St. Paul Port Authority to buy downtown Macy's, but for what?

Port Authority to buy the shuttered downtown property for $3 million.

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The downtown St. Paul Macy's photographed in 2012.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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After months of uncertainty, the vacant Macy’s store in downtown St. Paul finally has a buyer. But what will become of the boxy, nearly windowless former department store remains to be seen.

The St. Paul Port Authority confirmed Tuesday that it intends to buy the site from the Cincinnati-based retailer for $3 million with funds gleaned from a city bond issue.

Assuming the authority’s Board of Commissioners approves the purchase in coming weeks, a Jan. 29 closing is scheduled.

Port Authority President Louis Jambois said it will take some time to determine the best use for the 500,000-square-foot, six-story building and its adjacent 550-space parking deck — and one prospect could involve demolition. Any reuse must be market-driven, he added.

“We won’t attempt to engineer a market for this space,” Jambois said.

Two previous deals to buy the 50-year-old store, which closed for good in March 2013, reportedly fell through, although it’s unclear why.

With news of the sale, speculation about the future of the former Dayton’s store has begun in earnest.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said in a statement Tuesday he hoped the site’s redevelopment would serve as “an economic engine for Wabasha Street.”

In recent months, Coleman has said he’d like to see the site replaced with a Class A office building that includes first- and second-floor amenities that would tie in to the downtown bar and restaurant scene.

The mayor has his doubts about reusing the building for retail, at least on a large scale. Macy’s struggled for years at the site, as department stores fell out of favor with shoppers across the country.

Still, there’s been talk about adding boutique-style shops on the building’s lower two levels or a general retailer to supply downtown workers and residents with everyday items.

One prospect frequently mentioned on wish lists is a smaller, downtown-scaled Target store, much like the one in downtown Minneapolis.

When asked if that’s a possibility, Target spokeswoman Anne Christensen said, “St. Paul is a great market for Target, and we continue to pursue opportunities to serve guests there.” But the Minneapolis-based retailer said there’s “no information to share about a potential new store in downtown St. Paul.”

St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune, who represents downtown, said he’d love to see a movie complex on the site as part of a larger retail development — perhaps a factory outlet mall — along with affordable or high-end housing.

“I think you’re looking at a pretty difficult project if it involves retail beyond convenience [outlets] and restaurants,” said David Brennan, a marketing professor and co-director of the Institute for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas.

‘Intriguing possibilities’

The Port Authority, a development agency that operates independently of the city and that typically turns old industrial sites into business parks, has often worked with the city to guide development. When the city was strapped for cash to buy the downtown site it wanted for the new St. Paul Saints ballpark, the authority bought the site and swapped it with the city for old Midway Stadium, which will become part of a business park.

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