Following a financial boost from Dr. Bill McGuire’s family foundation and other philanthropic partners, work could begin as early as next week on a new playground bordering Allianz Field, as well as a 1-acre sculpture garden anchoring the intersection of Snelling and University avenues.

The St. Paul City Council on Wednesday approved two agreements for some $10 million in privately-owned and privately-maintained public parklands by the professional soccer stadium that hosts the Minnesota United soccer team in the city’s Midway neighborhood.

“It’s always a big deal when we’re converting surface lots to play spaces and open spaces,” said Parks and Recreation director Andy Rodriguez, addressing the council just prior to the vote.

Mike Hahm, a private consultant on the parks projects, said the development team was not yet ready to release renderings of the park sculpture or sculptures, but he said the garden would be constructed around “a very prominent piece of public art.”

Private management, public access

Following a similar model of private management and public access, McGuire’s family foundation established the 7.5-acre Gold Medal Park in Minneapolis, a celebrated urban parks oasis that is now funded and maintained by its own conservancy.

The city council approved the agreements with MUSC Holdings, the soccer team’s parent company, and Snelling-Midway Redevelopment LLC. McGuire, the former chief executive officer of UnitedHealth Group, is the lead owner of the team and the managing partner of the real estate development partnership that is seeking to construct new office, hotel and restaurant space within the former footprint of the Midway Shopping Center, which has been cleared of small businesses and now stands near vacant.

Before the private development moves forward, the partners plan to spruce up the area with two new parks offerings satisfying the city’s parkland dedication requirements, which are parks investments triggered by new real estate development.

The council vote was 5-1, with council member Jane Prince opposed after asking for more time for public review. Council President Amy Brendmoen, who is married to Hahm, was absent for that portion of the meeting.

“I appreciate and welcome some activation in this space,” said council member Mitra Jalali, whose political ward borders the site.

Universal accessibility and a giant loon?

Under the agreements, a first-of-its-kind playground for the city spanning 0.35 acre will be installed immediately to the east of Allianz Field on Simpson Street between Central and Shields avenues.

The playground, designed by Landscape Structures of Delano and spanning 25 structures and activities and four shade areas, will be built around the concept of universal accessibility, or easy access for the disabled, Hahm said. A similar playground opened in Woodbury.

Hahm said discussions with the neighborhood district councils and the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission had generated public interest in water fountains and a portable restroom, ideas that were not part of the initial rendering. He said the development team was seeking grant funding for the necessary water infrastructure, which has been added to the site plan.

Other questions had been raised by community members divided over what level of security the privately-managed site should have, especially when it comes to interactions with the homeless. Jalali said she’d received reassurances that the property owner will coordinate its public safety approach with the city, which maintains a Homeless Assistance Response Team, and police response will “not be that first point of contact unnecessarily.”

A separate 19-page agreement surrounding the 1-acre sculpture garden maintains that Snelling-Midway Redevelopment will “create a plaza for an iconic sculpture and gateway to United Village and Allianz Field as an inviting destination available to the public year around. … Reinforce that the purpose of the Park is for the use and enjoyment of the public. … Provide vibrant green space for the neighborhoods around the United Village development to support the physical, economic, environmental and social health within the community.”

At least one neighborhood resident who has met with McGuire said he’s been shown the image of a giant loon statue.

The agreement spells out that if the “large iconic sculpture” ever perches in a new location, so could the garden, though it would remain within the development.

For the parks projects, the city council received letters of support from the Sanneh Foundation, the Midway Chamber of Commerce and a commercial real estate investor and residential landlord who sits on the Union Park District Council’s Committee for Land Use and Economic Development.

POPS parks

The possibility of “privately owned public space,” or POPS arrangements, were contemplated for the Midway as far back as 2014, when the Trust for Public Land published its 34-page “Greening the Green Line” report.

The study found that while St. Paul and Minneapolis each consist of about 15% parkland, the area immediately surrounding the Green Line at the time was just 4.7% parkland, a number that they feared could decline if new real estate rolls in without further parks investments.

The benefit to the city, Hahm said, is that the developer or property owner is heavily invested in the outcome for the life of the park. The total combined acreage within the Snelling-Midway development will exceed what’s mandated under the city’s parkland dedication requirement.

“The city’s parks department isn’t burdened with maintaining it,” Hahm said. “The benefit to the developer or landowner is they get a bit more quality control, and control of what’s going on around them. For the developer, it’s also a chance to do more. It’s a great way to get something like this without it coming at the expense of other stuff within the city’s overall parks portfolio.”

“It’s pretty much for perpetuity,” added Hahm, who is the city’s former Parks and Rec director. “If the public use goes away, the land or considerations need to go to the public. It’s pretty much a commitment that should live the life of the land or the development.”

Hahm said environmental cleanup contracts are “executed and ready to go,” and work could begin as early as next week. The goal is to install concrete footings in what remains of this construction season, so playground and sculpture park equipment can roll in after the snow melts next year. If that schedule holds, both sites could open to the public by late 2024.

Additional real estate development may be further off. “We don’t have financing and site plans for (the hotel and office) yet,” Hahm said.