Neighbors may see dirt flying near Allianz Field soon, if work isn’t underway already this fall. Construction of a new all-abilities playground and sculpture park at the southeast corner of Snelling and University avenues got the go-ahead Oct. 25, 2023 from the St. Paul City Council.
The council approved two privately owned open space or POPS agreements, acting on a recommendation earlier in October by the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission.
The playground and sculpture plaza could open as soon as late 2024 if all goes as planned. The site requires environmental cleanup.
Parks and Recreation Director Andy Rodriguez said the agreements are a boon for the city. “It’s always a big deal when we’re converting surface lots to play spaces and open spaces.”
The benefit for the city is that it gains public space that it doesn’t pay to development and maintain, said Rodriguez. Agreements for maintenance are spelled out in the agreements approved Oct. 25. The agreements also legally preserve the land for open space use.
With the parks agreements with Snelling Midway Redevelopment LLC and MUSC Holdings approved, city officials are now focusing on another key step for the superblock bounded by Pascal Street and St. Anthony, Snelling and University avenues.
City officials are considering a request for $26.1 million in city financial assistance from Snelling Midway Redevelopment LLC. Those funds would be used to pay for site infrastructure including the site’s remaining streets and utilities, as well as a parking ramp.
A decision on the request will be in hands of the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, possibly before year’s end. No date for action has been announced. The block is in a tax increment financing (TIF) district, so it’s long been anticipated by city leaders that TIF would be used to cover infrastructure costs.
The first phase of site redevelopment would include a four-story office building, hotel, restaurants and the parking ramp. Plans call for about $160 million in development on the former Midway Center site.
The parks agreements will bring a one-acre sculpture plaza to the southeast corner of Snelling and University. The playground, which will be donated by Dr. Bill McGuire and his family foundation, will be along Pascal. The playground designed by Delano-based Landscape Structures will have a Minnesota theme and about two dozen different play opportunities.
The playground will be the city’s first universal access playground.
The lone vote against the playground and plaza agreements came from Ward Seven Council Member Jane Prince. She is concerned about a lack of restroom facilities for the playground. She also wanted more time to review the agreements. Council President Amy Brendmoen recused herself because she is married to Mike Hahm, project consultant and former city Parks and Recreation director.
Other council members said they’re pleased to see the projects moving forward and that they are satisfied with the agreement.
Hahm pointed out that park space along University and Green Line light rail is something that was envisioned during light rail planning. The Green Line opened in 2014. The most high-profile parks developed since then have been Midway Peace Park on Griggs Street and the expanded Dickerman Park east of University and Fairview avenues.
The model of privately owned public space was used at Highland Bridge for the site’s water feature and in Minneapolis at Gold Medal Park, which McGuire’s family also funded.
The parks are required under the city’s parkland dedication ordinance. The projects were triggered by city site plat approval earlier this fall.
The park and sculpture plaza plans have been developed with much community input. Hahm pointed out that the input has resulted in changes including four shade structures for the playground. The site will also be shaded as the sun moves to the west every day, due to its location east of the Allianz Field Major League Soccer stadium. Shade will also be provided by trees along Pascal.
Not every idea can be added right away. A drinking fountain and restrooms weren’t part of the initial plan but were the focus of many community requests. The playground will have a water line put in for a drinking fountain, with grant funding sought to install that. Portable toilets could serve as restrooms. Hahm said the long-term intent is to have public restrooms as more development moves forward.
The sculpture plans haven’t been released yet. Hahm said the development team is working with a “renowned” artist on what will be an “iconic” piece.
“We’re not at a point where we can share this with the broader community,” said Hahm.
Another issue community and city council members have raised is how privately managed-public space would work with the area’s homeless population. Hahm said the development would work with the city and its Homeless Action Response Team. People who are homeless sometimes find shelter in the University-Snelling area, especially at a nearby CVS that closed more than a year ago.