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The South Saint Anthony Park Creative Enterprise Zone

When more than 100 residents and business owners converged on the Lyric Apartment Building at 2285 University Ave. on May 5 (see our accompanying feature), they were treated to a first-hand look at why a variety of helping-hand programs and initiatives are going to be necessary as construction of the Central Corridor Light Rail Line grinds on. As east-west traffic plodded along the avenue in single lanes, motorists trying to cross University sat in long lines to get across, often at the mercy of other drivers making left-hand turns.

Such is the congestion and near-chaos of life along University Avenue these days. Begun in March, the $957 million project aims to join downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis with a cheap, easy-to-use transportation option. Nobody ever said the project would be easy on business owners, though, and it hasn't been: Businesses have already complained bitterly that the project has cut into walk-up traffic and parking accommodations, leading to losses that will only continue as construction wears on into 2014.

A network of government, civic and commerce-related entities are trying to relieve the pain: Funding partners including the Metropolitan Council, the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and the Living Cities philanthropic collaborative had issued more than $6 million in forgivable loans and grants as of April.

Now the new South Saint Anthony Park Creative Enterprise Zone (CEZ) aims to help an often-overlooked segment of the corridor's make-up: the dozens of studios, lofts and other spaces that accommodate the thriving creative community concentrated in the converted warehouses and other buildings in the University/Raymond Area of Saint Anthony Park.

An Enterprise Zone for Innovators

Sponsored by the Saint Anthony Park Community Council and other supporters, a CEZ task force was convened last September with the goal of giving a tangible identity to an area that's traditionally been home to artists, craftspeople, Web and software developers, creative start-ups, and innovative nonprofits that have been drawn to the area over the past three decades by its cheap rents.

"The initiative is more about keeping the people we have and building on the energy that's here," said Amy Sparks, executive director of the Saint Anthony Park council. "We want to maintain a certain mix that's existed for a while and that could easily go away."

The objective for the CEZ is different from the one that faces the many small retail businesses that dot the corridor. Instead of working to encourage shoppers to keep visiting, the point is to build stabilizing conditions that will let creative entrepreneurs, retail businesses, artists, residents, and nonprofits thrive together, and also to seek improvements to physical spaces and walking proximity to make the area a friendlier place to meet neighbors and visitors.

Making the CEZ Fly

The CEZ is turning to a variety of sources to help fund the initiative, including a number of philanthropic donors. Part of the challenge of the CEZ's success might be getting the word out to the people it's meant to help. Of about 10 photographers, artists and other creative business people along the corridor who were contacted by The Line, only a couple were even aware of the CEZ--perhaps because word about business support efforts tend to reach only landlords who don't always pass the word to tenants.

Most entrepreneurs agreed, though, that while their businesses don't face the dire challenges of neighboring retailers, the work being done with the CEZ is welcome.

"It's a good idea in the long term, because this is a pretty tight community of people working on their own or in small groups," said Bart Galle, who has a painting and poetry studio in the Dow Building at 2242 University. "Anything that brings them together is a good thing."

The Chittenden Building--A Wakeup Call

John Whitehead, a documentary filmmaker, almost got caught in the fallout of what could become a common occurrence along the avenue: The site of his longtime studio, the Chittenden & Eastman Building at 2402 University, was sold to last fall to Ironton Asset Fund LLC, which plans to convert the longtime artists' haven into market-rate residential property. The C&E building had been home to a variety of fine artists, architects and other creative types, including two Bush fellows.

"The sale of the C&E Building is what precipitated (the CEZ initiative) in a way," said Whitehead, who was able to find a comparable space in a building across the street. "That was a great Art Crawl site, and seeing it get sold made people realize that there would have to be some effort put toward maintaining the character of the area."

Preserving "Lovable Weirdness"

The get-together to kick off the CEZ effort seemed to indicate that keeping the area's personality is indeed a priority. Apart from enjoying food and refreshments provided by local independent merchants and donning stickers reading "I Buy Local" and "Open During Construction," attendees could cast a vote for a new name by which to identify the Raymond/University part of the corridor: West Midway, South St. Anthony, or MidCity.

"It might seem like a small thing, but it would help everyone if there was a single name this area was known by, instead of just calling it 'that part just east of 280," said Sparks.

In a broader sense, though, the CEZ is about preparing for big changes in a way that will allow things to remain the same. A prominent portion of the CEZ action plan talks about "promoting a distinctive identity that expresses the unique nature of the district"--in other words, doing everything possible to keep lovably weird neighborhood lovably weird.

"I'm hoping that we can maintain the funky character of the University-Raymond neighborhood," said Whitehead. "There are old-school businesses like the hardware store and the liquor store, but then there are ethnic groceries, the Vietnamese pool hall and the school of bartending--along with all these artists and information workers. It would be a shame to see it all turn into Jimmy John's and Starbucks."

Dan Heilman's last article for The Line was a portrait of the boutiques at Snelling and Selby in Saint Paul, in our December 1, 2010 issue.

Photos, top to bottom:

2375 University, at Raymond, in the heart of the CEZ, is where filmmaker John Whithead has found a new home.

The Chittenden-Eastman Building, an anchor of the neighborhood, is slated to go market-rate residential.

John Whitehead, a CEZ supporter, wants to "maintain the funky character" of University and Raymond.

Whitehead at work at 2375 University.

All photos by Bill Kelley

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