Talks are underway between county officials and three development teams pitching proposals to transform a sleepy stretch of St. Paul riverfront into what civic boosters hope will be a catalyst for future downtown development.
The competing plans for the former site of West Publishing Co. and the Ramsey County jail range from towers of apartments or condos to offices and boutique hotels aimed at connecting the downtown core to the Mississippi River.
“You develop that particular site and you are able to start filling it, what it will demonstrate is that you can bring in new product into downtown St. Paul,” said Joe Spartz, president of the Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA). “That has the potential to bring in additional investment into some of these other buildable sites.”
Sherman Associates and Frauenshuh Commercial Real Estate have teamed together to propose a $120 million-to-$150 million project that would include three buildings on top of three-to-four stories of underground parking, said George Sherman, head of Sherman Associates.
Sherman’s project would consist of a 150-room hotel that would face the riverfront, 150 apartments that could be converted into condos, as well as 300,000 to 400,000 square feet of offices, which would be managed by Frauenshuh.
The hotel building would be below the bluff line, while an office tower would rise about eight stories and a residential tower would rise 12 to 14 stories above Kellogg Boulevard, Sherman said.
Major components of the project would include a pedestrian walkway over Kellogg Boulevard and the railroad tracks close to Shepard Road and “festival markets” of retail and restaurant space planned near the riverfront and the Wabasha Bridge.
“I think the riverfront in St. Paul is one that has so much vibrancy,” Sherman said. “This will really be connected to the riverfront in a really dynamic way.”
AECOM, a Los Angeles firm that has a Minneapolis office, has proposed a mix of four skyscrapers that could include a hotel, multifamily residential, retail and offices, said AECOM Managing Principal Brian Dusek. The buildings would be constructed on a lid that would extend St. Peter Street and Market Street out over the railroad tracks through the site to the river. AECOM provided two versions of renderings, one with shorter towers.
“Instead of treating that 80-foot drop between Kellogg and Shepard as a barrier, we use it as an opportunity to extend that site and to extend the downtown grid down to the river,” Dusek said. “There would be no other site like it in the Twin Cities.”
Outdoor space could include parks, a promenade with outdoor dining and a possible amphitheater or entertainment area. Renderings show tree-lined walkways, a cascading waterfall and a dock, which is also a component in the other proposals. AECOM provided no cost estimate for the proposal.
The Prairie Island Indian Community, which owns the Treasure Island Resort & Casino in Welch, Minn., has proposed a hotel, workforce apartments, and offices to be built on the property, said Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega. The Prairie Island Indian Community declined to comment on the proposal.
“It needs to be something the community and the county and the city are proud of, and that’s the kind of stuff that we are looking at,” Ortega said, about the proposals. “That it has access to the river, that it is multiuse, has amenities to the public. We are looking at all of those issues.”
Expectations are high for a site that has proved to be a challenge to revive.
Ramsey County spent $17 million to demolish the West Publishing and county jail buildings and prepare the site for redevelopment. It selected Phoenix-based Cardon Development Group to build a $225 million mixed-use project that would have included a hotel, offices and housing. But those plans fell through last year.
In recent months, the county manager’s office has been talking with as many as nine developers about the site. Ramsey County staff plans to recommend a proposal for the site at a Nov. 13 County Board workshop.
“I think they are all good projects,” Ortega said. “We have more questions to ask.”
While the proposals have outlined ambitious designs, the physical site could pose constraints on how realistic some of those plans might be with developers having to take into account the active railways and the structural dynamics of the bluff.
“It is a challenging site,” said Sherman, who said his company submitted plans about a decade ago for redevelopment of the site. “If this was a slam dunk, it would have been done by now.”
The St. Paul commercial real estate market also has its challenges.
Office vacancy rose in downtown St. Paul, topping 20 percent in 2017, up from about 16 percent the year before, according to a report by Greater St. Paul BOMA.
The residential market has been a bright spot, with the number of people living downtown growing from 4,862 in 2010 to 8,943 in August 2017, according to Maxfield Research. Downtown St. Paul’s hotel market is still on the rise with about 500 new rooms underway or proposed, according to real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield.