Three Reasons I Support Saint Paul’s Plans for a Smaller Pedro Park

If you don’t know about downtown Saint Paul’s Pedro Park controversy — or even how to correctly pronounce the name “Pedro” (hint: you probably don’t) — here’s a quick summary from the recent Pioneer Press article, “Six residents quit St. Paul’s Pedro Park design committee in protest”:

On Saturday, residents of several downtown St. Paul buildings will plant flowers in the small gardens where the Pedro’s Luggage store once stood. They’ll do so with more than a bit of irony. On Thursday evening, six of the same residents quit a city-led committee aimed at designing the future Pedro Park.

The group defection from St. Paul’s Pedro Park Design Advisory Committee comes at a critical time. St. Paul is working with the Ackerberg Group of Minneapolis to redevelop the former public safety annex building adjoining the land into office space. The proposal calls for Ackerberg to buy the future Pedro Park space and fund park improvements on the land for 20 years.

The design advisory committee is intended to help guide those improvements, but residents remain at odds with the city’s vision for new green space. They worry they’ll be left with something more akin to a corporate lawn than a sizable neighborhood gathering place like Mears Park.

Berg and the Friends of Pedro Park Expansion noted that the Pedro family donated 0.45 acres of land to the city with the expectation that St. Paul would someday establish a larger park, possibly stretching across the full block. A city staff report in November said a 2.1-acre park is still possible, given time.

The Friends of Pedro Park group said it became clear during the two design meetings held to date that the city has no such plans.

 

For me, it is easy to empathize with the people frustrated by the likely outcome of the former Pedro Luggage site. These folks were told one thing many years ago, and now they have learned that things have changed. Furthermore these changes were made somewhat unilaterally and without much transparency, and people have the right to be upset. I would imagine that many of the people who have been trusting a process that they hoped would result in a new civic park named after their family member would feel betrayed by the situation today.

That being said, I think the city is making the right decision and here’s why. The current evolution of the plan would preserve an historic building, create a high quality public space, and increase the density of downtown. All those things are important.

To take these points one by one: preserving old buildings is important for downtown Saint Paul. Too many of downtown’s pre-war buildings have been knocked down in the name of progress, parking, and wider roads. I see little reason to demolish one more perfectly good historic structure because a promise was made 20 years ago.

Second, the budget issue is important as well, as money invested in downtown should be carefully weighed against other needs in the city. Over the years, I have witnessed how budget cuts have affected city services and staffing at City Hall. Saint Paul badly needs to save money at the margins, and that’s why this proposal is so appealing. It would make an improvement at little or no cost to the city while simultaneously growing the city’s tax base.

For broader contest, one needs to understand how, compared to most economically growing cities, Saint Paul’s downtown does relatively little to generate tax base and revenue. For example, Minneapolis’ downtown is a huge revenue cash cow for their civic budget; Saint Paul, by contrast, with its tax-exempt government offices, vast publicly-owned land, and many non-profits like MPR, the Science Museum, and [chokes] the Scientologists, is not even the largest tax-base district in the city. (The West Midway industrial area generates more tax base dollars, for example.)

Finally, parks alone do not solve problems. Granted, I don’t live downtown and don’t have to walk my dog there, but to me, as a frequent visitor and worker downtown, and as someone who thinks often about how to cultivate great urban spaces, I don’t believe the problem with downtown Saint Paul is a lack of parks and green space. Sure there are a two great parks downtown, and that’s wonderful. At the same time, there are multiple downtown “parks” like the Kellogg River Balcony area, Raspberry Island, or Wacouta Commons that remain underutilized most of the time. This isn’t always because of their poor design, but because Saint Paul lacks the density and consistent street activity to fill these public spaces. (This is not to mention the huge public areas like the riverfront or the state capitol grounds that often operate as de facto parks, and also remain empty 99% of the time.)

To me, the greater problems with downtown Saint Paul can be summed up neatly: lack of density and lack of quality streets. The lack of density speaks for itself, and in many ways, the streets do too. Saint Paul has crappy sidewalks. Saint Paul’s sidewalks are often of literally poor quality: unshoveled, lacking ADA curb ramps, and designed in ways that make walking dangerous. They are also poor because they lack street life, adjacent stores and windows, and are rarely compelling or interesting to walk along. This is especially true for the sidewalks that might connect the different nodes of vital activity with each other (through the central skyway-laden “dead zone”), and doubly true for ones that might connect the downtown with the surrounding neighborhoods in all directions.

For generations, the “solution” for downtown Saint Paul has been to bulldoze older buildings and replace them with empty plazas, blank and “defensible” skyway-laden skyscrapers*, and inhumane parking lots. That’s not the recipe for creating a thriving downtown.

The current Pedro / Ackerberg proposal would not solve these problems overnight, but I think it would be a step in the right direction. Instead of tearing down an historic building to create another expensive and probably-often-empty downtown park, this proposal would preserve an irreplaceable funky building, create quality office space and (presumably) fill it with workers, and maintain a public space at little expense to the city budget. (I happen to like the existing “Urban Flower Field”, which was built for the extremely low cost of $30,000. I think it was one of the best investments Saint Paul has likely ever made, along with other civically inspired public art projects like the sidewalk poetry initiative.)

To sum up, I feel badly for people who were misled by a previous generation of downtown officials, but I believe increasing the density and vitality of Saint Paul’s small struggling downtown is the right thing to do, no matter what promises were made in a previous era of downtown deal-making.

* albeit raccoon friendly

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26 Responses to Three Reasons I Support Saint Paul’s Plans for a Smaller Pedro Park

  1. Bob Roscoe June 19, 2018 at 11:22 am #

    I like the park the way it is, although minor changes could happen over time. The park reminds me in intention, not design, of Rodia Towers in South Central Los Angeles, CA, built over several years by an immigrant Italian steel worker. Both Rodia Towers and Pedro Park have a nicely curious sense of mis-fit in the regularized urban environment around the.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke June 19, 2018 at 12:27 pm #

      Pocket parks can be super cool. I saw an amazing one in Seattle recently.

  2. Dan Choma June 19, 2018 at 11:34 pm #

    I love this article, Bill!

    I as well am a big fan of the Urban Flower field. You can see it when you hop the fence and ride your bike into the field of tall prairie grass on Railroad Island. It looks like someone wanted to make the city look like a lady bug and it seems entirely natural when you are standing waist deep in prairie grass listening to the wind whisper the poetry of forgotten consonants through the leaves that the city just might be a lady bug of steel and stone. Ain’t summer grand?

    With less regards to Ray Bradbury and more to Robert Moses, the estimated added tax value of the smaller park with the redesigned Annex building is $4.8 to $6.6 million. That’s more than the City gets yearly from parking fees from the now closed RiverCentre Parking Ramp. The 20 years maintenance offer is also a pretty big deal. It’s a good deal for the city, no bones about it.

    That said, there have been a lot of plans put forth for the bigger park. Plus, the park was collaterally involved in that dumb gun range due to the building in question being the police Annex. If I’m Fredrick Olmstead trying to figure out the “spirit of the place,” then I have to conclude there is some unresolved energy there. It’s not measurable or logical, but people are highly evolved animals. We feel spaces before we measure them with our minds. Because of what happened with the Annex and the gun range and CM Thune, I think people are predisposed to feeling that this space will involve the city pulling a fast one on them. It’s not logical, but it still is.

    Because of the emotional context of this space, I think it’s really important here that the City takes a soft sell approach to this. For it to work, they are really going to need to lean into the history of the park and they need to respect the wishes of the Pedro Family. Given that so many plans were made and presented over the last two decades & the Police Annex has the immediate charge and connection to a gun range no citizen request, I think the City needs to do some intentional poetic place making to ease the lizard brains of the city citizens and (hopefully) avoid a lawsuit.

    A) The City needs to retain naming rights and give those to the Pedro Family. The family donated the land. The least the City can do is make sure the park isn’t named “Ackerberg Park Plaza.” We’re already stuck with EcoLab plaza. Let’s not do that again.

    B) There needs to be intentional place making in the new park. It needs to celebrate the heritage of the Pedro Family. Whether it be a plaque or a statue or a narrative written into the sidewalks, It is exceptionally important that the Pedro family is not erased. Hell, it’s important that history **in general** is not erased. We need to remember that in our public spaces, and that needs to be written into the proposal from the Ackerberg project.

    C) I know some of these things are asking a lot, especially considering Ackerberg is fronting all of the coins to do this project. But these are the soft selling points that make the modern meld with the memories: they make history come alive as a living breathing future organism.

    Responding to this critique of the old school Saint Paulites could be worth more equity for Ackerberg than naming rights could ever give: if done right, it could be the coup de grace for folks hating on the style of Ackerberg’s uptown projects. As the urban flower field has shown, memorable style doesn’t have to be expensive. It merely has to be memorable. And Pedro Park has a lot of poetry floating on the wind it needs to remember. If Ackerberg can sing this memory with their design, then the excellence of that statement will be more reward than naming rights could ever give.

    It is invaluable to be the firm that bridged Old Saint Paul to New Saint Paul.

    D) Just like this is an opportunity for Ackerberg to show it’s unique style, this is an early opportunity for Mayor Carter to develop and implement his governing style. It’s a tough situation to be in as a politician: he essentially has to tell the District Council that their big park plan doesn’t make financial sense for the city. (And it doesn’t, pretty empirically) It will be a challenge, but I look forward to seeing how Mayor Carter responds to it.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke June 20, 2018 at 9:47 am #

      That’s good advice right there.

    • Jon Fure July 4, 2018 at 10:21 am #

      “Lizard brains?”

  3. Karen June 20, 2018 at 5:04 am #

    I think frequency and quality of parks and surrounding built environment is more important for quality oakr system than size of parks.

    Mears park isn’t large but it really works because it’s quality design and built environment around it.

    I agree with what City is doing also.

  4. roy June 20, 2018 at 7:28 pm #

    I live across the park ,the people are making the most noise can easily walk to the state capitol there lots of green space there even though the State has been paving them for parking.There is a group trying to raise money to sue the city.

    The businesses are struggling to get customers .
    Lunds nearby isn’t busy ,businesses need customers .
    Downtown hasn’t build a hi-rise for more than 20 years even the surburbs are getting hi-rises All the new housings are 4 stories buildings at this rate the population increase would not be enough to attract more businesses.Dealing the large homeless population and lawlessness downtown I am amazing businesses and people want to come downtown .

    A full block for a park to overlook 3 ugly parking ramps ,Minnesota street is the most unattractive street ,except for the remodeled Woolworth blg all the rest are gray and ugly with no windows at street level.
    Only Rossmor and penfield has good streetscape.
    The neighborhood cannot take care of the trees on MN Street they keep dying ,right now 5 trees are dying .
    Help take care of the trees on the streets,an expanded park is unnecessary and costly which the city cannot afford.

    • Will June 23, 2018 at 9:06 am #

      What exactly would one do in the space fronting the Capitol? There’s nothing there and hardly any seating.

      That said, I’d be more in favor of the proposal if the annex would turn into residential space rather than office space. That area of downtown has numerous opportunities to grow.

    • D Schulz July 3, 2018 at 10:34 am #

      There is a huge difference between the capital green space and a park with trees, benches, playground space, basketball hoops, garden space etc. As you rightly indicated the capital space is being taken over by parking, looks like the place I sat on the grass and watched some music and dance at their remodel open house last year is gone!?

      Similarly the difference between a pocket park to sit and eat your lunch vs jump rope, four square, physical games, park board events, Rec Center events, picnic tables, a shelter you can reserve for your family get together or boy scout meeting type activity is a world of difference.

      Roy I agree the existing trees and spaces if they are getting neglected need to be taken care of but I disagree about the ugly views, the park will BECOME the view and no one will be looking up at those ramps anymore.

      I am one of those who comes into St Paul for other events and often have my kids along. We go to one of a few places over and over again, the science museum, the children’s museum, CHS Field, the xcel energy center, all within the Xcel to the downtown farmers market section which includes Pedro park.

      When its time to eat or find a brew pub for dinner we generally decide to leave this area of St Paul and head on our way, why because there is not much else to do with a 4 year old and 9 year old there in that space. We have once walked over to Wacouta commons but that was only when we already had a place to stay downtown for the night and the kids needed to blow off some energy just before bed.

      My town has a nature park landscape, also talks of developing a splash pad, there are 100 things that this park could be. Don’t sell it out from under the plans that have been made and the potential the space has.

  5. Krysten Ryba-Tures June 21, 2018 at 2:39 pm #

    You won’t be surprised to hear me say this Bill, but I strongly disagree. Put simply, you cannot “respect the Pedro Family” while disregarding the terms of this land donation, which were & are VERY CLEAR.

    We can talk all day about plans & specifics and the right balance of greenspace in dense urban environments but there were strings attached to this transaction, and the city unilaterally cut them. Saint Paul will lose the lawsuit and further the distrust between community and the city when it comes to neighborhood planning.

    I’ve read excellent posts about how Saint Paul can increase its tax base, some authored by you! Those strategies should be pursued.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke June 21, 2018 at 3:32 pm #

      I haven’t read any documents, and hope you’re wrong about the legal issue. I am talking here only about what is best for the city in an urban design and land use sense.

  6. Scott Walters June 21, 2018 at 3:13 pm #

    Bill, I also live across the street from the park, and I agree completely. To tear down the annex when somebody has a plan to turn it into tax revenue generating, useful leased space makes absolutely no sense. It’s a fairly attractive building, and one we should keep if we can find a productive way to do so.

    I love living in downtown Saint Paul, and I think the downtown is generally heading in the right direction. Adding a vibrant use to the public safety annex is clearly another positive step.

    A bigger park would be nice, but as others have noted, there are plenty of green-space options nearby including the capitol grounds and the land between 11th Street and I-94 (another underutilized green space that could use some TLC).

    I hope they mayor can successfully navigate this course, and improve the existing park space while preserving the tax generating annex opportunity and growing the business and residential activity in downtown Saint Paul.

    • Will June 23, 2018 at 11:14 am #

      The space along 11th has no sidewalks, no benches, little opportunity for safe crossing, and abuts the highway and busy street. I don’t think that would be viable, useable green space without major changes to 11th itself.

    • D Schulz July 3, 2018 at 11:10 am #

      Within this section of downtown there is just the one playground as far as I am aware. Wacouta Commons.

      There is the Mears park area for music, and a nice fountain / river feature I remember.

      Rice park has some space to chill in, a fountain.

      None of these have picnic tables, picnic pavilion or picnic shelter according to the St Paul parks and rec website. Picnic tables are all along the waterfront only.

      Basketball courts the closest is over in Wieda Park, tennis courts even further away.

      A senior park, a splash pad, a shelter you can rent for family or community events, boy scout meetings etc. Nature play spaces for adults and children. Community gardens. There is SO much that could be done here and the contract made when Pedro Luggage family donated the land are pretty clear.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke July 5, 2018 at 4:06 pm #

        Wacouta commons is a 5 minute walk from here.

  7. Will June 23, 2018 at 9:03 am #

    I support the full Pedro Park proposal. This node is surrounded by residential environments and existing green space are found across boundaries: Wacouta Commons across a very wide Jackson Street and the Capitol across the highways and also severely lacking in amenities. Additionally, downtown as tons of open office space, including in older buildings along 7th Street.

    That said, if the city sold the police annex to Ackerberg, I would hope they change the proposed front door to the current 10th Street entrance rather than opening one fronting the flower field. It’s my belief that an entrance to the flower field for the offices would discourage use of the existing flower field and turn it into yet another corporate lawn. There are residents out and about throughout the day, including those buildings across Cedar. They deserve active green space available to them.

  8. Kati Berg July 3, 2018 at 6:27 am #

    Do I understand from the article unilateral decisions without transparency are okay as long as one agrees with the result? I disagree with, but understand the position of people who, all things being equal, would chose a smaller, nicer park now, versus a larger, unknown park in the future. But all things aren’t equal. The Annex is already parkland per RES 14-1861: Authorizing the naming of the downtown city park, on the half block on the north bounded by Robert Street, Tenth Street East, and Minnesota Street, as Pedro Park. This includes the Annex building and to sell it without the procedures set forth in Chapter 13 of the city’s ‘no net loss of parkland’ provision will mean our neighborhood will unjustly loose parkland for the 3rd time in just 16 years.

    Townsquare Park, 2 blocks from Pedro Park was sold in 2002. The new owners went bankrupt and it is currently a boarded up physical and legal mess. Museum Park outside the McNally Building was sold away around the same time. They too have declared bankruptcy.

    If the Annex is to be sold, God willing it won’t be, let it be done democratically through the proper provisions for selling parkland, the proper provisions for updating Comprehensive Plans, and the proper contriteness acknowledging the harm done to the Pedro family.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 4, 2018 at 3:23 pm #

      I don’t know the legal situation nor to I know what CM Thune or Mayor Coleman promised people years and years ago. The point of this article was to share an opinion about what decisions today would be good for downtown and good for the city as a whole.

  9. Deb Verlo July 3, 2018 at 10:54 am #

    As a senior resident on St. Paul’s north end, I take issue with the comments about available park space in the area. There is none. I can walk, but there is no place nearby to sit and enjoy nature and community as is afforded by parks like Mears and Rice. Has anyone noticed the property value differences of units within a block of those two parks vs Citywalk, the Pointe, and Rossmore? There is no comparison. And a big reason is that the northside lacks the green space amenities that the central corridor enjoys. If the neighborhoods surrounding Mears or Rice were to lose their parks, there would be an uproar.

    The Annex is not a historical building…period. Please take that out of the equation. The Landmark is…these are the kind of buildings that need to be saved and treasured. The Annex is not even close to that distinction. There are so many unused buildings in St. Paul that could be sold for tax revenue and would not interfere with current or future park space. Let’s look to those first for revenue opportunities.

    The current flower garden in the Pedro space is not suitable for seniors. There is no shade, walking is difficult and it is used as a dog park more than anything else. It is not a welcoming place regardless of the effort that goes into it. We need a 1 block park that is accessible from all sides.

    I do not appreciate comments from folks who do not live near Pedro. You have no idea what it feels like to not have quality of life ammenities in our neighborhood. Consider this…would you volunteer your home residence block as a site to move the Annex building to? If so, speak up. The Ackerman group might be willing to make that happen. And we now know that the city would approve any tax revenue opportunity.

    Finally, in these political times, promises seem to be made on the wind and this issue seems to reflect that trend. What a poor example to set for our city. What ever happened to keeping a promise? What ever happened to one’s word is one’s bond? What ever happened to building a legacy for our future generations? We have a unique opportunity here to show integrity, to set a good example, and to create something of lasting beauty that can be treasured for generations to come. Let’s not blow it.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 4, 2018 at 3:16 pm #

      The annex is historical in the sense that it is old and unique and replacing it would be impossible.

      Keeping every promise that CM Thune made, without a plan to achieve it, was never going to be possible.

  10. Jim July 3, 2018 at 12:19 pm #

    This proposal is such a big FU to the neighborhood. The park plan was first proposed back in 2005. Well before anyone ever heard of CHS Field or the CCB. A full block park has long been the goal. Most of the block has been and is currently tax exempt. So the city was never going to lose much in the way of property tax revenue. Besides that a park would’ve increased property values of the surrounding land.

    Downtown St. Paul isn’t lacking for office space either. Cray Supercomputers didn’t move from Galtier Plaza for an artsy hipster office building. It moved to a brand new class A office tower at the MoA. Office building after office building in downtown has been or is being converted to either hotels or residential. So the notion that we need this building to be either office space or new apartments is absurd. Plenty of other existing buildings to be converted already exist. Many of them taking TIF subsidies in order to be financially viable.

    If the city wants revenue, here’s an idea. Sell off the public owned parking ramps throughout downtown. They’d be worth far more than this building. It would also put them on the private tax rolls.

    I live in the Pointe building. I’m resigned to the fact this will likely become another chapter of government going back on its word to its constituents. I’d be fine if it would lead to the surrounding parking lots being developed. But I’m not holding my breath. We’re going to be stuck with this ugly obsolete building surrounded by surface lots and a piddly park.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller July 3, 2018 at 2:41 pm #

      I have zero opinion on Pedro park, but surely the city-owned parking ramps are revenue-generating and selling them off would reduce revenue other thing in the immediate term, right?

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 4, 2018 at 3:17 pm #

      My understanding from CRE people is that DT Saint PAul is lacking in quality office space. A lot of the buildings are owned by property owners who are not willing to invest in upgrading it, or so they tell me. Galtier was a great example.

  11. Lisa Clasen July 3, 2018 at 6:59 pm #

    An opinion from a ‘parkside’ resident:

    There is no real improvement or progress if the block does not change. Repurposing the building will do nothing significant for the future of the city. It is simply the easy answer and lacking vision.

    That said, if the building stays, I believe the remainder of the block should be park space. The daycare could be part of the building, with an enclosed play area on the west side. Have a police sub-station in the building. Keep the mural without adding windows on that side (that mural is constantly photographed and would be missed!). The main building entrance should be facing north, and maybe another entrance on the south side with a walk-out cafe and overhang for shelter. Dog area roughly where the daycare is now (smaller). I am against loud music because even with my windows closed, the performance might as well be in my condo, but if that is part of the plan, leave the current grade and make it an amphitheater.

    If I could choose, I want a full block park, even though I do hate tearing down old buildings. Combined residential property taxes in the buildings surrounding the space bring in a huge amount of tax dollars and we should get something for that.

    Lastly, it is not hyperbole to say this could be our last chance for decent size green space in downtown. Looking at a map, it is nicely situated to round off downtown park space. Have they identified other potential spaces? Or are they saying that we don’t need any more green space downtown? I think they don’t believe in our city, they don’t believe it will grow to need this park.

  12. Robert Conroy July 4, 2018 at 7:11 am #

    This uninformed (albeit poetic) article indirectly highlights the need to elect Shirley Erstad to the City Council. Without an understanding of the positive economic impact of the park and the obligation of the City of St Paul to maintain its integrity there cannot be a complete discussion. What currently exists is a joke. Please consider listening to Shirley and then vote for her and encourage others in her district to vote for her!!

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 4, 2018 at 3:21 pm #

      The positive economic impact of an expensive theoretical park with no funding?

      One of the big messages from folks in Saint Paul you hear over and over again is that the Coleman administration spend far too much money on amenities downtown and not in surrounding neighborhoods, such as Ward 4. Funding a park here would be millions of dollars going into downtown instead of other more needy wards and neighborhoods. Meanwhile necessary services are being cut like libraries and rec centers. We canceled the fireworks. Spending more money on a fancy DT park when there are other alternatives is not to me a very equitable decision. One great benefit of this plan is that we would not have to make a choice like that, where downtown amenities come at the expense of other people in Saint Paul.

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