Billion Dollar Dreamer

Jerry Trooien has already spent millions promoting The Bridges, the $1.5 billion St. Paul riverfront development that city government keeps on spurning. No matter: He knows they'll come around someday.

JERRY TROOIEN IS MYSTIFIED by his critics. In the eyes of the 59-year-old developer, The Bridges of St. Paul is flawless, the end result of years of unflinching market analysis and fastidious planning. By his reasoning, anyone who takes a clear-eyed look at the roughly 70-acre parcel of land across from downtown St. Paul that Trooien wishes to develop will inevitably concur. The only reasonable plan is to construct—with the aid of $125 million in taxpayer-subsidized tax increment financing—1,031 upscale condominiums, a 32-story, 250-room hotel, 420,000 square feet of retail space, 4,100 parking spaces, and a 350,000-square-foot museum devoted to mythology. In short, Trooien envisions a $1.5 billion development that would rival the Mall of America in size and scope and make sleepy St. Paul a destination for tourists from around the world.

"When you work hard on something, you don't develop arrogance with it, you develop confidence with it," Trooien says, speaking from the eighth floor of the office building that so far is the only physical manifestation of The Bridges. "That confidence is born from a great deal of application of the scientific method, which is testing, retesting, retesting."

Given the ironclad, scientifically assessed validity of his plans for the largest development in St. Paul's history, it's maddening to Trooien that so many people have failed to embrace his dream. Indeed, the list of nonbelievers is lengthy. Environmental groups, neighborhood organizations, and numerous elected officials have lined up in opposition to the project. Even the National Park Service has weighed in against The Bridges development. Last month the St. Paul Planning Commission voted, by a 13-6 margin, to reject Trooien's request to change the zoning for the land to B5, the same as in downtown St. Paul. In essence, such a designation would allow him to construct buildings of any height on the West Side Flats.

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"It's unusual to see so many different organizations lined up against a project in such a uniform and consistent manner," notes Steve Gordon, who has served on the planning commission for 12 years and voted against the zoning change. But as far as his own opposition is concerned, continues Gordon, "I thought this was a no-brainer."

That's because The Bridges flies in the face of every planning document that's ever been drafted regarding development of the West Side Flats. The size and scope of the project runs counter to the "West Side Flats Master Plan" adopted by the city in 2004 after years of meetings by area residents. It also conflicts with planning documents created by the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation, as well as the city's comprehensive plan for guiding development.

Last week, in the face of this opposition, Trooien abruptly withdrew his application to rezone the 27-acre parcel of land and made some conciliatory gestures toward the politicians and organizations lined up against the project. He vowed to work with the community on coming up with a revamped development that will meet with community approval. "You gotta be able to tap dance," says Trooien. "If I want to be a good scientist, which I want to be, I always have to be willing to have the hypothesis tested. That's not inconsistent. Everything we do around here is always subject to continued scrutiny and review."

But given Trooien's track record of unilateral decision-making, many West Side residents are skeptical of his sincerity. "The pattern and the behavior dictates that they'll just try to find another way in," says Carlos Garcia Velasco, lead organizer at the West Side Citizens Organization. "I want to clear the slate and move forward in a way that's trusting, but you can only get burned so many times. Why now? Why this time?"

The Bridges project has become extremely divisive on the West Side, Velasco notes, pitting longtime residents on opposite sides of the issue. "It's the old divide-and-conquer thing," he says. "It's the man with the big dollars coming in, peeling a couple of people off, and putting them in his pocket.... I don't really believe Jerry gives a shit about anybody in our community—but I could be wrong."

Owing to all these hurdles, it would be easy to dismiss Trooien's vision for the West Side Flats as a pipe dream that has no chance of becoming reality. But given the vast resources that he has already pumped into the project, it would be a mistake to underestimate him. For more than a year, Trooien has taken out weekly full-page ads in the Pioneer Press and sent prospective condo buyers lavish mailings. He's lured the Westin Hotel as an anchor tenant and claims that he's secured prospective renters for more than half of the retail space. No developer, most business observers agree, has ever spent so lavishly on the front end of a project that faces so many political and economic hurdles. "He's indicated to us that he's spent close to $20 million," says St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. "That's simply unprecedented. A lot of that money, quite frankly, has been used in a public-relations campaign to force the council and the city to change its position."

In other words, Trooien's done everything in his power to convince St. Paul residents that The Bridges of St. Paul is a foregone conclusion. "He's a determined person," says Coleman. "I don't question Jerry's motivation on this one. I do think he wants to leave a legacy project. He's an East Side kid who has a vision for the city that he wants to develop. I just question his philosophy about how to develop the riverfront."

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