Lessons Learned: Hindsight 20/20 in Community Development

Patrick Seeb, Executive Director, Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation

With 15 years of experience in downtown and riverfront redevelopment, we’ve learned a thing or two about city building. These lessons haven’t always come easily, but they’ve become invaluable as we continue our efforts to revitalize Saint Paul’s river valley. Here are some things we’ve come to understand that might help Saint Paul realize the full potential of transformative projects like the Central Corridor Light Rail Line:

1. Commit to Guiding Principles
Like the Saint Paul on the Mississippi Development Framework that guides investment in our riverfront and downtown, Saint Paul’s light rail should be guided by the Central Corridor Development Strategy, created in 2007 with the input of hundreds of community members. This “roadmap” reflects civic goals in the form of principles, not plans, allowing the project to flex and adjust to market forces. A commitment to underlying principles will enhance, not limit, the project.

2. Take the Long View
When the Central Corridor line is completed in 2014, it will be much more than a train. Planning must be bold enough to recognize that the rail service is just the beginning, a catalyst for surrounding neighborhood development well into the future, just as the first phases of riverfront restoration helped launch what continues to be the ongoing revitalization of Saint Paul.

3. Work Collaboratively
When US Bank wanted to expand its Saint Paul workforce with a new facility on the riverfront, they worked in good faith with the City, the West Side community, the Riverfront Corporation and others to design and orient the new complex in a way that complemented the neighborhood’s vision and the nature of the river valley, while welcoming future investment. US Bank set the bar for being a collaborative partner; the result is a building that works for US Bank, the West Side and the riverfront.

4. Be Persistent
At some point, every project will face what seem like insurmountable obstacles. The answer is not to fold and compromise guiding principles. The Upper Landing faced many challenges. Civic leaders disagreed strongly about best uses for the site. Heavy industrial pollution made it unattractive to private developers. But by staying the course and engaging stakeholders, the Upper Landing is now home to 700 families, tree-lined trails, parks and river overlooks – proof that persistence pays off.

5. Celebrate Success
The overall success of the Central Corridor will spring from hundreds of incremental successes. Keep partners and stakeholders energized by measuring and celebrating progress. While some thought that four ribbon cuttings for the new Wabasha Street Bridge was overkill, we knew it was important to celebrate milestones, reflect on what was working, and say thanks as often as possible.

6. Build on Current Assets
Don’t overlook the contributions of early investors. The Central Corridor Light Rail Line should build upon, not detract from or displace those who have invested time, energy and resources into University Avenue and its neighborhoods. On the river, we came to understand the value of all facets of the Mississippi – as a working river, a recreational river, and a place where people have lived and gathered since Saint Paul began.

7. Respond to Market Forces
Be flexible enough when planning to respond to market forces, while honoring guiding principles. When the private equity behind a restaurant at the Upper Landing’s historic grain terminal fell through, Saint Paul found a way to meet its goals for the site. A new trailhead and park pavilion will preserve this historic structure and provide new access to the river – setting the stage for future improvements.

8. Encourage Debate
Create meaningful ways for stakeholders to engage in the development process. In our work facilitating the Holman Airfield Floodwall debate, we witnessed firsthand that better decisions come from having many voices at the table. Healthy debate and controversy makes for better projects.

Saint Paul’s experience in downtown and riverfront redevelopment positions the city better than ever to manage both the challenges and opportunities of light rail. As our city’s story continues to unfold, the Central Corridor, like the Mississippi River, will play a critical role in determining Saint Paul’s future course.