 2007 to 2013, according to a report from Bike Walk Twin Cities, a program of Transit for Livable Communities.
While Minneapolis is consistently ranked amongst the top bicycling cities in the country, St. Paul has struggled to keep up with its bike-friendly sibling to the West. “Certainly we can say anecdotally we know there are a lot more people riding bicycles [in St. Paul],” Collins says.
The St. Paul Bicycle Plan looks to solidify that growth in ridership by cementing an official citywide vision for bicycling. Planners hope to have the plan incorporated into the St. Paul Comprehensive Plan; one of the plan’s goals is St. Paul becoming a world-class bicycling city.
Sources of funding for the long-range plan will be “many and various,” Collins says. One significant potential source is the 8-80 Vitality Fund proposed by Mayor Chris Coleman. In his budget address this summer, Coleman earmarked $17.5 million to rebuild “key portions of our streets,” including completing Phase One of the downtown bike loop as laid out in the Bicycle Plan. He dedicated another $13.2 million towards completion of the Grand Rounds.
“It will be a very sizable investment to really get the ball rolling to implement the recommendations in the plan,” Collins said of the Mayor’s funding priorities with the 8-80 Vitality Fund.
The plan will next go before the Saint Paul Planning Commission October 17 where another public hearing will likely be set. After that, it goes back to the transportation committee, back to the Planning Commission, then on to the City Council for a final vote and hopefully adoption. Collins says the earliest he expects the plan to be put up for a vote is February of 2015.

A different kind of West Side story

Shelly Campbell, a local photographer, is interested in faces, especially those in her neighborhood.

That’s what inspired her to start her ongoing project “Faces of the West Side,” in late 2010. “I realized with the West Side, I don’t need to travel. I have the world at my fingertips,” she says.   

Her color portraits of people in the neighborhood are part of a rotating exhibit at Jerabek’s New Bohemian, a coffee shop in St. Paul.

The photos reflect the neighborhood’s diversity, showing people of all ages, ethnicities, and income levels. Some are recognizable characters in the neighborhood, while others are people she might not have met otherwise.

Often, people get referred to her. At times, she’s had to find someone to act as an interpreter for non-English speakers. She’s found that “It’s a great way to get to know a lot of people on the West Side,” she says, adding, “I feel privileged. I never thought I’d get to meet or interact with so many.”  

At this point, she’s even seeing some of the same people coming back for another photo, and she tries to document how they’ve changed.

In general, she looks for “images that say something about people,” and seeks the “real person.”

At the coffee shop, she usually displays about 10 photos at once, including some that have been blown up to poster size for more impact, she says. She changes the photos on a quarterly basis, so “Folks have four months of fame,” she says, adding, “Everyone comes in and sees them and they get all excited. The kids get a real trip out of it, which is fun.” In the end, “The photos belong to everyone in the room because it’s them,” she says.

Soon, she plans to apply for grant money to expand the project. “I’d like to do some interviewing or even audio recording during photo shoots,” she says.

Source: Shelly Campbell, photographer
Writer: Anna Pratt

High hopes for redevelopment at vintage Fire Hall

Lately, a number of community members in St. Paul’s West Seventh neighborhood have been contemplating the future of the historic Fire Hall.

The 1872 building, which is considered to be the oldest fire station in the city, has been vacant for a couple of years, according to architect John Yust.

The building, which was previously known as Hope Engine Company No. 3, has unique features, including the remains of a bell tower on the second floor, he says.

To start spurring possible redevelopment plans, a design class at the University of Minnesota came up with plans for a restaurant to go into the space.

Yust provided original drawings of the building along with other reference material to the students, who worked in 11 teams of three as a part of Prof. Abimbola O. Asojo’s “Lighting Design and Life Safety Issues” class.

As a part of the assignment, students paid special attention to lighting needs in the brick building, but they also thought more broadly. Many of the students had plans that involved family-friendly restaurants in the daytime that would transition into more romantic settings at night, according to Yust, who attended the class critique last month.

Students came up with everything from sushi to New Orleans-style cooking. “It was fun. There was a huge variation and lots of great ideas,” Yust says, adding, “My hope is that somebody might find this an amazing opportunity [to redevelop].”

“We want the city to know how important it is to the community,” he says. “It would be appropriate to save this site as a part of the historic fabric.”

Source: John Yust, architect
Writer: Anna Pratt

$80,000 grant will help make CSPS Sokol Hall a year-round venue

As it approaches its 125th anniversary, the state’s oldest theater, CSPS Sokol Hall, is about to become usable year-round.

Sokol is a fitness organization that was originally founded in the Czech Republic, according to Joe Landsberger, who is a spokesperson for the hall.

He explains that the CSPS Sokol hall, which is run by the volunteer-driven Czech Slovak Sokol Minnesota, goes beyond that by offering everything from ethnic dinners to folk dancing.

The hall will soon be getting air-conditioning for its second-floor auditorium, thanks to an $80,000 grant from Partners in Preservation, a joint program of American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Partners in Preservation recently announced the results of a local competition to dole out $1 million to metro area preservation projects.

The cash infusion will be instrumental in doing more at the hall. “Our building was vacant in the summer because it got too hot,” says Landsberger. “This will enable us to expand programs into the summer months.”

The group of volunteers that runs the hall has been proactive in recent years in bringing the building up to current code standards.

It's all part of a long-range plan for the building, which has been undergoing incremental improvements for decades.

In the 1970s, the three-story commercial building was scheduled to be demolished, but the neighborhood and Sokol joined forces to get it historically designated.

Since then, Sokol has worked to raise funds for design work, heating and plumbing upgrades, a fire-protection sprinkler system, asbestos removal, floor repair, basement moisture remediation, and more, according to its website.

Because of the building’s historic status, “Everything has to fit without compromising the structure,” Landsberger says.

The work is necessary to “ensure the building has another 125 years of useful life with current standards,” he says.

Once the renovations are made, “We’ll put more energy into the programming side.”  

Source: Joe Landsberger, CSPS Sokol Hall
Writer: Anna Pratt

$265,000 Latino veterans' memorial under construction on Harriet Island

For a decade, a memorial to honor Latino veterans in St. Paul has been in the works, and last month, it finally became a reality.

American Veterans Memorial--Plaza de Honor recently had its ground-breaking on Harriet Island Regional Park’s Great Lawn near the river walk.

The $265,000 memorial will feature a gathering area with several flagpoles around it.

“The design and construction of the memorial will tie into the recently completed renovations of the island,” a prepared statement about the memorial reads.

Brad Meyer, a spokesperson for St. Paul parks, says it helps that Harriet Island already has a smaller- scale flagpole memorial. “A new, larger memorial could use existing materials and space,” while also improving upon the original, he says.

The park was also an ideal setting for the memorial because of its high visibility, he says. Besides the thousands of visitors who come to events on the island, it receives plenty of “passive use” year-round.  

And nearby is the home of the American Veterans--Mexican American Post #5, which he says was instrumental in bringing the memorial to fruition.

With the help of the veterans' group, “We were able to secure the funds necessary to complete the project,” he says via email.

The city, along with the American Veterans--Mexican American Post #5 and U.S. Bank, contributed funds to the project, which secured both grants and private donations, according to city information.  

“A lot of thought has gone into this project, and we are very pleased with the final design and are looking forward to celebrating the grand opening” next spring, Meyer says.

Source: Brad Meyer, spokesperson, St. Paul Parks
Writer: Anna Pratt

St. Paul's West Side hopes zoning helps bring 100,000 Cinco de Mayo visitors back for more

More than 100,000 people crowd into the West Side neighborhood for St. Paul's annual Cinco del Mayo celebration. The area's appeal as a place for shopping, entertainment and doing business the rest of the year should get a boost, now that the commercial zone collectively called District del Sol has gained Traditional Neighborhood (TN) zoning status.

That's the hope of local businesses and residents who pushed for two years to get TN zoning, says Roxanne Young, commercial development manager at Riverview Economic Development Association (REDA).

A big reason TN zoning has had support on the West Side is the mixed-use development it allows: a veterinary clinic with the doctor living upstairs is an example Young offers. That's a common pattern along St. Paul's most vibrant commercial street, Grand Avenue, she says, and TN zoning has a good track record of encouraging pedestrian-focused development along other neighborhood corridors such as Rice and Arcade streets.

Design guidelines that accompany TN zoning will also come in handy as REDA pursues redevelopment of the District del Sol's major intersection at Robert and Cesar Chavez (Concord) streets. It's a gateway from downtown St. Paul just across the Mississippi River, yet with its vacant buildings and vacant land Young says it's been "blighted and underutilized for more than 20 years."

TN zoning has residential and commercial neighbors "looking at opportunities opened up for mixed-use development," she says. That would add a reason for visitors to return to an area where, Young says, for most businesses Cinco de Mayo stands as "one of the main ways to recruit new audiences."

Source: Roxanne Young, Riverview Economic Development Association
Writer: Chris Steller

Floating condo concept brings St. Paul river lifestyle to market

Living on the water--really on the water--has been a way of life for David Nelson and his wife Renae since they moved into a houseboat on St. Paul's Mississippi riverfront almost 23 years ago. Over that time, they've shared the floating life with a few river neighbors, but now they've got plans to share its charms and challenges with many more.

Nelson, a building contractor and developer, has embarked on a renewed marketing push for a project he calls River Cities: housing 300 or more people in condos on a barge-sized boat that's specially built to ply the nation's extensive inland waterways system.

Nelson has been working on the concept for more than five years (full time for three), and figures the market for an adventurous way of living, especially for retirees, may be ripe now. "People are sick of this perpetual staycation that we're in," he says.

Plans are for two 300-by-54-foot boats, each five stories in height, that could travel together or separately. With sufficient commitments for condos ranging in price from $299,000$499,000, Nelson could have his first condo-bearing boats built in as little as 18 months.

A big part of River Cities' appeal is the kind of proximity to nature that the Nelsons have enjoyed in St. Paul. They've also found a sense of community on St. Paul's houseboat docks (nine boats when they moved in, a city maximum of 25 now) that they hope to replicate on a bigger scale with River Cities. "Boaters look out for each other," Nelson says.

Source: David Nelson, River Cities, Inc.
Writer: Chris Steller

St. Paul kicks off yearlong process to put vision for 17-mile riverfront into plan for action

St. Paul's vision for its riverfront can be boiled down to six words: "More natural. More urban. More connected."

Now the city is taking the next 12 months to solidify that vision into a master plan for parks and open spaces for 17 miles along the Mississippi River--with an eye toward economic development as well.

But St. Paul has been studying its riverfront for years. Will a new master plan make anything happen?

Craig Coronato of Denver-based Wenk Associates says "quick successes" are possible.

"They have had a long process and identified a vision," says Coronato. "The people of St. Paul want to see that transformed into real things."

Coronato, an esteemed landscape architect who has worked for 28 years on rivers and cities (including some in China), says tapping new sources of funds could also help spur action.

Exactly what kinds of things St. Paulites want to see is a key question that Coronato's firm--as well as a local firm, Hoisington Koegler Group, and the City of St. Paul Parks and Recreation department--is seeking to discover. They kicked off a yearlong process of citizen engagement Tuesday with a citywide meeting at Harriet Island, with more workshops, neighborhood gatherings, and another citywide meeting to come.

Is there an inherent contradiction in trying to be both more natural and more urban? Coronato acknowledges "some tension" but says the key lies in the last aim: "More connected."

"How do you look at the interface between the natural and the urban, and make it better?" he asks, rhetorically. "They're not mutually exclusive."

Source: Craig Coronato, Wenk Associates
Writer: Chris Steller
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