Real estate development: what—and how?

Could St. Paul "become the best city in the country for the arts and the creative economy"? That's what Dr. Bruce Corrie suggested in his remarks to a standing-room-only crowd at the CEZ's last mixer event. As the city's new director of planning and economic development, Corrie is watching the Zone with interest. And, as board chair Catherine Reid Day pointed out, the CEZ district provides more tax revenue to the city of St. Paul than any other. 

But when it comes to real estate decisions, how do the people of the CEZ help inform the process? Over 100 of us gathered February 26, 2018, at the Naughty Greek on University Ave. for a panel discussion, "Innovative Development for a Creative Community," to consider that question. The event was covered by the Midway Como Monitor, which also reported on the just-approved apartment conversion project for the former factory buliding on Wabash Avenue, northeast of Vandalia Tower.

The panelists offered three perspectives that have already proven their value in the CEZ. Real estate entrepreneur Rob Clapp, now Can Can Wonderland's CFO, sparked the venture that launched the "arts-immersive entertainment" venue last year in one end of the former American Can Company factory. As founders and co-owners, Rob and partners had considered other St. Paul sites-- West Seventh and Lowertown in particular-- but it was here that they found the neighborhood support they needed. "It took a village," said Rob, including crucial seed money from the Knight Foundation. That grant was put to good use, and Can Can is now fully self-supporting, with 75 employees. Minnesota's first arts-based public benefit corporation, it hosts creative events for all ages, and its success has helped draw more occupants. "Go out and find tenants that fill a need in the neighborhood," as Rob put it. With its gritty but convivial vibe, the building now houses a dozen enterprises ranging from Chilalo Imports (Ethiopian spices) to Vistabule Teardrop Trailers to furniture makers and landscape designers, as well as artists and artisans. 

Similarly, said Peter Remes (center), it was the energy of the area than convinced First and First to "put their stake in the ground" to develop the Vandalia Tower complex from the former King Koil mattress factory. First and First specializes in transforming urban warehouses into creative, inspiring spaces for makers and small enterprises. In addition to Lake Monster Brewing and the Paikka rental space, the complex now houses more than 20 small businesses, studios, and nonprofits, which add to the "atmosphere of collaboration and support," said Peter. Here, too, other enterprises have taken root next door or down the block. "We're a catalyst for jobs," said Peter, and although some real estate projects may reflect market segmentation, "cities are always in flux," as he put it.

Renee Spillum of Seward Redesign has a sharp eye for the "missing middle" when the market is too segmented or affordability is threatened by rising property values. Community ownership is one model that can fill that gap, she said, and so can "intentional outreach, all the time." Renee's role is "more opportunity-oriented than need-oriented": it's a question of tailoring those real estate opportunities to serve people most equitably. Like the CEZ, Seward—with many low-income residents-- needs more affordable, transit-linked housing, and also has ample space for industrial and commercial projects. “I love dreaming about spaces,” said Renee—about “transforming a building that’s almost a lost asset.” Like the CEZ, Seward has East African and other immigrant communities, and Renee looks for ways to welcome and connect them.  (Both Renee and Rob have recently joined the CEZ board of directors: see next story.)

Jai Winston, St. Paul program director for the Knight Foundation, helped close the program with words of support. Not only was the foundation essential to Can Can Wonderland’s success, it also provided a generous grant for the Creative Enterprise Zone’s own capacity-building.  This series of topic-oriented community mixers are part of that process.

Thanks to Angelo Giovanis for the Naughty Greek's warm welcome and the Athenian street food we enjoyed. Stop by for gyros, souvlaki, spanakopita, vegetable mezze platters, and more.

Panelists, from left to right: Rob Clapp, Peter Remes, Renee Spillum.

Panelists, from left to right: Rob Clapp, Peter Remes, Renee Spillum.

Julie James