House or Home Depot

The city and neighborhood activists fight over a blighted corner in St. Paul

The southwest corner of Lexington Parkway and University Avenue, in St. Paul's Midway neighborhood, is a case study in urban blight.

An abandoned gold Cadillac Eldorado, stuffed with lawn chairs, a bird feeder, and other detritus is marooned in the parking lot of an all but abandoned strip mall. Garbage and potholes dot the landscape in front of the only functioning business, a flea market postered with enigmatic slogans such as "Thousands of Colors to Please Everyone." All that remains of Lex Liquor Barrel and Midway Bingo Palace, once mainstays on the corner, are the lonely signs. The only whiff of thriving commerce comes from a White Castle on the northeast corner of the lot.

Only a fool would argue that this present state of economic squalor is preferable to a brand-new, 135,000-square foot Home Depot that would generate 180 jobs. At least that's the perception being fought by Brian McMahon, executive director of University United, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reviving the thoroughfare. "The political problem I have is, 'My God, Home Depot is certainly better than this,'" McMahon laments, surveying the site from his minivan. "People are so fed up with this thing, and who can blame them? This is really a disgrace."

Opponents of Home Depot rally at the corner of Lexington Parkway and University Avenue in St. Paul
Michael Dvorak
Opponents of Home Depot rally at the corner of Lexington Parkway and University Avenue in St. Paul

Last month the St. Paul City Council approved a resolution authorizing the city to negotiate a deal with Home Depot to raze the strip mall and replace it with one of the company's trademark, home-improvement behemoths--a coast to coast symbol of suburban security. The only catch: the Atlanta-based chain will need about $4 million in city assistance to make the project viable.

While Home Depot was lobbying city leaders, McMahon came to the conclusion that a big, boxy retail development, with its acres of parking and artless aesthetics, would destroy the gateway to a potentially thriving neighborhood. "This is the greatest development opportunity I've ever seen," McMahon recalls thinking. "Why are we talking about Home Depot? Why aren't we talking about a development that's going to be of statewide impact? This is the place where major things can happen."

In February, he began working with Central Community Housing Trust, a nonprofit developer, to create an alternative. Their vision for the eight-and-a-half-acre site, billed Lexington Park, is a "human-scale, pedestrian-friendly, and transit-friendly pattern of tree-lined streets with stoops and dooryards." It calls for at least 300 units of mixed-income housing, and more than 12,000 square feet of "neighborhood-scale" businesses and a park. Idyllic pictures of neighbors sitting on front stoops, surveying a vista of quaint townhouses and green space, were drawn up to illustrate the premise.

While working on the plan, McMahon, a fervent historian, unearthed photos of the area's past to see if it held any lessons for the future. As it turns out, the strip mall site was once occupied by Lexington Park, former home of the St. Paul Saints baseball team. During the first half of the century the surrounding blocks were occupied by corporate campuses for companies such as Montgomery Ward and Brown and Bigelow Printers.

In the ensuing years this area--bounded by University Avenue and Interstate 94 to the north and south, Lexington Parkway and Syndicate Avenue to the east and west--fell victim to a series of half-realized development projects. Now, houses vie for space with medical facilities. Vacant lots and dead- end streets abound. A 504-unit low-income housing project has sprung up in the shadow of I-94. And the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has its headquarters just a few blocks away. "When these large landowners moved out what happened is, development was piecemeal," McMahon explains.

Since October the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing, along with the Interdenominational Black Ministerial Alliance, has been working on its own plan to develop housing on the site. In conjunction with Legacy Management and Development Corporation, the groups have proposed 355 mixed-income housing units, as well as 20,000 square feet of commercial space for the site. Even the name for the proposed plan, Lexington Square, echoes the vision created by McMahon and Central Community Housing Trust. Now all of these organizations are coordinating their efforts in an attempt to derail the Home Depot project.

Despite the budding movement to develop alternatives for the site, neighborhood organizers have received scant support from the city council. Jerry Blakey, a mayoral candidate and the council member who represents the area, argues that the strip mall has been a sore spot for 25 years and that Home Depot is a viable solution. "If housing was such a great idea where were they 20 years ago, 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago?" he asks.

The only council member to publicly question the Home Depot project is Chris Coleman, who voted against moving forward in negotiations with the retailer. "Saying that you have to redo something isn't akin to saying we accept any project that comes along, especially when there's a heavy level of city participation," the Ward 2 representative argues.

One of Coleman's chief concerns is that the University Avenue corridor, already one of the metropolitan area's busiest bus arteries, is being considered as a potential site for a second light- rail line (the first to be built would run from the Mall of America to downtown Minneapolis). Coleman notes that a Home Depot store, which would sit on one of University's busiest corners, is not exactly public transportation friendly. "No one's ever gonna get on a bus to go pick up 4X8s of plywood," he quips.

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