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Asian project reaction mixed;
Some object to economic 'segregation'

BY: Curt Brown; Staff Writer, Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), February 18, 2002, Monday


A proposal to raze a University Avenue strip mall and build an Asian-flavored block of restaurants, shops and offices has generated high levels of enthusiasm and opposition, and the $32 million plan will be the target of a St. Paul community meeting this week.

     Developers of the proposed Pan Asian Urban Village, slated for the southeast corner of University and Dale St., will showcase new architectural drawings at the Lao Family Community Center between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Wednesday.

     "This part of University Avenue has been in disrepair for 20 years, but the Hmong families who came to the area saw gold on the street," said City Council Member Jerry Blakey, whose Frogtown ward includes the busy intersection. "They've brought a different perspective and a gung-ho tenacity and have jumped in to help rejuvenate the corner."      St. Paul's Hmong population has doubled during the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The proposed Pan Asian Village is viewed a potential anchor of a Chinatown-style destination along University.

     But several Frogtown neighbors and a group of black community leaders oppose the plans.

     "This is not a racial issue, but setting up development by race or culture is not global, it's segregation in an economic sense," said Robert McClain, an employment counselor and spokesman for the African American Leadership Council and the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP.

     Nine stores, including a Wendy's fast-food restaurant and a Disabled American Veterans Thrift Store, currently occupy the Unidale Mall on the site. City planners expect to condemn the current buildings in order to acquire the 8-acre parcel.

     McClain said that if you sit in the Unidale Mall parking lot, you'll see Hispanic, African, Asian, white and black shoppers frequenting discount stores that sell everything from beauty products to sportswear.

     "You see all races and nationalities there every day _ that's a global village," McClain said. "The new proposed development will cater to a particular group, while the current site is serving a greater and broader need."

     McClain agrees with Blakey and others that the corner needs improvement, "but the Unidale Mall is only 25 years old, and we have schools older than that and we're not condemning them."

Metro magnet

     Christopher Thao, a Laotian-born attorney leading the Pan Asian Development Group, foresees a "unique shopping experience that will juxtapose Eastern and Western architecture and become something the entire metro area will be proud of."

     Thao is trying to woo the popular Mai Village Vietnamese restaurant to move farther west down University Avenue and into the development, where it would join a planned array of Hmong, Korean, Chinese and Thai businesses.

     Eventually, the block could include an Asian cultural center and senior housing and would also provide parking and room for farmers-market-style vendors in the spring and summer.

     The Metropolitan Council has earmarked $723,750 for the project because it would include two indoor bus shelters and would be a model for transit-friendly developments along one of the most heavily used bus routes in the Twin Cities area. The city has approved using $950,000 generated by the city's half-cent sales tax for the project and would create a tax-increment financing district to cover about $5 million of the site acquisition and preparation costs.

     Thao's group plans to contribute $5 million upfront and take out a $20 million mortgage, covering more than three-quarters of the costs with private funds.

'Revitalizing'

     "It will become less of a no-man's land and will meet all sorts of transit-oriented goals," said Ellen Watters, president of the Midway Chamber of Commerce. "The site has been underutilized for years, and this will go a long way toward revitalizing the intersection."

     Ilean Her, director of the State Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans, said transforming the "rundown corner" will bring more jobs and "make a major statement along University Avenue."

     But McClain said construction jobs will be short-term ones and the other new jobs "won't be cross-cultural." He said he could support an Asian village on the more dilapidated southwest corner of University and Lexington Pkwy.

     "We're not opposed to an Asian development, but there are some long-term implications that we don't agree are totally healthy for the city," McClain said. "The assumption is it's a done deal, but there hasn't been an opportunity for the people who currently occupy the site and its neighbors to have a real dialogue with the city and the developers."

     That opportunity, both sides hope, will come Wednesday night.

    _ Curt Brown is at curt.brown@startribune.com.

What's next:

Have your say

The public is invited to attend a community meeting to discuss the proposed Pan Asian Village in St. Paul.

     - What: $32 million project for 8 acres on the southeast corner of University Av. and Dale St., to include restaurants, shops, offices and, eventually, possible senior housing and a cultural center.

     - When: Wednesday, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

     - Where: Lao Family Community Center, 320 University Av., St. Paul.



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