Metro State hires outside group to reach out to neighbors


The block-sized surface parking lot at Metro State University will be the site of new development for the school. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

As Metro State University grows its student body, the school must also grow its physical campus. The school is planning to add several new buildings to its East Side campus, including a student center, a nursing building and a science center.

One of the first steps towards that is to put in a new parking ramp to accommodate the growth.

The school had plans to construct a three-level parking area on the block where it currently has a surface parking lot. Administrators originally planned to start to begin preparing the site as soon as this month.

But those plans saw opposition from neighbors, and drew criticism from St. Paul City Council chair Kathy Lantry, as well as from Deanna Foster, director of Dayton’s Bluff Community Council.

Foster and Lantry criticized the school’s community notification process, which seemed to leave neighbors feeling left out.

A July meeting about the parking ramp saw neighbors visibly angered over the school’s plans. One resident predicted the parking ramp would make the university look like “one big fortress.”

Another neighbor said, “Yeah, you have your meeting and we can vent, but when we go away, you have your master plan.”

Rebuilding strained relations

In late August, Metro State hired an independent group to bolster communication between the college administrators and nearby homeowners and businesses.

The company, the Landon Group, has worked in the East Side before, including running the “Main Street” program at the East Side Neighborhood Development Company.

Katya Pilling, a consultant at the company, said the plan would be to “establish a community engagement strategy” to determine ways to connect with area residents surrounding the school’s development.

Foster, who was a vocal opponent of the university’s parking ramp plans, said the new effort could be a turning point in a months-long struggle over the development.

“They realize they can’t just keep saying ‘We’ll listen but we won’t do anything,’” she said. “It would’ve been a good idea in the first place, but they didn’t think of it.”

Foster said while the plans for the parking ramp itself don’t appear likely to change dramatically, the school has indicated some leeway on its student center plans, which would be on the same block as the ramp.

Promising beginnings

To begin, the Landon Group sat down with community organizers including Foster and Tim Herman from East Side Area Business Association.

Herman, who’d been critical of the school’s approach after the July meeting, said after meeting with the Landon Group that “overall, I believe Metro State is wanting to come alongside the community.”

Herman said the move to hire the group came after the school had come to somewhat of a dead end.

“I believe they are at a juncture where they can’t ignore what the community wants anymore,” he said.

“I’m encouraged that they want to be a part of the East Side community,” he said. “Moving forward, this process of developing an authentic relationship is going to be great for both parties.”

But “that doesn’t mean there won’t be somebody who doesn’t like it,” Herman said. “Real community engagement can be messy.”

Ellen Biales, an aide to Lantry, said the school’s move to hire a third-party group is “a step in the right direction.

“It’s probably a good way to have an impartial convener to help lead some discussions around the site,” she said.

Biales said she thought  the school’s decision was made “ultimately to try and repair some relationships that have been strained.”

The Landon group will be continuing to meet with community organizers as Metro State’s plans develop.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

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