Billion Dollar Dreamer
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.
"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."
Former Mayor George Latimer offers a similar assessment. "Besides being old and out of it, you'd have to be blind not to see that the guy is a combative character," he says. "He's got chutzpah. Chutzpah is the mother's milk of developers."
GROWING UP ON THE EAST side of St. Paul, Jerry Trooien was a star athlete at Harding High School, excelling at football and hockey. In 1998, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the St. Paul City Conference, Trooien was named one of the top 100 athletes in the history of the city's public schools. He went on to play quarterback at the University of Wisconsin River Falls and earn a degree in social science. Trooien then attempted to make a living as a professional athlete, including a stint playing hockey in Austria and tryouts with the Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins. In 1980, he started the privately held JLT Group and began developing his business empire.
He's now one of the largest landholders in the state, with warehouse and office space throughout the Twin Cities. He owns properties in St. Paul, Minnetonka, Roseville, Fridley, and Minneapolis, and has developed housing projects in Eagan, Bloomington, and New Hope. In addition, JLT Group operates a parking operation near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and a building maintenance company in St. Paul. According to the corporation's website, it also owns numerous airplanes, including 42 Boeing 727s.
Trooien purchased the parcel of land that he hopes to transform into The Bridges in 1987. He constructed one office tower on the land that was initially slated to house the Minnesota Department of Revenue. That building is now primarily rented by Comcast. Over the years there have been numerous development schemes floated for Trooien's land and surrounding parcels on the West Side Flats. At one point there was talk of building an amphitheater in the area. For years it was floated as a possible location for a new Twins stadium. Trooien first began talking about his vision for The Bridges in the late '90s.
Presently the site is occupied by the Comcast building, acres of surface parking, and a couple of small businesses. But it's easy to see why city planners and developers have long coveted the spot. Directly across the river from downtown, it offers spectacular views of the St. Paul skyline and the Mississippi River. The area was home to a diverse, working-class immigrant community up until the 1960s, when frequent flooding led to the evacuation of the neighborhood. In subsequent years, however, the city has taken measures to protect the area from flooding.
St. Paul has dreamed big before. In the early 1980s, plans came together for a massive development in Lowertown, on the eastern fringes of downtown St. Paul. The project, known as Galtier Plaza, was initially slated to contain 90,000 square feet of office space, 80,000 square feet of retail space, 100 apartments, 250 condominiums, and 750 parking spaces. Led by developer Bob Boisclair, the project was touted as the economic engine to jumpstart St. Paul's long-suffering downtown. The model was Baltimore's Harbor Place or New York's South Street Seaport.
Money for the $140 million project was cobbled together from a variety of private and public sources. A $4.8 million urban development grant was tapped from the federal government, while $21 million was secured through government-backed, low-interest loans. Another $2 million in low-interest loans was borrowed from the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation, and the city of St. Paul provided $4.4 million in tax increment financing, essentially a loan that is paid back via future property taxes. The bulk of the money, though, came from private financiers, including Chemical Bank, Boisclair, and other individual investors.
The development was a fiasco from the outset. The initial grand opening took place in 1985, but the project was far from complete, and proceeded to garner negative press coverage. Then Boisclair ran into financial problems, selling his stake to Chemical Bank in 1987. The project was sold again the following year, for just $13.1 million, to a Canadian developer. By then, according to a report in the Pioneer Press at the time, the development had swallowed $120 million in financing but was still incomplete.
Last year two students in former Mayor Latimer's Introduction to Urban Studies class at Macalester College, Eliot Brown and Cara Goff, scrutinized the reasons that the development failed. "Galtier Plaza did not fail for one reason, but for a combination of factors that led to the real estate development equivalent of the perfect storm," they concluded in their paper. Among the factors cited: its lack of an anchor retail tenant, an oversaturated condo market, its location in Lowertown rather than downtown, and its immense scale.
More than two decades after Galtier Plaza's grand opening, the students noted, it's a pale imitation of what was originally envisioned. "Perhaps the lesson of this all is that while risk is essential for development, cities should exercise caution with a highly visible, defining project," Goff and Brown conclude. (Brown is a former City Pages intern.)
Latimer, who held the city's top post during the development debacle, says that it's fair to apply the lessons learned from Galtier Plaza to The Bridges. "I thought Galtier was a terrible blow to the city," he says, noting that it scared developers away from downtown for years. "You cannot overlook a failure anymore than you can overlook a success."
Trooien, naturally, insists that Galtier Plaza and other notable Twin Cities development debacles are not fair comparisons in looking at The Bridges project. "To make an analogy to our project with Galtier, Riverplace, or Bandana Square is like comparing a nuclear submarine to something my son puts in the bathtub," he says. "It is just a total false analogy." Trooien points out that The Bridges will be much larger than those developments and will include ample free parking. "People ask me, why will retail work here?" he notes. "It will work because it adheres to the fundamental principals of good retail. Not because Jerry has an opinion on the subject."
Besides the historical warning signs associated with a development the scale of The Bridges, there are two other chief criticisms of the project. For starters, many city boosters worry that the development will sap vitality from a still-struggling downtown. While the Xcel Energy Center and other attractions have breathed life into the western end of the central business district, much of it remains devoid of economic vibrancy. The vacancy rate in downtown office buildings remains over 20 percent, and retail activity is nonexistent in large swaths of the city's core.
The Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation is opposed to the zoning change primarily for this reason. In a letter to the St. Paul Planning Commission last month, executive director Patrick Seeb and board chair Virginia Stringer noted that more than $1 billion has been invested in the downtown corridor over the last decade, including major projects such as the Xcel Center and the Science Museum of Minnesota. "Shifting focus now, in such a dramatic way as proposed through the rezoning request, is a bad idea," they wrote. "It would unnecessarily put at risk the considerable public and private investments made in downtown to date, as well as planned investments just getting underway."
Trooien insists that this is another bogus argument, noting that he has the backing of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and the St. Paul Association of Building Owners and Managers. "I find it very ironic that the people who are proclaiming themselves to be business experts about the vitality of downtown are flying right in the face of the two most prominent organizations that are involved with business in downtown St. Paul," he says. "Do you understand the irony? Now you can say they're full of beans, they don't know what they're talking about, but let's examine the record."
The Bridges is also criticized for hindering access to the Mississippi River. At 32 stories, the proposed hotel would undoubtedly block some views of the riverfront for West Side residents. "Few cities possess a landscape or viewshed that so powerfully distinguish them from other cities," notes Steven Johnson, superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, in a letter to the planning commission. "St. Paul has such a landscape, but its integrity is threatened by The Bridges proposal, or any other development scenario that would obstruct the city's most remarkable viewshed. If buildings so tall and massive that they block views across the river valley are allowed to crowd the river, a defining element of the city's unique and historic setting will be lost."
This viewpoint is echoed by Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River. "You've got this whole historic landscape that tells you something about why St. Paul is here," he notes. "It's a bit of an intangible thing to relate, but it's real nonetheless."
Trooien is dismissive of this argument as well. "I keep asking the question, whose view from where?" he says. "What I would suggest to you is that the way this development lays in and embraces the river, it dramatically enhances the aesthetic experience for most eyeballs from most places."
THREE YEARS AGO, CANDACE Barrett received a phone call from Jerry Trooien. At the time, she was executive director of the Children's Museum of Los Angeles. Barrett had been introduced to Trooien several years earlier by mutual acquaintances at the Joseph Campbell Foundation, a nonprofit group devoted to promoting the writings of the late mythology scholar. They'd had periodic conversations in the ensuing months about Trooien's vision for a museum devoted to mythology on the West Side Flats of St. Paul. "He called one afternoon and he said, 'If you care about the fate of civilization, you'll move here and you'll help build this,'" Barrett recalls. "It was an opportunity that I couldn't pass up."
Barrett is standing in Trooien's West Side offices surrounded by miniature models and artistic renderings of what the museum, known as Mythica, might eventually look like. She is dressed almost entirely in green (including her glasses), contrasting sharply with her bright red hair. "This is my favorite thing to talk about," Barrett says, in a ringing voice that suggests her theater background. "Mythica is about the human journey. It's looking through the lens of mythology to understand that human journey. We use a lot of Joseph Campbell's work, though it is not a Campbell museum."
Mythica is far from a bricks-and-mortar reality. It is not even included in the first phase of The Bridges development for which Trooien is currently seeking the zoning change. Only after the hotel, condominiums, and retail shops have been constructed will the developer turn his full attention to the museum. "The time frame is very dependent on The Bridges," acknowledges Barrett. "It's probably a two-year build after we get everything going with The Bridges."
Despite Mythica's fledgling status, elaborate plans have already been crafted. As Barrett envisions it, the 350,000-square-foot museum will use mythology to highlight the commonalities of all human beings. "A lot of what we're trying to do here is go into that which is elementary, that which makes us more similar than different," she says. "Why? To start to mitigate fear of the other. If I'm not afraid of you, I can talk to you. If I'm not afraid of you, I'm not going to blow you up."
As currently conceived, Mythica will feature a large main hall with an indoor playground and a botanical garden. Another element will be the "Bazaarnival," which, as its name suggests, will combine elements of a bazaar and a carnival. "The programming will be whatever's going on locally," explains Barrett. "So if this is Hmong New Year that's what's happening in here. If this is Cinco de Mayo, that's what's happening in here. This becomes a very ongoing, changing local event place."
The "Masks of God" section will examine roughly 18 different religions and incorporate a timeline of mankind from about 3200 B.C. to the present. "Unlike most timelines, this is a timeline of creativity," Barrett says. "How did the human imagination arise? What forms did it take? How did it move into society? How did it drive society?"
Other potential museum exhibits are more difficult to fathom. Take, for instance, a wing that's to be known as "The Threshold." "It's a lot about reworking sensory input," says Barrett. "Earth, air, fire, and water, we're dealing with, but differently from the way you normally think about them. There's a tornado, but it's a fire tornado. There are screens with images, but the screens are made out of water."
Part of the difficulty in explaining the vision behind Mythica, she insists, is that it's not like any existing institution. "Is this a traditional museum?" Barrett asks rhetorically. "No, because it's not about collections of stuff. It is probably a combination of museum, school, theme park, sacred space, whatever you can come up with as a sort of public arena where you learn. It's a combination of all that."
Despite the hurdles to making Mythica a reality, Barrett is confident that her years of work will not be in vain. "The impetus for all of this is Jerry and Jerry's real commitment and belief that mythology is an enormously potent and important way to connect people," she says. "It is not a religion. It's not taking the place of school. It's just another lens to figure out how to live your life most authentically and most fully. Living your authentic life is a lot of what most myths talk about."
Ultimately, years down the road, Mythica will be the capstone to Trooien's grand vision for the West Side Flats—or merely a testament to his folly.
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