House or Home Depot

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

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."

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.

What's more, Coleman believes the site offers a perfect opportunity for the council to step up and do more than wring its hands over the city's shortage of affordable housing. "This is our most critical need," he says. "This is the thing that's going to make or break our community."

While McMahon and Coleman are careful to couch their arguments as pro-housing, rather than anti-Home Depot, others question whether the corporation is a good match for St. Paul--no matter where it's located. The retailing giant has constantly run afoul of zoning ordinances at other metropolitan-area stores. In Northeast Minneapolis, for example, the city does battle with Home Depot over issues such as illegal outside storage and excess noise at the Quarry Shopping Center. The city planning commission rejected the store's bid to stay open 24 hours. And last summer the city was monitoring the store on a weekly basis to make sure it was toeing the line. Last month the company was twice slapped with citations for an illegal structure in the parking lot. "We've cut them a lot of slack and yet it's been an ongoing problem," says Steve Poor, a Minneapolis zoning inspector. Poor says that the city has grown so frustrated with Home Depot that if the Northeast store doesn't clean up its act, he may refer the matter to the city attorney's office.

Cina Harbinson, store manager at the Quarry site, says she cannot discuss the situation without permission from corporate headquarters in Atlanta. "I'm not allowed to talk to any reporters about anything," she says. Linda Fisher, a local attorney who is representing Home Depot in the negotiations with St. Paul, says that they are working to ensure that similar problems don't crop up if a new store is built. "You'll have a situation that is much different from what you have in the Quarry just physically," Fisher points out. "I think there is much less likelihood of adverse impact on the neighborhood."

City planners in St. Paul are well aware of the problems other cities have run into when dealing with Home Depot, and are taking steps to avoid a similar fate. For example, the seasonal sales area at the University Avenue Home Depot, which is usually placed in the middle of the parking lot, would be located off to the side of the store. City planner Joel Spoonheim believes this would eliminate the problem of visible debris cluttering the parking lot. All deliveries would be made at the rear of the store, where a natural wall exists to buffer the neighborhood from noise. A fence would be erected near the rear of the property. In addition, Home Depot has agreed to have about 20 percent fewer parking spots than at most of its stores. And they would create a pedestrian walkway to and from a bus stop on University Avenue.

Besides the council's predisposition to seeing Home Depot finished, there are two major impediments to creating Lexington Park or Lexington Square: site control and money. Home Depot holds a lease on the land. So even if the city decided on another approach, there is no guarantee that it could purchase the property. "Even if we were desperate to do this deal it may still not be possible," says Sean Kershaw, west team leader for the city's Department of Planning and Economic Development.

Money is another sticking point. Estimates have the Lexington Park project costing upwards of $70 million. Initial blueprints from the nonprofit community are vague when it comes to financing. And even if they do get funding from private investors, city government, and other sources, Kershaw estimates that it would cost the city ten times as much as the Home Depot project. And even with that, he guesses there would be an "enormous gap" in funding.

But McMahon and his cohorts are not deterred. Where others see blight, McMahon sees the seeds of regeneration. Across Lexington Parkway from the shopping center is a cluster of tidy two-story brick apartment buildings, a model for what McMahon envisions for the area. Just to the south is Central Medical, a health clinic that he sees as a potential cornerstone for what could be a cluster of medical-related businesses. McMahon believes the whole shape of the neighborhood is contingent on what takes place at the southwest corner of Lexington and University. "This housing project would be an investment in the future of University Avenue," he insists. "It would create the critical mass needed to jumpstart a lot of other housing projects up and down the avenue. This is going to set the course for the next 50 years, and if we don't do it right, God help us."

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