St. Paul, Minn. — Jerry Trooien summoned city officials and other interested parties to office suite occupied by his development firm JLT Group to describe to them his plan. But before dimming the lights for the presentation, he offered a cautionary preface.
"This is not a done deal," he warned. "It is not a done deal first and foremost with the process that has to go through with the community and with the city. There's no deal that's made there yet and let's be respectful to that process. And we don't have a done deal yet on business terms. That's not the way the process and methodology works. But it is time to talk about this project."
Trooien calls the project "The Bridges of St. Paul" and he's spent a year planning it with architects, consultants, lawyers, and other experts. On paper, the project includes 3,000 units of housing overlooking the Mississippi between the Wabasha and Robert St., bridges in an area that is called St. Paul's west side, but is located directly south of downtown.
Just downstream -- between the Robert Street and Lafayette bridges -- would be a complex of retail shops, restaurants, movie theatres, and a hotel.
Trooien envisions this area as a gathering place for riverfront residents and for people from throughout the eastern metro area. He says a street winding through the district will culminate in a plaza suitable for large public events.
With its views of the river and the downtown skyline, Trooien sees the area as both a commercial hub and a leisure time destination.
"I've said for a long time what I want the river to be is a place where you can come to the river thinking you're not going to spend a dollar. But you're going to come and experience the public entertainment on that street, which has to do with pageants, exhibitions, carolers, jugglers, the University of Minnesota marching band, parades, concerts. You may come down with your book and your pipe and want to watch people," he said.
Trooien says the path going by the working title Festival Street would lead to a large building housing cultural attractions such as an anthropological museum and a planetarium.
Currently there is a walking path between the river and a levee built in the 1980s for flood control. Behind that levee there are a few buildings holding offices and light industry. But most of all there's just a lot of dust and weeds.
Trooien says his company owns about 60 perent of the land his plan would entail. Now he's beginning to sell his idea to the city, which owns another 15 percent of the acreage.
Mayor Randy Kelly says the project is in keeping with some of his leading goals for the city. "It will contribute millions of dollars in new property, sales, and other taxes while it draws visitors from across the region to St. Paul in unprecedented numbers."
One of the first steps in Trooien's project would be construction of a two-level parking garage for 5,000 cars. The stores, theatres, and hotel would be built on top of that free parking. This would raise ground level sufficiently for visitors to see over the levee to the river.
Trooien will look to the city for financial help, especially in constructing the underground parking and the festival street. One adviser says JLT Group may seek about $75 million, perhaps through tax increment financing.
The need for city assistance brings us back to Trooien's point that this is not a done deal. But City Council President Dan Bostrom says he thinks Trooien is a developer who can get the deal done.
"A lot of other developers, I wouldn't be holding my breath. But having watched Jerry Trooien over the years, I think this has got a high probability of becoming reality," he said.
Even becoming reality won't make the project a success. David Brennan, co-director of the Institute for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas, doubts that 500,000 square feet of retail and entertainment space will be viable on St. Paul's west side, even with 3,000 new housing units next door. Brennan is skeptical that the retail development would attract enough visitors to make it viable.
"There would certainly be some people that would be drawn to the river and the downtown and tourism. But I still think it would be a relatively small number and not a sustainable one," he said.
Trooien says if negotiations with the city and with other property owners on the site go smoothly, he hopes to break ground for the Bridges of St. Paul in about a year.