As he nears the end of his third and final term as St. Paul’s booster in chief, Mayor Chris Coleman talks to Architecture MN about a few of the building and infrastructure projects that altered the face of the city on his watch
By Joel Hoekstra
When the Palace Theatre, a former vaudeville house located on the Seventh Place Mall in downtown St. Paul, reopened as a 2,800-capacity music venue in February, music fans and city boosters alike were agog. The interiors, a mix of old and new elements, were gorgeous yet haunting. The sight lines dazzled; the acoustics impressed. But few people were more delighted than St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman, who had hosted a preview of the renovated space a few months earlier and had personally lobbied the Minnesota Legislature and the St. Paul City Council for the $16 million needed to make the hall, largely shuttered since 1977, come to life again. “The Palace was a project I’d been working on almost since I joined the city council,” says Coleman, who represented the city’s Second Ward from 1997 to 2003 and was elected mayor in 2005.
This fall, after three terms in office, Coleman will vacate City Hall. He hopes to take up residence nearby—at the state capitol, as Minnesota’s next governor. His chances of winning the DFL candidacy and, ultimately, the general election are hard to predict. But there’s no disputing that, as mayor, he helped to dramatically reshape the look and feel of the city by supporting myriad building and infrastructure projects.
During Coleman’s tenure, downtown St. Paul in particular saw a number of efforts completed or started: a new concert hall at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts; a new minor-league ballpark in Lowertown; the replacement of the crumbling Dorothy Day shelter with Higher Ground St. Paul, a groundbreaking social-services facility for the homeless; a complex, multi-year renovation of Union Depot, the city’s transportation hub; and the integration of a light-rail line and numerous bike and walking paths that wind their way outward from downtown. Work is underway to erect a soccer stadium in the Midway neighborhood, and massive new development is expected to rise shortly from the ashes of a former Ford Motor Company manufacturing site in the city’s Highland Park area.
“It’s a great city, and in no small way that is due to the success of this mayor and his staff,” says Craig Rafferty, FAIA, a principal at Lowertown-based Rafferty Rafferty Tollefson Lindeke Architects, a firm that had a role in the Union Depot project. “For a grade, I would give Chris an A. I think he has been a great friend to architecture and to urban planning.”
Chris Coleman was born and raised in St. Paul, inhabiting several of the city’s neighborhoods during his childhood: West Seventh, Summit Hill, Como Park. The first house he bought was in Frogtown, and for the past 23 years he and his wife have lived on the city’s west side. It was the city itself that gave him his architectural education, Coleman claims: “Every day I walked to school along Summit Avenue. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called the street ‘a mausoleum of American architectural monstrosities,’ but to me, as a kid, they seemed like castles. Whether it’s the churches, the cathedral, or the capitol, it’s hard to not develop an inherent interest in architecture when you live in St. Paul.”
That love of St. Paul’s heritage played a part in Coleman’s enthusiasm to restore Union Depot. Most of the funding for the $243 million renovation of the Beaux Arts structure came from county authorities, but Coleman was a vocal supporter, knowing that the depot’s reopening as an intermodal hub for local and regional bus service, light-rail transit, and passenger trains would bring more workers and visitors into the city. In 2014, Amtrak, which decades earlier had abandoned the depot in favor of a nondescript station in the Midway area, resumed its service from Union Depot, and shortly thereafter the first Green Line cars arrived, marking the completion of a major extension of Metro Transit’s light-rail network. Union Depot was once again, in Coleman’s words, the city’s “front door.”
Coleman saw light rail as key to the city’s future. But even as he embraced its development, he was keen to avoid the mistakes of the past. “The Green Line was one of the largest infrastructure projects in the history of the state—a $1 billion project going through the heart of the community,” says the mayor. “But there were a lot of sensitivities about the last major infrastructure project—the construction of I-94, which tore the heart and soul out of the African-American community. We had to be sure that we weren’t redoing the mistakes of Rondo,” the historically black neighborhood that was destroyed by freeway construction in the 1960s.
Coleman concedes that construction of the Green Line was a difficult process for many businesses. “We worked with the community very closely, trying to make sure that we had resources for the businesses to make up for any losses,” he says. “In any period, whether there is construction or not, some businesses are going to succeed and some businesses won’t. But we tried everything we could to not have the light-rail construction be the cause of that.”
In the end, Coleman believes, the LRT line created new opportunities for growth where none (or only modest options) existed previously. Housing, coffee shops, brew pubs, and other signs of revitalization have already begun sprouting up along the route.
The line is also popular with St. Paul Saints fans, who ride it to the team’s new home in Lowertown, CHS Field. The compact, contemporary design of the $64.7 million ballpark has drawn rave reviews from architecture critics and baseball fans alike since the first pitch was thrown in spring 2015. (Indeed, it quickly won a national AIA design award and was named New Ballpark of the Year by Ballpark Digest.) Coleman was a staunch supporter of the project from the start: “I said to [Saints’ owner] Mike Veeck, ‘I don’t know where, I don’t know how, and I don’t know when. But we’ll get something figured out.’” Ultimately, the city took on a portion of the cost of the project, believing that the energy and traffic it would bring into the city would outweigh the investment.
Similarly, Coleman was a champion of bringing professional soccer to St. Paul: Last year, the fledgling Minnesota United team broke ground on a 20,000-seat stadium in the Midway neighborhood, between University Avenue and I-94. Again, the $150 million structure is a stone’s throw from the Green Line.
Meanwhile, a few of the city’s leading cultural institutions have made significant changes to their facilities. Coleman says he was proud to see the Ordway add an award-winning concert hall. The Minnesota Children’s Museum is also undergoing an expansion. Longtime downtown business leader Pete Smith, FAIA, president and CEO of architecture firm BWBR, says the support of the mayor’s office is vital for the success of big projects. “Even if he or she is not the initiator, the mayor can make or break a project,” says Smith. “And Chris understands that you can’t just put up buildings in isolation. You have to connect them to the community, transit systems, and so on.”
That kind of integrated approach can be seen in the Penfield apartments, a project initiated by a developer but taken over by the City of St. Paul. The $62 million development brought additional housing and a full-scale grocery store, Lunds & Byerlys, to downtown. “We took a huge risk on that project,” Coleman admits. “We stepped into a role that we had historically never played before—that of a developer. But during the recession and post-recession, before private markets were starting to build projects, it was the only way to get the project going. We were criticized for the risk at the time, but when we sold it for a nice profit and the building immediately filled up, people kind of forgot about all that.”
Coleman’s work to aid the success of projects like the Penfield stems in part from a position he staked out early on. Patrick Seeb, former head of the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation who now serves as director of economic development at the Destination Medical Center in Rochester, notes that as a city council member in the late 1990s Coleman championed the St. Paul on the Mississippi Development Framework, which mapped out much of what was to come, building-wise. “It really was the precursor for many of the decisions that followed,” says Seeb. “Chris fathered the resolution that adopted that plan. I give him credit for embracing that vision 20 years ago.”
The mayor’s office enjoys a wide view of the Wabasha Street Bridge and the Mississippi River. It’s located on the fifth floor of St. Paul City Hall, a 20-story Art Deco skyscraper adorned with stunning details inside and out. Coleman says he’ll miss it. “It’s such a gorgeous building. I still to this day discover new things when I’m walking in or around it,” he says. “During the Winter Carnival, we have an annual reception for mayors from across the state. I started having it here because I realized that a lot of people have never been in this building. One year we went away from that, and all of the mayors said, ‘We want to go back to City Hall. We love that place.’ People are blown away when they come in here.”
Coleman will exit the office before two of the city’s most significant projects are complete: The soccer stadium won’t open until 2019, and plans for the 135-acre Ford site are still undergoing community review and council approval. Nonetheless, Coleman is excited by the possibilities: “The Ford site is just an incredible opportunity. My biggest fear is that we won’t fully realize the vision for it,” he says. “It’s the kind of site where, if we do what we intend, it could become internationally known—a place that people from across the globe come to say, ‘How can we emulate this in our community?’ And that’s not just in terms of the interactions between green space and housing and business opportunities; it’s about the sustainability goals we’ve set for the site. It’s a site where you can have it all, and it’s in the urban environment—not just in an open field in a distant suburb.”
Coleman is sanguine about the changes that lie ahead for the city, even if he can’t predict the exact outcomes. Change is part of what people like about cities: new parks, new restaurants, new people, new ideas. “Cities have to be continuously reinventing themselves. They don’t work otherwise,” he says. “You can’t just say, ‘Well, this is the way it was in 1956, so therefore this is the way that it should always be.’
“I think the one thing that saved St. Paul through the Great Recession was that people were rediscovering the value of living in a city,” he continues. “There were advantages to not having to get in your car just to go get a carton of milk. You could walk to a store. Or if you wanted to go out to a restaurant, you didn’t have to drive to a mall. Urban living has become increasingly interesting to folks who have spent the past 25 years driving kids to soccer practice. So cities have to adapt to the changing environments, changing business conditions, and changing desires on the part of residents. But everyone stands to benefit.”
NOTABLE PROJECTS DURING COLEMAN’S TENURE
Union Depot renovation
Architect of record: HGA Architects and Engineers
Architect: BKV Group
Metro Transit Green Line stations
Ordway Center for the Performing Arts expansion
Architect: HGA Architects and Engineers
Architects: Snow Kreilich Architects; Ryan Companies; AECOM
Higher Ground St. Paul
Architect: Cermak Rhoades Architects
Palace Theatre renovation
Architect: Oertel Architects
Minnesota United FC Soccer Stadium