Candidates for Saint Paul Ward 4: Mitra Jalali Nelson on Developing Ward 4’s Vacant Areas

Writer’s note: On August 14, 2018, St Paul Ward 4 residents will have the opportunity to vote for a new City Council Member in a special election to replace Russ Stark as he accepts a new position within the city. As a Ward 4 resident, I wrote to the candidates to ask them specific questions about the neighborhood around the soccer stadium. They wrote back asking to chat in person. With their permission, I decided to share my interviews with a larger audience. This is part two of the series of conversations with Ward 4 candidates regarding development around the areas surrounding the soccer stadium.

Mitra Jalali Nelson moved to her Saint Paul Ward 4 neighborhood “because of the Green Line. My husband and I share one car, we wanted to be by the train. There were apartments right off of the Green Line that we could move into, which worked because we wanted to also stay in Saint Paul.”

Nelson has been a high school teacher in New Orleans, worked as an organizer for the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, and as the Safety and Immigration Outreach Director for Representative Keith Ellison. She enters the race because she wants to bring “renters, people of color, millennials and folks who are increasingly the future of Saint Paul to the City Hall discussion.”

One issue that Mitra Nelson believes is important to building a sustainable future in Ward 4 is “building community wealth.”

“Creating workers that have more wages helps everybody,” Nelson begins when talking about encouraging business growth in the vacant areas of Ward 4.

Nelson, who is the daughter of small business owners, notes, “It is a reasonable reaction that businesses couldn’t make everything happen on $15 per hour with no tip penalty tomorrow, but they want to be in the discussion on phasing it in. What I’ve heard from businesses is that it is more about the rate of change than the change itself. We’re working to lead on economic opportunity. That includes a mix of solutions, one being workers to have more disposable income.”

“I think the city council has convening power and that’s what I mean by organizing. We can’t necessarily pass an ordinance or unilaterally do something, but there’s untapped potential for the council to act as an organizing body. While I believe the government has a lot of responsibility that it can and must take to improve people’s lives, but the council shouldn’t necessarily position itself as the sole solver of problems. Rather, the council should bring partners together and figure out with the stakeholders what the solutions are. That to me is actually one of the most powerful ways the government can help people,” Nelson says of her ideas that would help bring business growth along with higher wages to reality.

“Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) is one example of an organization that helps small businesses in their first few years. This group can help small business owners with less capital plan for risks, marketing, wages and figure out a more sustainable growth. In my day job, I work for Keith Ellison and I do engagement with the East African Community. I have met with folks at the African Development Center and also have been a visitor to the Karmel Mall many times. People say that the rates of Somali women entrepreneurship are so high, which is not untrue, but these businesses struggle one or two years out. We need to help connect these businesses to organizations like NDC for more sustainability,” says Mitra Nelson, citing examples of how the council can be a convening power to help small business development and reduce vacant buildings in the neighborhood surrounding the soccer stadium.

“I’m really excited about mixed use affordable housing and inclusionary zoning that makes that happen,” says Nelson about the development and zoning that have been recently progressing in the neighborhood. “I’m interested in taking industrial zones and upzone them but not in a way that everything built is upscale, $1500 rent for studio apartments which go up over time. But, look at re-imagining the space that is more in tune to what the city and neighborhood need now. Take those spaces for the community that looks at single family housing or corner stores that a neighbor could run.”

“We need to bring people together of different point of opinions. People power can dictate the results we get. We need to organize folks who can speak to the benefits, because if we just talk about what is wrong or not good enough, then nothing will happen. Or something worse than nothing. For example, the situation surrounding parking (related to Cupcake asking for a parking variance on Grand). Helping people understand that foot traffic and people who are not just parking their car on Grand for four hours is a good thing for business. It helps people want to stay in the neighborhood, it’s walk-able. I work a lot in process, so I think about process and can trace why something did or didn’t happen. We need to be able to sift and understand concerns. If it’s a neighborhood concern about character, do we address with aesthetic and design, but move forward on zoning, rather than saying no? If it’s a space concern, do we address it with some compromises while at the same time holding the line about why that space going away actually helps other needs that the city has to make that are bigger and more long term? There are ways to have the conversation that are not yes or no. I’m really interested in that type of leadership. Not someone who says no to everything or yes to everything without considering the concerns of the neighborhood,” Mitra Nelson explains regarding the Cupcake variance on Grand as well as considering controversial developments within Ward 4.

“Increase funding for district council staff. Organizing is a people powered effort. It literally takes investment and we don’t really think about what it took to get 50 people to a meeting, who are representative of the community. It affects where you market, how you market, you have to do follow-ups. I’m really interested in funding civic organizing through the district councils and also with that, adding requirements that in a neighborhood, your membership meets these membership criteria. But, even in neighborhoods that are a majority of one group of people doesn’t mean that someone else cannot represent the neighborhood. For example, in an all white neighborhood, there are probably 5-10% people of color and they are actually in need of more representation because they are not being heard. I would still be interested in disproportionate representation for the under-represented voices as being part of the guidelines,” Nelson says on community outreach.

“I partially benefit from the zoning that has brought more development to the area, but I’ve also worked my whole life to afford the place where I live, which is not a reality for everyone. So, as a renter, I am running to have more renter voices to be heard. I don’t really see many people who look like me in city government, but people who look like me and are me want to live in Saint Paul. The long time residents who live near me that I’ve talked with want us to, to build for the future. They want to combine what they know with what we know. I hope to mark the turning of the page for new leadership within the city. We already saw that with the mayoral election, but he needs champions on the council who will help him not only usher a progressive agenda through but also bring community input to the process with weekly, daily input through engaged council members. That’s my goal,” Nelson says of her reason for running and what she hopes to accomplish if elected.

Monica Millsap Rasmussen

About Monica Millsap Rasmussen

I was inspired years ago by beatnik, Joe Gould, and the stories he would hear from people he met on the street. Always a dream of mine to be the sort of person who could elicit entertaining stories from strangers, I now have that opportunity. I am looking forward to introducing readers to new lives.