Desean Isaac was among the first to move in when Model Cities opened the doors to its new mixed-use building in late 2017.
One of the main appeals: The Green Line’s Victoria Street Station is just steps from the building’s door, allowing Isaac to get to church, medical appointments and the grocery store without needing to own a vehicle.
“Wherever I need to go, most likely I end up catching the train,” said Isaac, whose apartment window overlooks University Avenue.
Providing the kind of convenient access that Isaac and other building residents enjoy is among several reasons the St. Paul-based non-profit sought to reinvest in the property it’s long inhabited.
Organization leaders also saw an opportunity to create a place where it could not only carry out its mission but put it into practice. Model Cities has served St. Paul for the past 50 years and has focused in recent years on helping residents access safe and affordable housing, among other services.
“With the addition of light rail, we knew more people would be coming through and that we needed to give them a reason to get off,” said Kizzy Downie, who has worked at Model Cities for the past 12 years and will become its CEO later this summer. “This is that reason.”
Today, what’s known as the BROWNstone building includes 35 apartments, commercial space and offices for Model Cities’ 21 employees.
Model Cities was able to tear down and rebuild on the property with support from several organizations, including the Metropolitan Council. The support has also helped the organization lower rental costs for residents and business owners.
With vintage barber chairs, couches and flat screen TVs, Privilege Barber Lounge was the first business to move into the new building.
Pausing between haircuts, owner Brandon Cole said he jumped on the opportunity to set up shop in the neighborhood he grew up in, and to enjoy the exposure that would come from being on University Avenue.
“So far, it’s been working out really well,” he said. “People are seeing the business and I’m getting new and diverse clientele.”
A new deli will soon move into the building, bringing life to a small courtyard that was also incorporated into the development. Model Cities hopes to attract a restaurateur and a few other businesses in the future.
While the building addresses the organization and the community’s future needs, it also pays homage to its past.
A space on the first floor, The Reading Room at BROWNstone, was created to showcase and celebrate the history of Pullman porters and other African American railroad workers who lived in the neighborhood. Porters fought for labor and civil rights, and the room’s effects draw a connection between that struggle and the present day.
“Their descendants are here but there really wasn’t really an obvious connection to that history,” Downie said.
In the future, Model Cities hopes to use the space for programs and to invite quiet reflection.
The organization also hopes the stake it’s planted the community will lead others to join in the revitalization effort. Nearby, plans to restore the historic Victoria Theater and turn it into a community arts center are moving forward.
“As an organization that’s been in this neighborhood for over 50 years, we really felt it was our duty to use this opportunity and make an investment that was beneficial long term,” Downie said. “I think we’ve done that.”
Visit BROWNstone's Reading Room on June 14
Model Cities is hosting artists Foster Willey and Guy Willey, who contributed artwork for the Green Line's Victoria Street Station, on Thursday, June 14, in The Reading Room. The event will feature the sculpted portraits of Rondo residents that were created for the Victoria Street Station. The event runs from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., with an artist presentation at 6 p.m. The Reading Room is in the first floor of Model Cities' BROWNstone building, 839 University Ave.