A massive loon taking flight — the emblem of the Minnesota United soccer team — will soon land at the corner of University and Snelling avenues in St. Paul.
The loon statue, a permanent installation measuring some 35 feet tall with wings spread 90 feet across, is expected to anchor a new sculpture garden at the northwest edge of United Village, the 35 to 40 acre “super block” that is currently home to the Allianz Field soccer stadium, a drive-through/walk-up McDonald’s and not much else.
Officials with the Snelling-Midway Redevelopment Group say the lack of commercial activity will soon change as work begins on the first phase of real estate development: the sculpture garden, an all-abilities playground, a small office building with structured parking for Minnesota United management and other tenants, a 160-room hotel along University Avenue with additional structured parking, a pavilion with two restaurants, and new segments of roadway and public sidewalks.“There is no question that the totality of this will accomplish great things,” said Minnesota United team owner Dr. Bill McGuire, who is also the principal in the development group, in an interview Friday. While some neighborhood advocates had wanted a commercial building to anchor the street corner — one of the busiest intersections in the state — he predicted the loon will soon win over fans, and not just soccer fans.
“You’ve seen it in Chicago when the Bean came in in Millennium Park, and it’s now synonymous with Chicago and the arts,” McGuire said. “Throughout the world you have beacons like this, that people come in and want to see, and they shop and they walk and they eat. This is something that is highly visible and people can feel as they walk and drive by. It needed to be something, a statement piece.”
Crafted by Scottish sculptor
The giant loon, which is being crafted by Glasgow sculptor Andy Scott, has been commissioned and privately funded by the McGuire Family Foundation — the same foundation behind Gold Medal Park — to capture the energy of the soccer team and the cultural underpinnings of the state itself.
In renderings, the hotel and restaurant pavilion are visible behind it. McGuire said site grading has already begun, and he’s hopeful the massive bird lands in place next spring.
McGuire said he was inspired by Scott’s signature work, “The Kelpies” — two massive Clydesdale horse structures in Falkirk, Scotland — which still draw visitors by the thousands a decade after opening.
The artist began working on a prototype loon statue a year ago last September, he said.
Beyond the statue itself, the overall real estate development vision, scaled down considerably since the master planning process unfolded in 2016, no longer calls for residences, at least not in the first phase of development, or towers of office and co-working spaces, let alone a movie theater, as once tentatively proposed.
It’s been enough, however, to spark some hope in frustrated neighborhood and St. Paul City Hall officials, who watched with dismay as the pandemic, rioting following the May 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and then the redevelopment group itself eliminated some 30 small businesses from the former Midway Shopping Center.
New tax district
Eager to see progress on the vacant, partially-fenced in property, the St. Paul City Council convened as the St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority on Wednesday and voted 5-1 to approve the certification of the new Snelling Midway Redevelopment Tax Increment Finance District.
They also decertified the existing TIF district that was established in 2020, replacing one with the other, and authorized the execution of a development agreement consistent with a new term sheet.
Tax increment financing frees up new property tax dollars that would otherwise flow into the city’s general fund, allowing the money to be used instead on site to support environmental clean-up, sewer and utility connections or other public improvements. Council President Amy Brendmoen recused herself from the vote as Hahm, her husband, is a consultant on the project.
The new arrangement is expected to funnel $13 million in property tax increment, plus interest, into the development, generated from 10 of the 15 parcels of land, to be structured as a pay-as-you-go note. In other words, the developer is expected to pay upfront for TIF-eligible expenses such as sidewalks, to be reimbursed over time from tax increments, with interest.
“If nothing gets built, the increment doesn’t get created, and they don’t get it,” said St. Paul Planning and Economic Development Director Nicolle Goodman, addressing the council members. She said she and other city staff worked with consultants and attorneys to review the TIF arrangement before it came before them.
Hahm said environmental clean-up is already underway.
“The developer is leading with the public spaces, which will be a catalyst for everything that is going to come next,” he said.
The remaining five parcels, which would not be developed in the first phase, could someday generate additional TIF funding for affordable housing on site or elsewhere along the University Avenue corridor, Goodman noted.
In addition to the $13 million in TIF, the council on Wednesday approved a $4 million “forgivable” loan to the development, funded by remaining TIF left over from other city-backed projects. That money will help support construction of the restaurant pavilion and office building, with the condition that the money is spent by the end of 2025.
Varied council reaction
The approvals — the last major action of the current Housing and Redevelopment Authority before a majority of the council steps down in January — generated a range of reaction from the council members before the vote.
Council Member Mitra Jalali, who lives near the stadium, called for more regular communication between the developer and the surrounding community, which has complained about fencing, litter, the loss of small business and a general lack of development momentum.
“This year’s been about resetting the relationship with this development team and with the community after a very troubling time,” Jalali said. “Candidly, we just did not get this information with enough time to have community input on it … in a way that would have shaped a lot of it. … This is the project that has taken too long to get started.”
She noted, however, that the Midway is badly in need of economic investment, and the new development brings with it the possibility of funding affordable housing there down the line.
“Over the last five years, we’ve seen local businesses get started and grow,” Jalali said. “We’ve also seen longtime businesses that are very beloved basically just not make it. … There are also just glaring examples of nothing where there should be something — the (vacant) CVS building at the corner, the dystopian Herberger’s COVID-testing site, which just isn’t anything anymore.”
Council Member Jane Prince cast the sole “no” vote against the TIF district, noting some key documentation came together the night before the vote.
“I don’t believe I have had adequate time to do my due diligence on this very complex deal … on a site where there have been a lot of fits and starts,” Prince said.
Council Member Russel Balenger, who represents the area, said his constituents had expressed excitement about seeing progress by Allianz Field.
“I think it’s already been a great addition to the community, and you can just see things coming alive,” he said.
A $200M stadium — and a shuttered CVS
Goodman noted that the 19,000-seat, $200 million soccer stadium was constructed at no cost to the city and replaced a blighted “bus barn” — a storage area for Metro Transit buses and broken bus shelters.
The Major League Soccer All-Star Game last July generated some $4.6 million in economic activity, though much of that was “lost to Minneapolis because five of the six headquarter-hotels were in Minneapolis,” she said last Wednesday, addressing the city council.
Still, she acknowledged the need for ongoing economic investment in “underperforming” projects in the area. “Multiple housing developments were built across the street before the impacts of COVID and civil unrest slowed things down,” Goodman said.
“There’s a boarded-up CVS directly across the street,” she added. “Things have gotten worse in the area, and I truly believe that this investment in this first phase is what is needed to get the development going on this site, which will lead to further development on this site, and further development in the area.”