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Transforming St. Paul's West 7th Into a Vibrant, Urban Life/Work/Play Corridor

For years, drivers using West 7th Street to get into downtown St. Paul or out to the MSP’s International Airport passed a hulking old industrial complex near the James Avenue intersection: the abandoned Schmidt Brewery property. Last used as a proper brewery in the 20th century and desolate since the early 2000s, when an ethanol company that had been using part of the property moved on, the storied site (once among The North’s largest breweries) was long derided as “too big to redevelop.”
That is, until the West 7th/Fort Road Federation, Dominium and BKV Group decided to think big. The Schmidt Artist Lofts redevelopment is a $120-million renovation that attracted national attention and remade the old industrial site into the focal point of an historic neighborhood. The 260-unit complex is now filled with residents, abuzz with arts activity, and a major draw for locals and tourists alike.
Moreover, business is booming in the shadow of the Schmidt Artist Lofts. Artsy hot spots like St. Paul Gallery and Thune Studio (owned and operated by Dave Thune, the area’s St. Paul City Councilmember), caffeine-fueled gathering places like Burn Unit Coffee Ward, thrift stores like Bearded Mermaid Bazaar, and one-stop used/vintage record and musical instrument shops like Music Go Round are seeing more traffic than ever. St. Paul-based Urban Organics, an innovative aquaponics company, has big plans to transform another section of the brewery.
So the Schmidt site’s story is still being written. In addition, the property’s historic keghouse, formerly a storage space for untold gallons of freshly brewed beer, may soon be converted into a festival space and artists’ market. The site’s rathskeller, an ancient underground space for aging lager that includes a cornucopia of old German design touches, is slated for repurposing as a museum, restaurant and/or brewpub. 
And the area around Schmidt isn’t the only bright spot in an increasingly vibrant West 7th corridor, often dubbed “the West End.”
More than a dozen other projects are in various stages of planning, construction and completion, including the Seven Corners Gateway, a mixed-use lifestyle development; and Sibley Plaza, a modern, walkable reimagining of a drab 20th-century strip mall. Local residents and business owners are repurposing and reinventing existing historic assets. And momentum is building for dramatic transit improvements, possibly involving a streetcar or light rail line within the next decade, along the entire West 7th corridor.
Boosters have urged resurgence many times and ambitious developments aren’t new to the area. But the pace, scale and quality of the projects being planned and built along the corridor are unprecedented in living memory. West 7th is transforming from a historic transportation artery into a vibrant, 24/7 live/work/play corridor with new residences, busy workplaces, and hotspots for culture and entertainment.
Back to the brew
You can’t throw a beer stein in MSP lately without hitting a just-opened, under-construction or in-the-works craft brewery. Along the West 7th corridor, Summit Brewing, a neighborhood fixture since the 1980s, recently put the finishing touches on a multimillion-dollar expansion at its Montreal Way headquarters. The revamp included roomier digs for its growing white-collar workforce and an expanded production line to support more brews and a broader distribution footprint.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen other new brewery projects are in various stages of planning, construction and completion along the corridor.
To the northeast, not far from the Xcel Center, Bad Weather Brewing is on track to open a new taproom and brewing facility by the start of hockey season this fall. Bad Weather got its start in Minnetonka, but the allure of a resurgent West 7th corridor — replete with thirsty Minnesota Wild fans — drew the brewery to the Seven Corners area next to downtown St. Paul.
In the historic Uppertown neighborhood, MSP’s oldest surviving saloon — once part of a cluster of 30 or more “German lager” saloons in the area — will soon come back to life. There, attorney Tom Schroeder and a trusted team of beer enthusiasts are restoring and modernizing the pre-Civil War limestone structure, dubbed the Stone Saloon, in the hopes of faithfully recreating a piece of the city’s earliest days.
“Many [of the area’s] historic structures have been neglected,” Schroeder says, noting that the structure of his saloon nearly succumbed to disrepair before he bought it. Moreover, he adds, “It’s difficult to overstate the importance of beer and brewing to the history of St. Paul,” noting that the first official ordinance on the city’s books spelled out rules for liquor sales.
“Given the proliferation of taprooms around the region and the historic nature of the building, we need to be different than a typical Minnesota brewery,” Schroeder continues. “We’re actually thrilled that Bad Weather is opening a taproom nearby, because we see ourselves as complementary: They’re a modern, destination-type taproom, while we’re a historic establishment focused on education and community engagement.”
Building a 24/7 lifestyle corridor
Seven Corners is home to the Minnesota Science Museum, the Xcel Energy Center and St. Paul RiverCentre. But the event centers, brimming whenever the Minnesota Wild, A-list musical acts or major conventions came to town, spent more time empty than full.
Meanwhile, institutions like Cossetta Alimentari, Day by Day Cafe and Seven Corners Hardware have served local residents for decades. So have neighborhood antiques and thrift stores like Sophie Joe’s and Westcott Station, which also provide set pieces for Minnesota-filmed movies and one-of-a-kind items for avid shoppers.
The area is starting to change. Cossetta’s completed a thorough renovation and expansion that transformed the restaurant and deli from a well-regarded Italian grocery into a multi-concept lifestyle destination. The new Seven Corners Gateway is a mixed-use development that will place more than 100 housing units, a hotel, multiple retail concepts and a public courtyard/pocket park on a 2.38-acre parking lot near the Xcel Center.
The centerpiece of the Seven Corners Gateway project “will be an urban courtyard that opens out onto West 7th and serves as a public plaza during events,” says David Graham, principal, ESG Architects, Minneapolis. The firm is collaborating with The Opus Group and Greco Development on the project. “A pocket park would be huge for that part of town,” adds Graham, where green space isn’t easy to find.
Down the street, Opus is working on another big development on the former Seven Corners Hardware site. Though the concept isn’t yet fully fleshed out, it will likely include a hotel, apartments and retail — “a huge boon for local businesses on non-event days,” Graham says.
Farther southwest, past the Schmidt site, the first phase of the ambitious Victoria Park development — once part of a tank farm owned by Koch Industries and Exxon Mobil — is open for business. According to Diane Nordquist, a planner with St. Paul’s Planning and Economic Development department, the 215-unit, market-rate apartment structure is 95 percent occupied.
“After a 25-year cleanup process, we’re thrilled to see development in that part of the West End,” says Nordquist.
Chase Real Estate, the development’s owner, is gearing up for a similarly sized second phase that could be open by mid-2017. To accommodate increased traffic flows and create a safe connection through the site, the city is exploring plans to extend Stewart Avenue parallel to the river. Adjacent parcels totaling about five acres are slated for integration into a permanent riverfront park.
Just north on Stewart, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s $25 million expansion continues apace. When completed next year, the project should roughly double the treatment facility’s capacity.
Still farther down West 7th, where the West End merges into Highland Park and Fort Snelling looms in the distance, two large-scale development projects promise to inject a measure of urbanity into an area with a suburban look and feel.
First, Paster Enterprises is tapping Bader Development to reimagine the outdated Sibley Plaza shopping complex, a nondescript strip mall at the intersection of West 7th and St. Paul Avenue. Plans call for a much denser configuration: 120 units of market-rate apartment housing, about 100,000 square feet of retail (including a Fresh Thyme Market and a fitness club), and a less obtrusive parking framework.
A couple of blocks south, at the intersection of Shepard Road and Davern Street, Shepard Development is planning a massive mixed-use complex on 21 acres of riverfront real estate. Though the first residential phase of the project faces stiff opposition and looks likely to be reworked for reduced impact, observers are betting that the location is simply too attractive not to include a housing component.
“There’s a lot of history in the Seven Corners neighborhood,” says Graham. “But until recently, it was primarily a destination on game and event days,” rather than a round-the-clock lifestyle district.
Tailored for transit
The Seven Corners area was settled by Europeans in the 1830s and 1840s. A lively mix of fur traders, army veterans from Fort Snelling, homesteading families and entrepreneurs set up camp near the short-lived settlement of Pig’s Eye. The district was St. Paul’s first proper river port and, for a time, one of the city’s most affluent residential areas.
As St. Paul grew, development spread southwest along West 7th (then known as Fort Road). By the end of the 19th century, much of the West End had assumed its current shape and layout. Successive waves of immigration —Germans, who built the area’s first churches and breweries, and later Czechs, Poles, Italians and Scandinavians — swelled the West End’s ranks, supported a diverse economy and left behind a solid stock of historic structures.
By the early 1890s, streetcars ran the entire length of West 7th. The corridor remained a vital public transit artery until MSP abandoned the streetcar in the early 1950s. West 7th was reborn as an auto thoroughfare. Metro Transit’s limited-stop 54 bus, which ferries passengers between downtown St. Paul and the MSP airport along West 7th, is now the corridor’s primary transit route — a weak echo of the avenue’s promise.
But the area’s six-decade-and-counting transit drought may soon be nearing an end. Since the early 2000s, the Riverview Corridor — which connects Union Depot, the airport and the Mall of America — has been a top priority for the Metropolitan Council and other regional planning authorities. Along with the Blue and Green Lines, it’s considered the third side of the “Transit Triangle” that links downtown Minneapolis, downtown St. Paul and Bloomington.
“[Riverview] is such an important transit corridor,” says Deborah Carter McCoy, public communications manager for the Ramsey County Rail Authority (RCAA), which since 2013 has overseen a multifaceted transit study in the area. “You’re connecting the destinations in downtown St. Paul and Seven Corners in the north with a growing residential population along West 7th and the airport, mall and Bloomington workplaces in the south.”
The RCAA’s initial study could wrap up later this year or early in 2016. According to Mike Rogers, lead project manager at RCAA, the goal is to produce a locally preferred alternative (LPA) by the end of the first quarter of 2016. Though what’s ultimately built would be to some degree contingent on the results of a subsequent environmental impact statement and cost estimate, the LPA would outline local stakeholders’ preferred transit mode, alignment, station locations and service frequencies.
In a corridor with numerous viable alignments, says Rogers, the LPA could be multi-modal: perhaps better busing along West 7th, coupled with a light rail or streetcar component on the nearby rail right-of-way. A similar configuration is emerging along Minneapolis’ Midtown corridor, where planners favor a streetcar through the Greenway trench and enhanced bus service on Lake Street.
In the past, proposals to improve transit along West 7th — including a light rail proposal in the late 1990s — have gotten off to promising starts, only to fizzle due to lack to funding or public will.
But “things may be different this time,” says Rogers. “With more transit-oriented development already in place along the corridor, and more in the works, we won’t simply be making transit improvements in the hopes of spurring increased density.” Instead, a new streetcar, light rail or bus rapid transit line will effectively serve existing transit-oriented developments like Victoria Park, the Sibley Plaza redevelopment, the Schmidt site and the Seven Corners projects — a much easier case to make to state and federal funding authorities.
And robust transit service worthy of the neighborhood’s pedigree wouldn’t just be great news for the developers and architects looking to turn the West End into a legit lifestyle corridor. It would set the stage for the next chapter in one of St. Paul’s most storied districts while, up and down the length of West 7th, MSP locals and tourists alike can embrace the district’s potential as a life/work/play destination rather than a through-route to somewhere else.
Brian Martucci is The Line’s Innovation and Jobs News Editor.
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