In a more robust economy a decade ago, a prime spot along the southern stretch of Nicollet Mall was eyed for an ambitious condominium project, then a towering office building.

But this week, Target Corp. unveiled its twist for the site -- a new 25,000-square-foot recreation space for employees, called Target Plaza Commons. Spread along the city's commercial spine between 10th and 11th Streets, the spot was once home to the Church of Scientology as well as a series of eateries and retailers over the years, including Keys Restaurant and Let It Be records.

The $70 billion retail giant joined and renovated two low-lying historic buildings into an industrial-chic space where its 11,000 Twin Cities employees can kick back, ponder deep thoughts and confab with colleagues. As Rich Varda, the company's senior vice president for store design, put it, the space is akin to a "student union" on a college campus.

Target bought the three parcels in 2011 for about $10 million, including 1001 and 1013 Nicollet Mall and 81 S. 10th St. At the time, it was widely speculated the retailer would simply sit on the properties until it needed more space, then build another office tower.

Varda didn't deny such a scenario on Tuesday, but noted that such a project would be years away.

"We're looking at eight to 10 years from now, or maybe not at all," Varda said. "It's too early to tell. This space is fabulous now; it exceeded our expectations."

The commons space includes library tables and leather club chairs, a fireplace, a gaming/video mezzanine, as well as a fitness center for pilates, yoga and kickboxing and other classes, locker rooms and 125 bike stalls for two-wheeled commuters. Limited food service is in the works, too.

There's also 20,000 square feet of outdoor space, accessible from the interior through a giant garage door. There, lounge chairs are spread about a green lawn, complete with bocce and basketball courts, a patio with gas grill and a life-size chess board -- all made possible after a small building along 10th Street was demolished.

But in the past decade, bigger plans were on the drawing board for the area. A tower with up to 350 condos was pitched in 2004 before the market began to cool. Along the way, a series of developers bowed out, including Len Pratt and John Ordway, principals of Pratt Ordway Properties. A subsequent proposal for a 30-story office tower by United Properties surfaced as recently as last year. The latter would have been the first multitenant office tower built downtown in at least eight years.

But then Target purchased the properties for its own use.

Local real estate officials agree it would likely be several years before Target moves to build an office tower, should the company decide to do so.

"We're just not absorbing enough office space to call for a new tower downtown right now," said Larry Chevalier, vice president/office brokerage for Colliers International.

When a tenant is looking for 300,000 to 400,000 square feet of space, then the demand will push such a project forward, he said.

Brian Woolsey, a senior vice president at real estate brokerage Cassidy Turley, said, "right now, it's fill-in space" as opposed to large office towers being built. Plus, there's the possibility of Block E being converted to offices and speculation that the Nieman Marcus store in Gaviidae may be converted to office space when it closes next year.

Currently, Target's downtown employee base is spread among four locations along Nicollet Mall, including its headquarters, just across from the new commons building, above its urban store at 9th Street, in City Center, and in the Young Quinlan building. Other campuses are in Brooklyn Park and along Interstate 394 west of downtown Minneapolis.

Minneapolis-based Ryan Cos. U.S. Inc. was the architect and builder for Target's new commons space, with design work done by local firm Julie Snow Architects.

The buildings, which date back to the 1920s and 1930s, were designed and reconstructed in a way that "was simple and revealing in terms of what was here," Varda said.

As employees drifted through the space Tuesday afternoon and gawked, Target's executive vice president for human resources, Jodee Kozlak, said the new commons will serve as "a fabulous recruiting tool."

"This is a real beacon for us."

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752