It is easy to look at the former Macy’s store in St. Paul and see an irredeemable wreck. It is large and hostile to pedestrians. Its few windows and huge floorplates were ideal for the retail environment of the 1960’s, but are stubbornly resistant to redevelopment. It is too expensive to tear down, and besides, developers aren’t interested in the site even as a blank slate.
All of this explains the audible sighs of relief last year when the Port Authority cobbled together a proposal to breathe new life into the building. Hockey rink? Kind of a cool concept. A new Walgreens? Solid, if unglamorous. Brewpub? How Millenial! Offices? Those don’t seem to be selling like hotcakes down here, but maybe this time will be different.
An additional 180,000 square feet of parking? SLAMS ON BRAKES! What???
Some readers of this site might not make it down to St. Paul on a regular basis, but I’m there almost every day. Please trust me, we have plenty of parking. Actually, this is my first post, so don’t trust me. Trust the city’s own official parking survey, released just last year, which pegged downtown’s ramps at only 73% full during workdays.
That so much additional parking is proposed indicates to me that the Macy’s building is just too large for a traditional redevelopment effort in a market like downtown St. Paul. I imagine the Port Authority looking in vain for anything to fill the space besides parking, and coming up empty.
This raises the question: what if we looked at the Macy’s building a little differently, less as an economic conundrum, more as an opportunity for civic infrastructure? When I walk around it, I see incredible opportunity, just not of the kind that typically pleases bankers and developers. Here sits 500,000 square feet of publicly-owned building in the heart of a city which banks on its parks, museums, and ballparks (ie, its publicly-owned attractions) to bring workers, visitors, and residents downtowm. We can work with this!
I imagine a place of sunshine in the summer months, and place to see growing things in the winter months. A public square at the crossroads of the skyway system, and a rooftop lawn in the heart of the city. A place for performances and flea markets and protests and celebrations and urban gardeners – a space that could only happen in a great city. I imagine a combination of the Crystal Court and the Como Park Conservatory- part crossroads, part oasis.
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