The director of planning and economic development for the City of St. Paul sits down with Architecture MN to discuss the city’s efforts to fuel economic opportunity and growth with a rich array of existing cultural assets

Interview by Sheri Hansen

Tell us about your career path to the City of St. Paul’s Planning and Economic Development Department.

My father was an architect in India; I watched him learn the profession, work his way through all the exams, and establish his practice as I was growing up. I even worked in his office as a teenager—I was fascinated by the designs he created and his approach to working with his clients to develop unique solutions that fit their needs.

I came to Minnesota in 1987 from the University of Notre Dame, where I completed my Ph.D. in economic development, and served as an economist at Concordia University. My work focused on the economic contributions of immigrants and minorities, documenting their positive impact on communities and economies. Immigrant communities contribute as entrepreneurs, consumers, taxpayers, and civic participants; they create global trade networks and cultural capital and trade. When you put all those elements together, there’s quite a substantial impact on a local economy and community.

I was also involved in developing the concept of what we now call cultural destination areas, which has become a very important initiative of Mayor Melvin Carter III. When you look at the map of St. Paul, you see all kinds of diversity, which may in the past have been seen in a deficit context. But Mayor Carter sees the cultural assets there, including language, food, music, and talented people. These assets can play a transformational role in wealth building, and this concept has emerged over the years in St. Paul around Little Mekong, Little Africa, and Rondo. It’s a platform on which cultural assets can infuse economic-development activities, which leads to jobs and business development.

How does this work integrate with St. Paul’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan?

At the City of St. Paul, we’re focused on these cultural destination areas, with the goal of building on unique St. Paul neighborhoods. Each is a defined geographic area where you’ll find cultural assets infusing life and business and work and play and streetscapes. It could be a block like Little Africa with unique murals and art, or a corridor like Little Mekong, which has an ethnic theme. Or it could be a cultural district like Rondo, where you have Penumbra Theatre, Golden Thyme Coffee & Cafe, the BROWNstone Apartments, and the Rondo Commemorative Plaza, all of which connect Rondo to a vision around African-American heritage. The concept can encourage new ways of thinking, of relating, of finding community, of finding place.

We’ve also developed a concept called neighborhood nodes, which stem from the cultural destination areas. These are places where, within a 20-minute walk, you can get your basic amenities—a grocery store, a library, a key business, a place of gathering. We’ve identified a number of nodes across the city where there’s already some kind of commercial presence, and now we’re thinking about how we expand them. If a particular node is missing affordable housing, how can we build that? If it’s missing a grocery store or bikeways, how do we add them? How do we create the place that allows the interactions and the relationships that happen within a node? Growing the nodes is a very exciting part of the planning process, and it’s tied to the cultural destination areas, because many of those areas fall into a neighborhood node. The two together provide a good framework in which to think about development.

What other areas of development in St. Paul are you excited about?

We have a $79 million housing trust fund geared toward creating affordable housing. We’re working to provide support for the full continuum of housing, from emergency shelter to affordable housing to market-rate housing. There is a real need to address the full continuum because St. Paul has two defining housing characteristics right now: One is that we’ve become a city of renters, and the other is that there is a very high number of cost-burdened households across the housing continuum.

We’re attempting to address the issue from both the demand side and the supply side. We had a number of vacant properties on the market, and we’re now in the process of making awards to developers. We were intentional in this process about asking: When we build a house, can we build a neighborhood? We’re seeking proposals that engage the neighborhood and local residents through contracting and workforce development, and that also use innovative development models.

We’re testing four different models for development. One is around modular construction, and another is based on the Habitat for Humanity model. Another incorporates duplexes, and another is focused on providing materials to subcontractors, thus reducing their capital needs. Architects have a role to play in all these development innovations.

What role do you see architects playing in bringing planning and development efforts to life?

Our challenge to architects is that, as they think about St. Paul as a global city, and as they start developing concepts for their clients, they begin integrating cultural themes into the buildings they design. Buildings can be alive. Architects can help imbue them with culture and vibrancy.

Consider properties on University Avenue. If you go to the BROWNstone lofts, you’ll see a beautiful reading room with the railroad history of African Americans around the borders; that space is a significant asset in the community. At the Western U Plaza Apartments and the Heritage Tea House, you’ll find other cultural themes being emphasized.

There’s a whole universe of opportunities to integrate cultural assets and themes into architectural settings. We want to see more examples of developers and architects trying things that will add character to their projects and make St. Paul more interesting and exciting. If this happens, more people will come, stay, build, and play. More people will get jobs and business opportunities. That’s where we hope this journey will take us.

Architects can also help with community building and wealth building. My dad did a lot of buildings for free for community groups because he had the skills and the talent to do it. There are a lot of people in our city who have ideas, but they may think it’s beyond their reach to talk to an architect. We need to change that, because architects have the skills to help communities achieve their vision. Architects can help build those bridges and lead those conversations.

If everything you’re working on comes to fruition, what does St. Paul look like in 2030 or 2040?

I see a city that builds community wealth through jobs, businesses, housing, planning, and financial and cultural assets. I see a city government with a deep and wide impact—we reach people that we do not necessarily reach today with our programs, policies, and resources. We can achieve our priority goals without excluding anyone.

In 2030, the city’s economy is working for all. There is wealth creation and innovation. We have systems for youth because we are a young city. We’re an open and welcoming place that’s more than just a set of physical structures; relationships, community, and cultural development are what make us exciting, vibrant, and inclusive.