Ramsey County taking new look at future of downtown property

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 11, 2013 - 10:18 PM

County wants a new use for the former jail and office parcel.

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Some of the St. Paul riverfront, seen from the south side of the Mississippi River and under the Wabasha Street Bridge from 2003, when the old jail was last in use.

Photo: Mike Zerby, Star Tribune

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The vacant buildings on a stretch of riverfront in downtown St. Paul are neither attractive nor notably historic, nor easily adaptable to other uses. One is built like a fortress, the others jammed together like so many uneven teeth.

But the Kellogg Boulevard site high above the Mississippi River has at least three things going for it: location, location, location.

Which is why the Ramsey County Board, after years of unsuccessfully trying to sell the old West Publishing complex and the former county jail, now is thinking about knocking them down to boost the property’s appeal to developers.

“We’ve got to really get the best use. This could really be another enhancement to downtown, along with the [Saints] stadium and the Union Depot,” County Board Chair Rafael Ortega said. “It’s another piece that, if done right, gives us that progression.”

The jail has sat empty for 10 years, while the final county employees in the West complex moved out in July.

Officials have shopped the six-acre site for redevelopment since 2002. Six years ago, their hopes seemed realized when Opus Northwest struck a deal with the county to build a $200 million project on the site that included an office tower, hotel and luxury condos.

But as the Great Recession set in, Opus pulled out of the deal after failing to find an anchor tenant.

Last month, the County Board decided to find out how much it would cost to raze the buildings and get the site shovel-ready. It directed staffers to draw up a budget and financing plan, and to issue a request for proposals for demolition services.

By spring, the county should have a good idea of the cost and difficulty of tearing down the buildings, said Bruce Thompson, director of property management. Among other things, he said, an engineer will have to determine the effect on Kellogg Boulevard, part of which rests on a bridge pinned to the buildings atop the river bluff.

“It’s a spectacular site, but it does present its unique challenges,” Thompson said.

St. Paul developer Jim Stolpestad, whose company this year purchased the former St. Paul riverfront post office with plans to convert it into market-rate rental housing, said that developers haven’t snapped up the county property because of the unknown cost of removing contaminants and building on the tricky bluff site.

Tearing down the structures would remove much of that uncertainty, he said.

‘It could be almost anything’

“I think it has great potential myself, and most people would agree,” Stolpestad said. “It’s got great river views. It could be housing, an office headquarters site, a medical center — it could be almost anything. It’s a very good site.”

Ramsey County built the Kellogg Boulevard jail in 1979, long before officials thought to save the St. Paul riverfront for key development. It stepped six stories down the river bluff from street level, treating deputies and prisoners to amazing river views. But it became overcrowded only a few years after it opened, and in 2003 the sheriff’s office moved to bigger quarters northeast of downtown.

West Publishing Co. gave its downtown complex to Ramsey County in 1991 after moving its headquarters to Eagan. Underneath the uniform metal facade, it’s actually several aging buildings strung together that measure 620,600 square feet in all. The county kept offices there for years before moving employees to more accessible locations.

Ramsey County owns another riverfront building, Government Center East at Kellogg and Jackson Street, which houses human services, but it isn’t looking to sell that property.

Ortega said that he’s already received calls from a handful of developers about the county buildings. He said he’d like to see a hotel there to enhance St. Paul’s convention business.

Cecile Bedor, the city’s planning and economic development director, said she hoped for “something iconic, something dense” that also allows for public views of the river. She said it would be a great spot for a combination of uses, including a hotel, class A office space or condos.

“We want to see some creative architecture that honors the land, honors the river and really makes a 100-year statement about downtown,” she said.

Patrick Seeb, executive director of the St. Paul Riverfront Corp., said the site can help the city “urbanize” the river and enhance its connection to downtown. He said any development should open sight lines to the river and include a “river balcony” allowing people to stroll the bluff from the Science Museum to the Wabasha bridge.

“The county is doing the right thing in finding out how much it would cost to do the demo. It will open up people’s eyes to the site,” Seeb said.

Stolpestad said he had only one concern about tearing down the buildings.

“If you clear it off, people will get so used to the nice views that they’ll never let you build there,” he said.

Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035

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