By Bill Lindeke
With some bureaucratic luck, by this time next year the western edge of St. Anthony Park will have a whole new, much more walkable, look and feel. And maybe even a new park, in an area that sorely needs it.
For decades, the area near the Westgate light-rail station has been marked by the Weyerhauser lumberyard, a massive gray building pressing up against Emerald Street and the Minneapolis border like an industrial bookend. But with the lumber giant shuttering its warehouse and selling the land for development, things are about to change in that sleepy corner between Highway 280, I-94 and the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis.
To prepare for the changes, the city of St. Paul hired consultant Urban Design Associates to prepare a report that is just now working through the planning review process. The document, “Westgate Public Realm Plan,” was presented at the city’s Transportation Committee earlier this month.
The consultant’s report is just being finalized, according to Donna Drummond, St. Paul director of planning. “Planning staff will consider how to amend the concepts into the existing Westgate Station Area Plan.”
As with similar plans for the West Side Flats development downtown, the Snelling-Midway “bus barn” site (where Minnesota United’s soccer stadium is being built) and the Highland Ford plant site, the Westgate plan is another effort to reform massive industrial superblocks by creating a smaller, more walkable street grid. The plan calls for connecting Emerald Street with Curfew Street on the interior of the block and extending Berry Street across Franklin Avenue.
The crown jewel of the plan would be a new one-block park located between Emerald and an extended Berry. The square park would occupy the center of the site and, according to the consultant report, be a “flexible park space that would be connected to the trail system.” Other plans might include a section for dogs, shaded benches, and a space for markets and events.
“This area has long been in need of park space,” said John Mark Lucas, a transportation planner and member of the St. Anthony Park Community Council, at the recent city Transportation Committee meeting, where the plan was discussed. “It would be great if we could add some mixed-use retail into the plan as well.”
Dominium Development, the new owner of the Weyerhauser site, is planning a large senior living facility that will occupy the northwest corner of the site, by Emerald and Franklin, Drummond said. Likewise, Sunrise Banks has opened a new headquarters on Wabash Avenue, next to the existing railroad tracks.
Another appealing item in the plan is a potential bike and pedestrian link along the old railroad corridor that led into the lumberyard. By using the abandoned Wabash rail bridge, a trail connection could run from the park and new street grid over Highway 280, to link up with the under-construction “Grand Round” along Pelham Boulevard and Myrtle Avenue. In a part of the city with impassable freeway barriers and dangerous on-ramps, a dedicated connection over the freeway would be a massive improvement.
Currently, however, that land is owned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), and no funding is earmarked for the connection. The agency would have to approve any change, though city staff has expressed hope that MnDOT might fund the bridge as part of its ongoing “Rethinking I-94” project.
Other new developments in the Westgate area include an under-construction bouldering gym by local climbing company Vertical Endeavors. The low-slung space would appeal to practicing climbers and is currently planned for an old warehouse along the frontage road facing I-94. Just to the east, local office owner Case-Suntide has plans for a new mixed-use office space in the vacant building just south of its existing office complex at 767 Eustis St. If the company follows through with these plans, the renovated space would include a brewery or distillery, another in the growing local alcohol-production scene in St. Anthony Park.
“[The Westgate plan], which will be an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan, will come to the [St. Paul] Planning Commission for a public hearing/recommendation to mayor and council,” Drummond said. “I’m not sure yet on timing. I’m hoping we’ll have someone who can work on it this fall.”
Bill Lindeke is a member of the St. Paul Transportation Committee, an urban geographer and an occasional contributor to the Park Bugle.