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Weiming Lu: Lowertown - The Rise of a New Urban Village

February 21, 2013 - Remarks by urban planner and Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation leader Weiming Lu before The McKnight Foundation board of directors. 


Before the closing of Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation, I was asked by my board to share our experiences by writing a book on Lowertown, and to make a final report to the McKnight Foundation.

Thanks to Dick McFarland’s introduction and Kate Wolford’s invite, it offered an opportunity to share with you a quick glance at the complex partnership venture. I don’t want to pat our own back, but I do want to speak truthfully about the impact of your generous gift, and the national and international interest it has generated.

In 1978, Mayor George Latimer sought your support in creating a partnership to rejuvenate Lowertown. He asked for $10 million, and promised to generate $100 million in investment, adding housing and creating jobs — which were an ambitious goal. (The area attracted only $22 million investment in the10 year period before LRC ‘s creation.)

Nevertheless, in support of the social objectives of adding housing and creating jobs, you generously set aside $10 million of program-related investments (PRI) as loans, and wisely asked for the creation of an independent corporation to lead this effort. Thus, Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation (LRC) was established.

Through public/private partnership LRC overcame the disinvestment challenge and generated $750 million in new investments by 2006. The result is as Twin Cities Public Television called it in its new film, “Lowertown: the Rise of a New Urban Village”.

Our work has attracted some national and international interest. Neal Peirce wrote a column projecting Lowertown as a national model for the urban village, which appeared on 150 papers. We were also cited in the book, Reinventing Government by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler.

We also won a Presidential Design Award, which we happily shared with our partners. We have hosted mayors, planners, and foundation executives from many cities and countries, including Margaret Thatcher’s advisor, French Commissioners, and Mayor Zhu Rongji of Shanghai (who became Premier of China).

Four governments and foundations in four U.S. and Canadian cities expressed an interest in forming partnership instruments similar to LRC. We were happy to see them raised a combine of $52 million for the rejuvenation of their downtown and riverfront. One of the cities has generated $ 300 million in investment in its downtown and riverfront.

Some general observations

Building livable, creative, equitable, and sustainable cities is a common community goal, but drawing from several disciplines to achieve it may pose a considerable challenge. Public/private partnership is popular today, but making it work in a complex world is difficult. Therefore, it is worth sharing our experiences.

Tao means “way” in Chinese. In my book “The Tao of Urban Rejuvenation”, I trace LRC’s experience in creating a vision, in marketing an area that has suffered decades of disinvestment, in taking calculated risks to attract new investment, in negotiating complex loans and guarantees, and in leveraging resources (every dollar LRC supplied in gap financing generated twenty dollars of public and private investment in Lowertown, on average).

I explain how to form complex partnerships with many in the public and private sectors, avoid competition while fostering collaboration, share common goals, and marshal diverse resources. I apply our multidisciplinary approach to guiding diverse project designs and creating a sense of place.

In my book, I also share the difficulties -- LRC’s successes and failures-- of working to advance the long-term interest of a community. Having seen the destruction caused by “urban renewal” in which some cities have become formless and their people rootless—we strived for urban rejuvenation without gentrification (25% of Lowertown’s housing are affordable), for balancing economic development with social advancement, for preserving the old while welcoming the new, and above all, for building livable, creative, equitable, and sustainable cities.

With my bi-cultural background, I owe much to what I learned in both the east and the west. While I treasure Kevin Lynch’s teaching on city design, I also like to share the wisdom of Lao-Tzu’s teaching. He spoke of Tao as:

“creating without possessing,
acting without expecting,
guiding without interfering”

I believe this philosophy can also help us deal with the complex process of planning and development.

Preservation of Saint Paul’s Heritage

Preserving Saint Paul’s architectural heritage was one of our basic missions, though historic designation was controversial. Some opposed it, seeing it would put much burden on design review.

After we quietly surveyed the historic buildings in Lowertown and had it designated on the National Registers of Historic Place, we publicized the historic tax credits for which they now qualified. It attracted developers from near and far.

In one case, we hosted the visit of a development team from Philadelphia. We gave them a tour, shared with them our market survey, and introduced them to our mayor. Soon after, they bought three buildings, invested $65 million without any financing from the City or LRC. Thus, many empty warehouses were rehabilitated to a variety of housing for diverse ages and incomes, including low and moderate incomes.

Restoring Union Depot

Behind every Lowertown building there is a story. Its rejuvenation is a complex dance of design and development. How the Union Depot was finally restored after 40 years of vacancy is a long story. 

It began with historic designation, which saved it from demolition, followed by preventing a Post Office expansion on the riverfront, achieved through an aggressive media effort.

Our next challenge was to relocate the Post Office to a suburb. Our first effort ran into strong opposition, which almost killed the Depot project.

Fortunately, our partners on the County LOCATE Task Force didn’t give up. With the assistance of a visionary Congresswoman, we continued the fight, and the Post Office finally found a site.

Followed by fund raising, land acquisition, and construction, the Union Depot was finally restored. Light rail transit, based at the Depot, will connect Lowertown with downtown Minneapolis next year.

Building A Creative Community

From the beginning we were concerned whether we would chase away artists as redevelopment proceeded.

We made three attempts to build artist housing, and failed three times for different reasons. However, we didn’t give up, and finally succeeded in the fourth attempt. It created a 30-unit artist cooperative on the riverfront.

After that success, three other projects quickly followed. Today, more than 500 artists are living and working in Lowertown.  

Since then, we have attracted many arts organizations to Lowertown, including Jerome Foundation, State Arts Board, Public Art Saint Paul, Springboard, Zeitgeist Quartet, and Nautilus Theatre. More recently, through the LRC Future Fund, we helped the Baroque Room, the Bedlam Theatre, and the Museum of American Arts to join Lowertown.

Through our Cyber Village vision, we encouraged the expansion of our fiber optic network, and attracted Internet service and content providers. By providing a guarantee to public television’s fund raising effort, we successfully recruited TPT, Twin Cities Public Television’s headquarter and studio facilities.

Today, Cray Research and a number biomedical firms have also chosen to locate in Lowertown. All these efforts have helped us to build and nurture a creative community. 

The Redesign and Rebuilding Mears Park

Mears Park, neglected for many years was an “abandoned brickyard”, as Garrison Keillor called it, attracted only winos and the homeless. We surveyed resident’s views, recruited a national sculptor, worked with the Park staff to redesign and rebuild it as a place to walk, meet, to hold concerts. People really love it today. Many volunteer gardeners took over much of the park space along the creek. It has generated $ 250 million investment around the Park, including new offices, housing, restaurants and a YMCA. Together they have helped create a livable and equitable community.

The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary

Downtown and neighborhood districts seldom work together. Over the past 16 years, thanks to The McKnight Foundation’s support, the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary has shown what is possible through collaboration. With assistance from two part-time staff people, and active engagement from 25 partnering organizations, Saint Paul’s East Side and Lowertown neighborhoods jointly envisioned, raised $8.5 millions and reclaimed a former rail yard to create a beautiful park joining the two neighborhoods.

The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary is a part of a vital bird flyway, and a sacred site for Native Americans. We have since connected 85 miles of regional trails, and acquired the land and a building next to the Sanctuary. We are ready to design, raise funds, and build a new interpretive center here to make it a more valuable destination that showcases the natural and cultural history of the area.

Connecting the Sanctuary to Lower Landing Park along the Mississippi River is another important goal. When the two are linked, it will truly beautify the Mississippi, making the two neighborhoods even more livable and beautiful.

The Future

The building of a healthy, vibrant, and sustainable city or neighborhood has no completion date—as one phase ends, another has already begun. We are happy to see the continued growth and development of Lowertown, even in the last few years. A new generation of leaders has emerged from Lowertown and in the city of St. Paul.

Through the LRC Future fund we helped them envision the future in the Greater Lowetown Master Plan, which was approved by the City Council last year. The future is only limited by our own imagination.

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