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Debate continues over new Saints ballpark design

New St. Paul Saints ballpark

The design of a new St. Paul Saints (independent; American Association) ballpark has been criticized by some public officials for not being retro enough, as a debate rages over its impact on the historic Lowertown neighborhood.

For those of you unfamiliar with St. Paul geography, here’s a short lesson. The Lowertown district, part of downtown, features a slew of turn-of-the-century brick warehouses, as businesses popped up in the area to serve the huge amounts of goods being shipped through the area. Most of these warehouses have been converted to lofts, and any new construction in the area must be vetted to ensure it fits into the historic character of the area.

Technically, the new Saints ballpark is just outside the Lowertown historic district, so the vetting isn’t as stringent as it would be if it were a block west. Still, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency became involved to ensure that no historic structures would be affected by the new ballpark. The conclusion was that the old Gillette plant torn down to make way for the ballpark was not a historic structure, and no other historic structures would be affected by the ballpark. Some activists aren’t happy with that determination, and in a somewhat surprising move, the State Historic Preservation Office has asked the EPA to reconsider, per the Pioneer Press:

Noting that the site is adjacent to Lowertown’s historic district — listed in the National Register of Historic Places — the Preservation Office’s letter states: “We feel your finding is premature and we do not concur.”

The letter from State Historic Preservation Office manager Sarah Biemers adds that federal rules require the EPA to consult with historic preservation organizations before undertaking major projects that could have an impact on historic properties. [Sarah] Biemers said her office had seen no evidence that the EPA had done sufficient outreach to community groups, historic preservation organizations or the City of St. Paul’s Heritage Preservation Commission.

Former downtown building owner John Mannillo, who sits on a Lowertown ballpark advisory committee, said he and other residents believe the ballpark should look less contemporary and fit in better with the taller, block-long, red brick buildings of the neighboring historic district.

Now, these are really two separate issues; the EPA is not charged with an extensive aesthetic judgement on the ballpark design, but rather with determining whether the ballpark impacts the historic Lowertown district. And it’s up for debate as to whether the state is interpreting the role of the EPA correctly: as the ballpark sits outside the Lowertown district, it’s not clear whether the ballpark requires the outreach she claims. In any case, it may all be too late: the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission is set to discuss the ballpark plan this Thursday, but officials don’t foresee any changes to the ballpark plan. The new ballpark will be quite the improvement over the ugly Gillette plant, in any case.

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