Thousands of new residents are heeding downtown St. Paul's siren call

What Minneapolis has, St. Paul doesn't need. What St. Paul is, Minneapolis will never have enough money to buy.

What Minneapolis has, St. Paul doesn't need. What St. Paul is, Minneapolis will never have enough money to buy.

On the bluffs of the Mississippi River stands a city rich with pride, but lacking ego. Many of the buildings are of the older variety. A few look like they could be clinically depressed. Still, there's something different about downtown St. Paul than in years past. 

It's the energy. 

A steady serenade of urban perks complementing old school character is drawing new residents to downtown St. Paul at an impressive clip. In 2010, less than 5,000 people called the neighborhood home. As of August this year, there are almost 9,000.

More than 1,000 new apartments are being planned or are under construction, according to the city's economic development department. The Met Council forecasts the population will surpass 14,000 by 2020. That would be an 80 percent jump from 2014. 

Over in Minneapolis, the forecast calls for partly sunny skies at 30 percent.

Mary Bujold of Maxfield Research, a real estate consulting company in Golden Valley, understands what's golden about living in St. Paul's hub. 

"Their whole central core, because a lot of it was developed early on, has a much more intimate feel to it," she says. "It's historic… Organic is probably a good word to describe downtown St. Paul."

Bujold rattles off some of the reasons why. 

Mears and Rice parks bookend the center city, and the Mississippi River hugs St. Paul and the city hugs it back.  

"That's a dynamic about St. Paul that you don't really have in Minneapolis," says Bujold. "If you're living here, you can walk out of your condo, look out at the river, and there's riverboats. There's a different kind of relationship between downtown and the river. It's another thing, I think, that explains why downtown St. Paul is an appealing place to live." 

Minneapolis is a compilation "of very large things," says Bujold. But taking a walk near the river from Xcel Energy Center, passing through Lowertown to the farmer's market, all the way to CHS Field, home of the St. Paul Saints, there's a connective tissue that's impossible to ignore.

"There's that intimate feel on a pedestrian scale that you just don't get everywhere," she says. "Now, you finally have a grocery store, which had been something downtown that was lacking for a long time. I just think it's become a great residential environment." 

And it's a market that isn't asking full price. Not yet. A two-bedroom condo with new hardwoods and 38th floor views near Rice Park lists for $299,000. The asking price for a similarly-sized unit in the Mill District along the river in Minneapolis is more than double.

It wasn't that long ago when most wanted no part of it, save for attending a Wild game.   

Recent history shows prices for condos have tanked twice, in 2009 and again in 2011. The median value on both occasions bottomed out at $130,000. According to the real estate website Zillow, the average today is around $170,000. St. Paul's apartment vacancy rate is less than that of Minneapolis, which hovers around four percent. 

Former mayor Jim Scheibel served from 1990 to 1994. He thinks back beyond America's recent downturn to struggles when Ronald Reagan was president. The population consisted of modest artists lofts enclaves and a few buildings where seniors resided.    

"We always knew you don't have a healthy downtown without people living downtown," says Scheibel, a Hamline University professor. "Downtown started to be, started to have the feel of a neighborhood, I'd say that began in the late '80s."

What it lacked was a critical mass of people. Which wouldn't happen until 2014. 

The Penfield, a $62 million city-developed project with 250 apartments and a Lunds grocery store --situated a block from the new light rail station -- debuted with rents ranging from $1,400 to $2,100. Among the naysayers was city council member Melvin Carter III, who's currently running for mayor.

Carter and other officials had warned that the city shouldn't get into the development business because it would "supplant" private investment. 

He'd be wrong. 

A sample of what's landed:

The historic Palace Theatre, which the city spent $15 million to rehab, reopened last year. Breaking Benjamin and Wilco are among the bands that will play the venue in the coming weeks. Since 2013, downtowners can catch a breakfast at The Buttered Tin. For beer, bourbon, and burgers, there's Dark Horse, which opened last year. The former Macy's store will soon be a practice rink for the Minnesota Wild, a brew pub, and an orthopedic clinic. 

Rich Arpi of the Ramsey County Historical suggests downtown has come full circle. 

"Back in the 1850s," says Arpi, "downtown was warehouses, dirty, noisy, and you only lived there if you couldn't afford a way not to. James J. Hill lived on Canada Street in downtown before he moved to Summit Avenue. Now, it's people wanting to live back downtown when that hasn't been the case since... I can't really say when for sure."