A family's dream of beautiful St. Paul park falls through, with the city's help

Pedro Park was donated by a bootstrapping immigrant family with the intention of becoming one piece of a park. Now St. Paul has plans to sell part of the land.

Pedro Park was donated by a bootstrapping immigrant family with the intention of becoming one piece of a park. Now St. Paul has plans to sell part of the land. Google Earth

When Pedro's Luggage closed 10 years ago, the children of Italian-American entrepreneur Carl Pedro donated the land at the corner of 10th and Robert Streets in St. Paul so it could become part of a large public park.

They envisioned sweeping downtown green the length of a full city block where there were only high rises and parking lots. When St. Paul Parks and Recreation director Michael Hahm presided over a jubilant press conference in 2011 announcing the demolition of the old Pedro building, it seemed that the city was on the same page.

"Green space in downtown St. Paul, that's an applause line if you don't recognize that," Hahm said then. "Those of you who don't know the story, it's the generosity of the Pedro family, who donated this building under the condition that we use it for a future park."

Nowadays, there's grass and flower beds arranged in a spiral where Pedro's used to stand, but it's not really much of a park, says neighbor Kati Berg, who lives in an adjacent condo. The neighborhood kids -- including her own and the children who live in the nearby Naomi House for women who have suffered from abuse and addiction -- would rather play in the MPR parking lot, she says.

"Pedro Park is not really a park. It's a bathroom for dogs. Hate to say it ... I would never have a picnic there."

Berg says she expected much more when she made the decision to move to that corner of downtown St. Paul. When she heard that St. Paul Police had gotten $18 million to vacate their old training facility next door to Pedro Park, she thought it was only a matter of time before the city tore down that building. After all, a full-block park for the north side of downtown had been a city goal for more than a decade.

Then former Mayor Chris Coleman announced that St. Paul would try to sell the old police building instead. Last September, he announced a developer, the Ackerberg Group, was interested in building office space there. While the initial plan included a 20-year commitment to ongoing maintenance of Pedro Park, there would be no expansion of the park after all.

The Ackerberg Group hasn't submitted an official proposal yet, so Berg, other neighbors, their city council representative Rebecca Noecker, and the last surviving Pedro sibling Marily Pitera are hoping to redirect those plans.

"The biggest change we can hope for a new outcome is the new administration," Berg says. "It was the Coleman administration that did this push to sell the building and they were also the ones that really shut the neighborhood out and just made the decision behind closed doors."

Coleman's spokesman Ben Petok said Friday that the notion of building that park just doesn't reflect St. Paul's financial reality right now. Last year, St. Paul had to pass a 24 percent property tax increase to fill the $30 million budget hole created when the state Supreme Court cancelled the city's street maintenance program in 2016.

"It's one of the hard things about being an elected executive, figuring out how to do everything everyone wants and pay for it," he says. "The idea that we could tear down a city block to add a park that would come out of city coffers, it's hard to see where folks think that money's going to come from."

Pitera, the last surviving Pedro family donor, says she's willing to wait.

"I’m sick to hear the city would act contrary to what my brothers and I were told long ago, which was to demolish the building so a large park (which would include that space) can be installed," she said in a statement. "At the end of the day, the police annex building should not be sold, but should be demolished so the promised full block park can be installed when the time is right."

Berg and Parks director Hahm will debate the future of Pedro Park at a Lowertown Live discussion at 6 p.m. at the History Theater on February 19.