By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Brian Miller's house is a thing of beauty. The restored Victorian sits on a one-acre lot atop a bluff in the heart of St. Paul's West Side. A vine-covered porch in back looks out over big trees; next door is a huge grassy lot, future site of some of the more high-priced homes this side of Summit Avenue. Miller is an attorney, a former private developer, and--according to those who've dealt with him--a man who tends to get what he wants.
If you threw a rock from Miller's yard, you might hit Luis Lopez's roof. He lives in the Concord Square Apartments complex, a set of ochre-and-brown three-story walkups that dominates the intersection of Concord and State Streets. Built cheaply in the '70s, the buildings have been through a series of investor-owners, most of whom didn't seem to care much for maintenance. Last year the federal government took over, but there are still leaking roofs, torn screens, dirty and threadbare carpets, and a boiler system that gives out for days at a time. Rents are cheap and there's Spanish spoken all around, which is why most of the tenants live here.
If the neighborhood powers-that-be have their way, Lopez and the 60 or so other families in the complex will soon have to move. Under a plan to be voted on by the St. Paul City Council as early as this week, Concord Square is to be razed to make room for a snazzy new townhouse development--featuring relatively low rents, but with only 46 units instead of the current 116. The whole matter has become entangled in a controversy over public money, local governance, and the power of people related through blood, politics, and financial interest.
In the Twin Cities' urban geography, the West Side is something of a separate universe. Bounded by a river and a suburb and overlooking downtown, the area features fancy bluff homes and long stretches of blue-collar bungalows. Historically it has been an immigrant's port-of-entry; many families have been here for generations, and local loyalties run deep.
Today, the neighborhood is officially represented downtown by the West Side Citizens Organization (WSCO), one of St. Paul's more powerful district councils. It has a friend in City Council member Dave Thune, who may be running for mayor next year; over the years, WSCO has called the shots on most major public investments in the neighborhood. It has also spun off a development corporation, the Neighborhood Economic Development Alliance (NeDA). And that's where the fighting starts.
For most of the years since its founding, NeDA's business has consisted in good part of buying and redeveloping properties previously held by Brian Miller, for years its executive director and now its development manager. He sold the group what's now known as Wabasha Center--a building that houses WSCO's offices and a day care center--as well as the former Riverview Hospital site. That site, as it happens, sits on the bluff overlooking Concord Square; NeDA's and Miller's goal is to build up to eight homes there that would sell in the $150,000 range. Also part of the package were three Victorian homes, one of which Brian Miller has renovated as his own residence. The other two were restored for close to $500,000, of which slightly less than half came from city subsidies, and sold to people with connections to NeDA. Some call the area "Millerville."
The way critics see it, Miller has been using his development experience, his legal background, and his forceful style to snooker neighborhood and city officials into his pet projects. "He talks down to people a lot," says Doug Ruiz, a WSCO board member who's also done contract work for NeDA and regularly challenges both organizations. "He deals mostly from intimidation."
"Yeah," responds Miller, "I'm 6' 5'' and weigh 225 pounds, and my mind runs fairly fast and usually keeps up with my mouth. But I don't know for what reason folks might find me intimidating. That is not my intent. My intent is to see positive things happen in the community." Miller says he never got a penny more out of the properties than he put in, and no government agency has yet found otherwise. In the case of the Wabasha Center, the federal government granted Miller and NeDA an official waiver of conflict-of-interest regulations.
"They tell us it's all perfectly legal," says Lydia Belair, another WSCO board member who questions the relationship between her group and NeDA. "But it still doesn't feel right." She says the same goes for the current debate over Concord Square. NeDA and WSCO first got involved with that one more than a year ago, shortly after HUD took over the property. There was a hasty series of meetings, most with no public input--the groups said time was too short--culminating in a proposal that HUD give the complex to NeDA rather than selling it at a competitive auction. Officials say the groups felt they had to move fast to deal with what they'd long considered a problem property.
The plan didn't fly, and WSCO was told to start a "community input" process instead. After about eight months, members and staffers of the group had held meetings, conducted surveys, and asked community members to rate the various redevelopment proposals being entertained. And then WSCO voted again to endorse NeDA.