The first -- and perhaps most important -- phase of the long-awaited transformation of the former Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul kicked off this month: a multimillion-dollar cleanup to remove asbestos and lead paint.

Before the developer can turn the brewery's historic, medieval revival-style structure into scores of affordable housing units for artists, it must mount a massive remediation effort, which is getting underway this month. 

It will be no small task for Dominium, the Minneapolis-based owner and developer. Given floor upon floor of asbestos-covered pipes and boilers and thick layers of peeling paint throughout the sprawling former Jacob Schmidt Brewing Co., remediation will cost more than $3 million.

A key piece in moving the $100 million project forward was Dominium's ability to cobble together clean-up grants from the Metropolitan Council, Ramsey County and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to perform the necessary work -- which is prodigious, says Steve Jansen, president of Peer Engineering, whose firm is spearheading the work for Dominium.

"Not only is this a decontamination of a former industrial site, but it's also one that's going from industrial to residential," he said while conducting a tour of the frigid, long-idled brew house building this week. "That means it's going to have to meet the highest of all standards of abatement."

In the work now getting underway at the former brewery, teams of workers are using the "full containment" method of asbestos removal, in which small sections of the old buildings are totally sealed off with heavy plastic sheeting, creating a "negative air pressure zone," inside the containment area with a special machine.

Workers move around inside the zone wearing full decontamination suits with masks while operating the "negative air machine," which is equipped with a HEPA filter that is nearly 100 percent effective at removing even the smallest floating asbestos particles from the air. 

In the laborious and time-consuming process, the asbestos waste is sealed into bags and moved outside, where it is placed inside a covered dumpster, eventually to be disposed of at a designated landfill.

A key part of the clean-up financing was a $300,000 "environmental response fund" grant from Ramsey County -- a program, Jansen noted, that has since been shelved after the state Legislature opted in the last session not to renew authority for it. 

Under its provisions, Ramsey and Hennepin counties had been allowed to assess mortgage registry and deed fees amounting to 0.01 percent of a property's assessed value to pay for environmental clean-up projects. But the program was opposed by the residential real estate industry, which argued the fees are a burden to financially strapped home buyers at a time when the home market is struggling to recover. 

At this early stage, it remains hard to imagine that the post-industrial shell of what was once one of the Twin Cities' oldest businesses will eventually be turned into 248 units of affordable rental housing for artists, but to Owen Metz, Dominium senior development associate, the future is clear.

As he led a tour onto the rooftop of the brewhouse, Metz pointed out where the apartment units would be and marveled at the views of downtown St. Paul and the Mississippi River valley from the site, which continued to pump out beer until 2002. 

In addition to the building conversions, Dominium will construct 13 new affordable rental townhomes for families on a vacant parcel on the east end of the site. The project has an 18-month construction schedule.

Don Jacobson is a freelance writer in St. Paul.