In nearly every issue of the Monitor appears a guest column by Chad Kulas, Executive Director of the Midway Chamber of Commerce. The columns are almost always upbeat, often highlight unique businesses in the Midway, and in the last year have covered topics ranging from the area’s rich cultural diversity and the importance of disabled workers to notable coffee shops and new apartment construction.
As the unofficial spokesperson for the mainstream Midway business community, it’s understandable that Mr. Kulas is focused on feel-good stories and the occasional new store or restaurant opening. After all, talking about vacant buildings, empty lots, crumbling streets, litter everywhere, and a general pattern of disinvestment during the past decade isn’t usually “good for business.” But to ignore those things, which were further exacerbated by the civil unrest that followed the tragic murder of George Floyd three years ago, requires those connected with the city’s power structure to regularly don “rose-colored glasses.”
How else to explain the general myopia and indifference at City Hall regarding the sorry state of affairs in the Lexington-Snelling-University corridor, generally thought of as the business and entertainment hub for the Midway?
Unfortunately, if you spend any time walking on those commercial streets, which I do on a regular basis, you’d have to be blind to overlook the blight more characteristic of neglected, poverty-stricken neighborhoods than the manufactured image we’re routinely fed by the local papers and our elected officials, citing all sorts of alleged “progress.”
Yes, some good things are happening in the Midway, thanks to the ingenuity and determination of individuals working to add vibrancy and variety to our community. However, outside investment is primarily coming from deep-pocketed developers, seeking to capitalize on the citywide housing shortage and the multi-billion-dollar taxpayer-funded light rail system. While several housing projects have been recently completed along University Avenue in the past year, who really benefits from those projects – the investors or local residents?
Nearly all of these buildings feature market-rate units, targeted at a more affluent demographic, which does nothing to lower the overall cost of housing or meet the dire need for affordable housing throughout St. Paul. And while these projects certainly benefit the construction trades, they are doing little to increase the tax base, contrary to what city leaders claim. After all, if this new boom in construction activity was a boon to city coffers, why are so many homeowners experiencing double-digit property tax increases?
One clear explanation for this phenomenon can be found in the heart of the Midway: the superblock parcel that is now home to Allianz Field and, thanks to all the businesses removed to make way for the stadium, pretty much nothing else. Gone are Office Max, Rainbow Foods, Walgreen’s, Midway Bowl, the Dollar Store, the Peking Garden, Golden Gate Café, Big Top Liquors, and, more recently, Apollo Locksmith and Little Caesar’s Pizza. (Last time I checked, Target doesn’t replace keys.)
Anybody at the city who still claims that the $500 million complex of hotels, housing, and retail shops promoted by Minnesota United principal owner Bill McGuire is going to materialize anytime soon is deluded – and no politicians pretend anymore that the soccer stadium has resulted in meaningful job growth. Or that 20-25 matches a year has created appreciable amounts of new revenue for the city.
And don’t forget that the stadium is exempt from property taxes for the next 50 years (estimated by the Pioneer Press in 2016 as representing an annual revenue loss to the city of $3-5 million), with the parking lots, interior streets, and other “infrastructure” specific to the stadium funded by $25 million in tax-increment financing. Somehow the city has to make up this property tax loss, and they’re doing so on the backs of taxpayers like you and me.
Imagine how the larger community might have benefitted if that $25 million had instead been made available for improving business storefronts, beautifying Snelling and University Avenues, addressing vacant lots, providing interest-free loans for small business startups, or even repurposing some of the empty buildings in the area as business incubators? One doesn’t have to stray far from Allianz Field to appreciate the need for real investment to combat the neglect and disrepair.
In the five-block stretch along University Avenue between Hamline and Snelling one is greeted by not one or two – but four – vacant lots strewn with trash, surrounded by broken down fences, and almost always overgrown with vegetation. Two of those empty lots – at Albert and University – have been that way for 20 years, and they are now complemented by another “vacancy” at Hamline and University (the former BP site) and one where the Sports Dome establishment was destroyed by arson. In addition, the Trend Bar sits empty, a building that once housed law offices (next to Midway Books) remains boarded up three years after the civil unrest, and graffiti grows daily like weeds anywhere taggers desire.
But the blight is not limited to just those five blocks. At the Snelling intersection, fences surround the empty, rubble-strewn lot where the American Bank Building once stood, while across the street an ugly CVS building sits empty and boarded up.
Venture a few blocks north on Snelling and the pattern continues, with the same “for rent” signs dotting the avenue year-after-year. Hamline Hardware is gone and empty, as is Dan’s Fan City, though three years later a new use of the boarded-up building is reportedly in the works. Other than the rebuild of Lloyd’s Pharmacy, a replacement of the aging (and annoying) Taco Bell drive-through establishment, and the opening of the Flying Pig Thrift store, new business activity near Hamline University has been at a standstill for years.
Sadly, this dismal situation stretches in all directions. The Midway Marketplace is home to the cavernous, vacant Herberger’s store (until recently, utilized as a covid-testing site by the state), and the At Home Superstore that replaced Wal-Mart is lucky if a mere 5% of its huge parking lot is occupied—other than during soccer games. Venture a block east, and you’ll find more vacant storefronts, Target’s huge, underutilized “overflow” parking lot, and a few blocks farther down, an empty, glass-strewn lot where Napa Auto Parts once did a thriving business.
While many of us who live in the Midway are embarrassed by the rampant neglect, disinvestment, tax giveaways, ever-present litter, and runaway graffiti, our City Council, incredibly, has already agreed in principle to commit $208 million in TIF funding for McGuire’s Midway pipe dream! How can a city that has no funds to carry out essential repairs of our dilapidated infrastructure justify forgiving new property tases on yet another major project? They can’t. But one thing is sure: the entrepreneurs and companies creating the high-paying, cutting-edge jobs of the 21st century are not looking to St. Paul to expand their operations. Why would they?
When I moved into the Midway in the fall of 2004, I genuinely thought the area had a chance to shed its undeserved image of rundown shops and rampant crime. But a decade ago when all the planning around a revitalized Midway Shopping Center was quickly jettisoned in favor of turning that parcel into a soccer stadium surrounded by parking lots, I knew a golden opportunity had been squandered. And while our elected officials continue to pretend that “good days” are ahead, the evidence on the ground overwhelmingly says otherwise. My house goes on the market next week.
Tom Goldstein is a lawyer and former school board member. Every morning for the past 18.5 years he has been greeted by two empty lots across the street from his front door.
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