Railroad Island neighbors hold up community plans as developers eye vacant lot

courtesy of Google Maps With recent interest from developers to build a 60- to 75-unit apartment building on the vacant lot at 520 Payne Ave. in the Railroad Island neighborhood, residents brought up concerns about the proposed building’s fit within plans previously laid-out by neighbors.

Developers came to an Oct. 25 Railroad Island neighborhood meeting to discuss their preliminary plans for a vacant lot in the neighborhood and to get community feedback.

The plan centers on the open space at 520 Payne Ave., just south of a cluster of brownstone homes and north of the Payne and East Seventh Street intersection.

The developers’ proposal is for a 60- to 75-unit affordable housing apartment building. The number of units will depend on the type of Low Income Housing Tax Credits awarded. 

The developers include JO Companies, LLC, founded this year by St. Paulite Johnny Uchenna Opara, and Newport Midwest, LLC, a women- and minority-owned company focused on affordable housing developments in Minnesota, which was represented by Becky Landon. 

The building would include outdoor amenities like a playground, gardens and a courtyard, as well as plans for at-grade and tuck-under parking and shared spaces inside for residents.

Because of the preliminary nature of the plan — the developers don’t own the property — they weren’t able to answer too many technical questions about issues such as water drainage, stability concerns with the site being so close to the Swede Hollow bluffs or how the building would follow FAA regulations being within the flight path for the St. Paul airport. 

“We strive to have [our buildings] fit the context of the neighborhood,” said Landon.

Opara added that he wanted to get the community’s thoughts about the project to make sure it represented what residents wanted to see in their neighborhood. 

The development partners put in a request to purchase the property from the St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority in October and are in the 45-day waiting period, before the HRA makes a decision on Nov. 19. If the request is granted, the developers will be able to do more extensive research on the site.


Does it fit the neighborhood?

While residents brought up concerns over drainage and airplanes, the main concern was how the apartment plan fits with community-created plans.  

One resident, Mary Brauer, who lives in the brownstones next to the site, said she opposes the proposal for three reasons. She said it doesn’t fit plans the neighbors helped create, the building won’t fit the site and she objects to the use of public money going towards that site rather than to projects by the Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services, an organization that has built housing — such as the Rivoli Bluff homes — in Railroad Island for nearly 40 years. 

“This flies in the face of the planning we have done,” said Brauer, pointing to the Railroad Island small area plan, as well as a document from a 2014 workshop organized by then St. Paul City Council member Amy Brendmoen, which included community-brainstormed uses for the lot. 

The document, called “Payne Avenue Street Improvements,” included recommendations for the 520 Payne Ave. lot, which were organized into phases. As an early phase idea, the document called to make the lot into “eco-parking,” meaning that in addition to parking stalls, the lot would also include rain gardens, trees for shade and perhaps an overlook into Swede Hollow Park. 

Later phases included future development. One alternative included adding more brownstone units with a walking trail behind them connecting to the overlook.

Another alternative included commercial development at the site, with an idea for a two-story structure with retail, office and underground parking for about 30 vehicles. The idea also included a small sidewalk plaza, space for outdoor dining patios and improved crosswalks. 

Another resident added he was concerned about the affordable housing aspect, from the standpoint of it becoming generational housing. He said families can get stuck living in certain places because economically, they can’t find a way out. He suggested the developers work with local nonprofits and government programs to help tenants eventually become homeowners to help break the cycle. 

On the Railroad Island neighborhood Facebook page, other residents posted similar concerns regarding the project, adding that in a neighborhood where the majority of the housing stock is rental, they don’t want to see more. 

520 Payne Ave. is also listed on Hoodstarter, an online platform the city uses to list vacant sites to attract developers and allows residents to propose and vote on ideas for the sites. 

The top ideas for the lot include an open-air market or event space that could be used as a new park entrance, or constructing a small, local cinema. 

The lot’s page on Hoodstarter can be found at www.hoodstarter.com/s/520-payne-ave.



housing trend

Landon and Opara said they have received initial support for their proposal from St. Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen and council member Jane Prince, who both represent the Railroad Island neighborhood in wards 5 and 7 — the site itself is in Prince’s Ward 7. 

Landon said she and Opara weren’t made aware of the community plans and documents prior to meeting with the council members, adding they would go back to the drawing board with the new information.

“We try to avoid going into neighborhoods where it’s contentious and a fight, because it’s no good for anyone,” said Landon, though she noted that because of a general lack of affordable housing and the neighborhood’s proximity to downtown St. Paul, the site will be favorable to other developers to come in and create a similar housing scheme.

Prince said in an interview she wasn’t aware of the 2014 workshop and document and apologized for not being aware, adding she “needs to get up to speed on that.”

She said that with the lot’s proximity to the Bruce Vento bike trail, Metropolitan State University, Lowertown and CHS Field, along with the positive development on Payne Avenue, the lot is a “good site for housing.”

Prince said she also appreciates hearing that community members have faith that market-rate housing could be viable in their neighborhood.

However, she said the affordable housing in the proposed building would be set at 60 percent of the area median income, meaning that rent levels would be around $1,000 for one- and two-bedroom units.

“While it sounds like we are building affordable housing, it’s market-rate rent levels for the East Side,” she said.

Prince added she takes some responsibility for getting out ahead of the neighborhood and said she’s happy to engage with neighbors and developers to “talk about what is possible at that location,”

“I think the good news for all of us is that there’s interest in doing something at that site and it’s a really great site,” she said.

In an interview, Brendmoen echoed similar sentiments. With regard to the 2014 workshop document, she said it’s a “very visionary document” and should be referred to as the planning process moves along. 

“The good news is that that lot has been vacant for a long time and a developer is really interested and really interested in a community-driven process,” Brendmoen said, adding that with the proposal being so early in the process, it leaves a lot of time for the community to get involved.

“Those residents took a chance on Railroad Island and I know they care a ton about the neighborhood.”


–Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.

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