Residents: Proposed Lexington project could lead to gentrification

mkuntz Artist rendering of proposed Lexington Station

The Amherst Wilder Foundation is attempting to sell a vacant plot of land at the intersection of Lexington and University avenues where four designated neighborhoods meet in the city of Saint Paul. If the land is sold and developed by Alatus LLC into its proposed Lexington Station with 280 units of market-rate housing, it threatens to open the door to gentrification of this historic neighborhood.

This location has been under siege for decades, most notably the 1956-68 destruction of the historic St. Paul Black neighborhood known affectionately as Rondo, to make way for Interstate 94. This strategic displacement is a story that runs deep in the roots of our city. Long before the Rondo neighborhood was built, it was inhabited and stewarded by the First Nation indigenous people of the Dakota and Anishinabe tribes.

This behavior is not new for Wilder. The Foundation admittedly has said it is selling the land at 411 Lexington to prop up their endowment, which they have been serially overspending. They have dug into their reserve funds and are now expecting the community to understand their need to back their endowment through land sales, such as the agreed-upon sale to Alatus.

Each new sale and development that does not include a very intentional effort and strategy to keep these communities protected and intact strikes a forceful economic blow that could send negative impacts rippling through families generations at a time. The Alatus project threatens such a blow.

In the summer of 2019, a proposal was made by the developer Alatus that promised towering buildings and even higher rents. It was greeted with trepidation by members of the community who have experienced the effects of displacing developments like the construction of I-94 and the Metro Transit light rail green line.

 In January 2020, the Frogtown Neighborhood Association (FNA) sent Julie Brunner, the Wilder Foundation board chair, a letter demanding that the Foundation follow its mission and charter “to promote the social welfare of persons resident or located in the greater Saint Paul metropolitan area by all appropriate means including: aid to the disadvantaged and otherwise needy, provision of needed housing and social services.” 

FNA asked that the development reflect the incomes of the residents of the area and designate 50% of the units to be made affordable at 30% of the area median income of $30,000. The board has refused these requests.

Without success at moving the moral compass of the Wilder Foundation, the community turned its organizing efforts to its elected and appointed officials. The community asked that the project be held to the values set in the 2040 Comprehensive Plan. They also explained that the Lexington Station project could potentially triple the market rents and increase property taxes on an already vulnerable area.

Alatus sought to apply for a $2 million publicly funded LCDA Grant through the Metropolitan Council. But even with the additional subsidy, Alatus stated that they had no intention of providing any affordable units at that time. They also refused to include Section 8 vouchers. When the community informed the Met Council of Alatus’ lack of will and commitment to provide affordability, the developer retracted their application rather than having it denied on record.

The St. Paul Planning Commission and the St. Paul City Council rejected Alatus’ proposed site plan with the majority of BIPOC members voting against it. Not long afterward, Wilder and Alatus solicited St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter to intervene on their behalf. Carter overrode the city council’s vote with a veto and approved the project. The veto is a violation of Minnesota state statute. 

Carter, who recently called himself a “proud son of Rondo,” has refused to listen to the pleas of Rondo elders living directly across the street from the proposed luxury apartments who stand to see their property taxes rise to the point of forcing their displacement. 

Wilder also has turned their backs on the same vulnerable community they claim to serve.  Debbie Montgomery, former St. Paul City Council member, lives in the shadow of the proposed project. She is afraid for herself and her beloved community.

She can hardly believe that a “proud son of Rondo” is now trying desperately to hand this deal to the moneyed developer through an illegal veto and sell out her community yet again. If this development is allowed to go forward, Alatus stands to make millions in profit.

The corporate behavior of our mayor must have his ancestors rolling over in their graves.

The authors are active with the Frogtown Neighborhood Association.