Soaring demand has strained Keystone Community Services’ food shelves, including the one at 1916 University Ave. A new facility that would house an expanded food shelf is now being proposed for 1790-1800 University. Mary McKeown, CEO of Keystone, presented initial plans for the site to the Union Park District Council’s Committee on Land Use and Economic Development on December 21.

“2020 has been a challenging year for us,” McKeown said of Keystone, which closed on the two University Avenue properties on December 28.

Keystone is one of the region’s largest providers of food. The nonprofit organization, which operates a second food shelf on Rice Street, hosted 21 drive-through food giveaways last year, including one at Allianz Field. The drive-through events provided food for about 32,000 people since June.

Keystone served more than 28,000 people in 2019 with food, basic needs and crisis support, and expects that number to significantly increase when 2020 totals are completed.

“Hunger relief is a very critical issue,” said McKeown. Final numbers for 2020 were not available, but she estimates that food service requests were up 93 percent from 2019.

The need for a new space actually preceded the pandemic. Keystone has been looking for a new site for its food and crisis services since 2019, at one point eyeing a spot near University and Lexington Parkway. The newly proposed site on University and Beacon Avenue would have 20,000 square feet of space, compared to the 7,000 feet it has now. Its current food shelves lack storage and refrigeration, requiring Keystone to rent other facilities.

Plans call for remodeling the two buildings currently on the property, which include the former Hafner Furniture and Bonded Auto Repair. McKeown said the buildings will need “pretty significant renovation” before Keystone can press them into service.


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“Hunger relief is a very critical issue,” said McKeown. Final numbers for 2020 were not available, but she estimates that food service requests were up 93 percent from 2019.

The facility will be within a short walk of the light-rail station on Fairview and is near two bus routes. It will also have parking in the rear and space for the organization’s two food mobiles.

Public outreach is now underway and McKeown said predesign work is expected to be completed by February. Keystone will then launch a fundraising campaign to pay for renovating and equipping the facility. That will include seeking $3 million from the 2021 Minnesota Legislature.

It is not known yet what the total project costs will be. Last year, Keystone received a predevelopment planning grant for the project from the Metropolitan Council.

Keystone is asking the Union Park District Council and other groups for help with public engagement as the facility takes shape. One idea is to incorporate space for volunteers, since the current food shelves are very crowded. Another idea is to move more of the agency’s offerings, such as tax assistance and emergency services, to University Avenue from their current space in the Merriam Park Community Center at 2000 Saint Anthony Ave.

Keystone’s proposed move to 1790-1800 University comes after plans for a mixed-use development there were shelved. Last March, developer LIG Investments unveiled plans for a five-story building on the site with 146 market-rate apartments above first-floor retail space.

The district council committee recommended denial of a conditional use permit and variances for that project after much debate. Some committee members said they could not support the project because it lacked affordable housing. Others said they needed more time to discuss the plans. Supporters said the project would redevelop the site for a higher and better use.

The mixed-use project was never submitted to the Saint Paul Planning Commission for its consideration.

While excited about the Keystone facility, some land use committee members said they were disappointed that the other project was abandoned. “I and others are excited about the possibilities for Keystone,” said committee member Rob Vanasek, “but we need to let it sink in what we’ve lost.”

Committee members asked if Keystone would consider being part of a larger building, with housing on the upper floors. McKeown said Keystone did reach out to the previous developer, but did not get a response. “But housing is not our area of expertise,” she said.

— Jane McClure


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