Team behind Allianz Field presents scaled-down vision for development — beginning with a sculpture garden at Snelling and University

14 July 2023

Gone are the twin towers of offices and housing above a multi-level parking podium. A movie theater and mixed-use “live-work” spaces no longer line the concept drawings.

Instead, after seven years without visible progress, the updated vision for real estate redevelopment around Allianz Field — the city’s 20,000-seat professional soccer stadium in St. Paul’s Midway — starts small, with a sculpture garden anchoring the corner of Snelling and University avenues, followed by a traditional playground just south of an extended Shields Avenue and Pascal Street.

The public would have access to both sites, though they’d be privately owned, managed and maintained by the owners of the Minnesota United soccer team and the development group promoting the Snelling Midway “superblock” for private real estate development.

A real estate adviser with the Tegra Group submitted an updated block diagram to the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Commission on Thursday night, winning their unanimous support for the general concept of two POPS sites, or “privately-owned public spaces” within the United Village superblock.

The St. Paul City Council also will get to vote on the arrangement.

New plan has no mention of housing

Carolyn Wolf, director of the St. Louis Park-based Tegra Group, said she wasn’t around in 2016 when a master planning process laid out the initial vision for 35 to 40 acres of real estate development around the stadium, which at the time called for hundreds of housing units adjoining other uses.

In light of a more challenging post-pandemic real estate environment, the new block diagram lays out the future location of a possible office and retail building, food pavilion, hotel and parking ramp, but it otherwise makes no mention of potential residences.

In the new plan, housing is gone, and even the structures that might ultimately spring forward probably won’t be the towering developments that had once been imagined, Wolf acknowledged. But a new grant approved by Ramsey County this week would help remediate any polluted soils beneath the future park spaces, provided site grading gets underway this year.

“We’re back,” Wolf said, addressing the Parks and Rec Commission. “We’re still in compliance with the 2016 plan. There’s some new faces. I’m a new face. I just wanted to meet the team and let you know we’re ready to roll.”

Some major mixed reaction here. One Parks Commisisoner says the proposal looks amazing and a playground would be excellent. Another says anchoring the corner with sculptures instead of commerce is going to get pushback. No residential structures are on this plan beyond hotel.

— CityHallScoop (@CityHallScoop) July 14, 2023

Overdue for strong stewardship

To promote the updated vision, Dr. Bill McGuire — the soccer team’s managing owner — has hired Mike Hahm, former director of St. Paul Parks and Recreation, to lead outreach to neighborhood district councils and groups like the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, which sent a representative to Thursday’s meeting to support the efforts.

Hahm, who is married to outgoing St. Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen, retired from the Parks and Rec position in February 2022. He was appointed by the governor last year to chair the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission, which promotes amateur sporting events statewide and governs the National Sports Center in Blaine.

On Thursday, some members of the Parks Commission expressed relief to see some progress, at least on paper, after seven years of waiting for the stadium to catalyze real estate development and area improvements. The intersection of Snelling and University avenues, they said, was overdue for strong stewardship.

“I actually like the idea of a sculpture plaza, because it brings art to a really busy corner that people get stuck at (in traffic),” said Commissioner Theresa Paulson.

Lack of retail

Critics in the neighborhood have noted that less retail rings Allianz Field today than in the days before the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, when looters, rioters and protesters damaged properties within the Midway Shopping Center.

Some neighborhood residents have blamed McGuire, landlord RK Midway and master developer M.A. Mortenson Co. of Golden Valley for using the property damage as an excuse to clear out viable businesses like the longstanding Peking Garden restaurant, which reopened farther east along University Avenue after a long hiatus.

In advance of Thursday’s Parks and Rec vote, the Union Park District Council submitted comments asking for any action to be delayed a month to give them time to better understand the details.

Calling the updated block diagram a high-level concept plan, Parks and Rec staffer Paul Sawyer noted that construction of any particular building would still trigger a public site plan review process before the city. For the two privately-owned parks, the city would broker a maintenance agreement with the development team, ensuring upkeep and other standards, said Parks and Rec Director Andy Rodriguez.

Sculpture garden

Other commission members questioned whether a sculpture garden, as opposed to a commercial development, would truly be the best way to anchor a prominent corner like Snelling and University avenues. And what kind of sculptures would the garden feature? Soccer players? A giant soccer ball? The team mascot is, after all, a loon.

Some believe that McGuire plans exactly that — a giant loon.

In an online essay this week on the platform, Jonathan Oppenheimer, a Midway resident who sat on then-St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s Community Advisory Committee for the Superblock in 2015 and 2016, said he met with McGuire in recent weeks to discuss clean-up and development prospects for the superblock, a magnet for litter.

The sculpture garden, Oppenheimer wrote, is “likely to include a massive multi-million dollar sculpture of a loon that Dr. McGuire had already commissioned prior to receiving any approval for his revised plans.”

Parks and Rec Commission is poised to recommend whether to use the private land/public space arrangement. There’s some question as to what kind of sculpture would anchor Snelling and University…No pics available yet.

— CityHallScoop (@CityHallScoop) July 14, 2023

Oppenheimer expressed concern that the city would give up oversight of the public art installation too easily, as it would sit on private land. Those fears were echoed by at least one member of the Parks and Rec Commission on Thursday.

“They have a green light to do whatever sort of sculpture they would prefer?” asked Commissioner Eric Erickson.

Wolf said she did not have a written agreement in hand or public rendering to share of any particular sculpture.

But could the sculpture be a massive loon, asked a reporter later?

“No comment,” Wolf said.

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