The Capitol Region Watershed District started in 1998 as a group of St. Paul residents concerned about the polluted condition of Como Lake. Now, it has a chance to practice what it preaches on the risks posed by stormwater runoff.

The “special-purpose” governmental unit, with a workforce of 15, recently sought to buy its own building after spending 13 years in a multitenant office building in the city’s Energy Park commercial district.

With the recent purchase and pending rehabilitation of the 14,000-square-foot former MacQueen Equipment building in St. Paul’s Midway area, CRWD Administrator Mark Doneux says the group is not only making a smart real estate investment, but also seizing a golden opportunity to show other property owners what it does.

“Where we are now is a traditional office complex, and we really have no way to demonstrate what we do,” Doneux said this week while standing inside a vast garage bay that will soon be transformed into a modern, open-configuration workspace. “We want to not only leverage this space for our office functions but also show visitors about innovative stormwater management techniques.”

At first glance, the 70-year-old, single-story structure at 595 Aldine St. wouldn’t strike anyone as a model for environmental sustainability. In fact, it’s something of a poster child for how not to keep contaminants from entering the local watershed, which ultimately drains into the Mississippi River. It’s surrounded by a sea of impervious surfaces such as concrete and bituminous paving, which are a prime culprit in producing poor water quality in the Mississippi and St. Paul-area lakes such as Como, Crosby and McCarrons.

The property includes a sprawling paved area in the back that was used by its longtime former owner in its business of selling and servicing heavy equipment vehicles used by cities, such as street sweepers. After 50 years in the building, MacQueen last year moved to new location on the city’s East Side.

After assessing the property for soil contamination, which was found to be modest, the district bought the property for $1.5 million and has earmarked another $3.5 million for its rehabbing. And while its primary function will be to support staffers in their work of scientific research and issuing permits for construction projects that affect stormwater runoff, it’s the CRWD’s public education mission that most excites Doneux.

“We are going to do extensive landscaping that illustrates the ideas of cleaning up runoff,” he said. “For instance, we will take that big area of bituminous paving and put in a green feature, perhaps a tree trench, in which the vegetation is used to filter out the contaminants and sediment draining into it.

“Another place where stormwater management is trending now is collecting runoff from commercial building rooftops into cisterns for reuse, and that’s also in the plans for us. This building isn’t suitable structurally for a green roof, but we plan to use a cistern to reuse the rainwater for things like flushing toilets, thus reducing our dependence on groundwater.”

The district, which has a 2017 budget of $12.2 million (including $4.9 million generated from a property tax levy), is also bullish about the purchase as a public investment into a Midway neighborhood. The area is changing from an aging industrial zone with persistently high vacancy rates into a magnet for new housing, offices and entertainment uses such as brewery/taprooms. Its proximity to transit options such as the Green Line is part of the appeal.

“Our analysis of this investment concluded that the district will recoup the expenses within 10 years by saving what we would have spent on rent,” Doneux said.

 

Don Jacobson is a freelance writer based in St. Paul. He is the former editor of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Real Estate Journal.