Sears is shopping a plan to build a major development west of the State Capitol that would keep its existing store and build additional retail space along with townhouses, apartments and offices.

The development would occupy the north half of Sears' 17-acre site, most of it made up of large parking lots surrounding the 50-year-old store.

Cecile Bedor, St. Paul's planning and economic development director, said she believes Sears' development interests are tied to arrival of the Central Corridor light-rail line, which has a station on Rice Street a block north of the site. Trains will begin running on the line next year.

"This has been a development opportunity for years, and [Sears] is a savvy landowner," she said.

She added that Sears has not asked for city assistance.

Howard Riefs, public relations director for Chicago-based Sears Holdings Corp., declined to provide details.

"We continually assess how to best leverage our real-estate holdings and are in the early stages of discussion regarding a project on the Rice Street property that will continue to have a Sears store presence," he said. "We will have additional information to share in the coming weeks."

While the Sears site is up the hill and across the freeway from downtown St. Paul, the company's plans come as welcome news at a time when the city has learned it will lose its Macy's store this year, leaving downtown without a department store for the first time in more than a century.

"It's exciting when somebody says not only are we going to stay, but we're going to make it better," said Melissa Martinez-Sones, executive director of the CapitolRiver Council, the district council for downtown.

Joe Campbell, spokesman for Mayor Chris Coleman, said the mayor is excited about Sears' plans. "Transit-oriented development near the light rail would be a fantastic fit for the city and for that site," Campbell said.

The plans, still in preliminary stages, will be reviewed by a CapitolRiver committee next week and the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, which oversees design and zoning in the State Capitol area, on Jan. 16.

It wasn't clear when work might begin, but city officials hope it will be this year.

Store would get smaller

The store, which opened in 1963, carries full lines of clothing, appliances and household goods. It includes an auto shop and also houses a state drivers' and vehicle-services office for issuing licenses.

Sears' plans involve shrinking the existing store from 187,000 to 175,000 square feet, using land on either side to add a couple of two-story retail buildings. Two smaller retail buildings also would go up along Rice Street.

Nine townhouses are planned for the west side of Sears, along Marion Street, and 121 apartments would extend along Aurora Avenue north of the store.

A four-story office building would be built on Rice Street, and additional offices are planned for the top of one of the large retail structures. A four-deck parking ramp would be built at Aurora and Rice to replace some of the spaces lost to construction.

Lucy Thompson, a principal city planner working on the project, said Sears' mixed-use proposal meshes nicely with site area plans. A mix of uses, she said, "helps it be market-smart and change with the market over time."

Sears also is proposing a new street to divide the buildings from the surface lots to the south, which city officials support as a connector between the Capitol area and Marion Street.

Sears opened the store in 1963, the same year that the downtown Macy's now scheduled to close first opened its doors as a Dayton's store.

Bedor said Sears serves as a counterpoint to the Macy's announcement. "We have a retailer that recognizes the added market they can capture with light rail, and also realize they have a completely under-utilized site there," she said.

Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035