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In the year before construction of the Western U plaza project was complete, Nieeta Presley was quietly celebrating a historic success. Presley is the executive director of Aurora/St. Anthony Neighborhood Community Development Corporation (ASANDC), and for the better part of the last decade she has worked to redevelop the historic building on University Avenue at Western Avenue.
During construction, Presley drove past the site with her grade-school age grandson to show him the property’s transformation. Her eyes sparkle as she recalls explaining to him, “Look at that building! — We’re going to re-develop that, we’re going to turn that into housing. People are going to start their businesses there!”
In 2016, Aurora/St. Anthony Community Development, in partnership with Sand Companies Inc., successfully completed development of Western U Plaza. For almost a century, the three-story building had served as the distribution center of Old Home Foods, but had been vacant since in the early 2000s. The building remains one of the few intact architectural examples of St. Paul’s industrial past, and for that reason, its re-development required that any redevelopment preserve the building’s architectural history.
The project encompasses almost the entire block between Western Avenue and Virginia Street, one of the largest pieces of land along the eastern part of the Green Line. The redevelopment was completed in two phases, and consists of 68 units of affordable housing, including seven apartments for people who have been homeless. The site also includes 6,000 sq. ft. of commercial space for small businesses along University Avenue, and additional community space.
Western U is located at the junction of two important cultural districts, Little Mekong and the broader Rondo African American Heritage District. The project planning began as a part of a much longer project to help address a half-century of economic inequality in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
It’s a well-known fact that the construction of Interstate 94 displaced hundreds of African-American families in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood in the 1960s. Less well known may be the impact of suburbanization on St. Paul and Minneapolis neighborhoods. The expansion of freeways in the metro made possible sweeping metropolitan growth, and the once thriving Rondo neighborhood, among others, were largely excluded from the area’s growing post-war prosperity.
In the late 1980s, at about the same time the city of St. Paul began to reclaim University Avenue for projects like the Rondo Community Outreach Library at the corner of Dale Street, Hmong communities seeking refuge from Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam began purchasing homes and starting businesses on and around Lexington and University Avenue. The Asian-American community would later name the district Little Mekong for the name of the river that connects the countries from which they had come.
In the early 2000s, the Met Council announced plans for the expansion of light rail transit along University Avenue. Almost immediately, community and civic leaders in St. Paul began raising concerns that communities located along the eastern half of proposed Green Line had been left out of the planning. While the construction of the new Green Line did not threaten to displace homeowners and renters in the same way I-94 once did, it raised the possibility that transit oriented development could again displace people through rising costs and gentrification.
St. Paul residents also worried that light rail transit would replace the more frequent stops made by city buses—creating a transit desert for residents who rely on public transportation to get to and from work and city amenities. In 2006, ASANDC and 34 other non-profit organizations formed the Stops for Us! coalition, and began to host neighborhood gatherings to seek input for three new light rail stations. By 2010, demands for additional light rail stations were met as U.S. Department of Transportation approved three additional stations at Hamline Avenue, Victoria Street, and Western Avenue.
The conversations that began with new light rail stations sparked discussion around developing the former Old Homes Foods building, and the vision for Western U Plaza was conceived. A longtime community development partner, Twin Cities LISC, funded ASANDC to partner with others to ask neighbors and artists to share their hopes and dreams for re-developing the once blighted property.
Kate Speed of Twin Cities LISC says her organization worked to help amplify the voices of communities impacted by development, “What we found in community engagement sessions is that residents really cared about the jobs, the retail that was going to go in, and how it was going to serve them.
With the support of Twin Cities LISC, Presley enlisted community support for selecting a partner for the project. After a round of community interviews, ASANDC invited Sand Companies to join the project. From the start, Presley says Sand Companies shared her organization’s commitment to holistic community-based processes. The public-private partnership allowed the project to move more quickly, but not without some challenges.
One of the biggest challenges Presley said her organization faced were delays owing to the status of the building as a historic landmark. “Patience. Patience was one of the biggest lessons of the project,” recalls Presley. But despite the delays and occasional stumbling blocks, Twin Cities LISC remained stalwart in their support of ASANDC and the values of community-based development.
When asked about the success of the Western U project, Kate Speed of Twin Cities LISC remarked on ASANDC’s persistence. “Aurora / St. Anthony Community Development, a small placed-based organization was able to define a vision, set the table for a large community development project in historic preservation, and be part of the long-term ownership of the building to make sure the community benefits from what happens there. It’s easy to imagine, but it’s hard to have it play out that way.”
To address historic inequities, one of the goals of ASANDC has been to continue to increase the organization’s capacity as a developer of large-scale projects. Organizations like ASANDC are often told they don’t have the capacity or experience to do a large project on their own. But with the right supports and partners, ASANDC has proven that it is possible.
When asked about the challenges of the Western U Plaza Presley said, “It’s all been about turning those ‘No’s slowly to Yes. It’s all about getting to Yes.”
Like many civic leaders in Minnesota, Nieeta Presley is a member of a large extended family, all of whom once made their home along Rondo Avenue. Presley says it’s not easy to describe the ways displacement affected the Rondo community’s sense of itself. Presley remembers a sense togetherness formed in the places people married, celebrated anniversaries, and birthdays. She says a sense of community was felt in the intimate gatherings held in family homes, at corner grocery stores, at bars and social clubs.
“For me,” Presley says, “This project is about reclaiming spaces and reclaiming a sense of place.”
Above the café tables hangs a tangible piece of Rondo history: An eight by twelve foot black and white photograph of Rondo’s Debutante Social Club. A row of young women dressed in full length evening wear, gloves, up-dos and tiaras stand in front of their dates, young men dressed in black tuxedo jackets and white ties—the entire party poised inside an ornate peacock bandshell in front of an eight-piece band. For Presley, the photo is an important reminder of the many social gatherings that once defined Rondo.
“Rondo lives on in the hearts and memories of the community,” says Presley.
In addition to creating new housing and commercial space, Presley says the big picture project at Western U is to instill a sense of pride in the next generation. A smile spreads across her face as she looks out the large windows at University Avenue.
“Finally, when construction was finished,” Presley says, “I showed my grandson, ‘There’s my project!’ I said, and he said, ‘That’s my project too!’ That felt so good. And, that’s the feeling I strive for. That when it’s all said and done, look at what you’ve had your hands in. Look at what your organization has made happen. It makes the labor pains worth it!”