The former Ecolab University Center in downtown St. Paul will be converted into 200 apartment units and a grocery store over the next 18 months, said Chicago real estate developer John Thomas.

Thomas and Chicago-based T2 Capital Management bought the building on the corner of Wabasha and 6th streets for $5.35 million in a foreclosure auction in December.

Thomas, chief executive and a principal of the Chicago real estate firm Freedom Development Group LLC, said Friday that he will now invest roughly $20 million more to convert the former office tower into apartments.

Thomas spent time in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2014 to defrauding the town of Riverdale, Ill., of more than $370,000 in public funds in connection with a marina redevelopment project. He spent 39 months in prison and was released to a halfway house in Duluth after completing a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.

Thomas said Friday he has been rehabilitated and has gone on to develop about $1.5 billion worth of projects since he returned to Chicago.

Thomas also is trying to take over the Capital City Plaza Parking Ramp on 4th Street owned by the St. Paul Port Authority, but that project is on hold until litigation surrounding it is resolved.

To support the Ecolab University Center project, he and his team hope to buy 200 of the 700 parking spots in the adjacent Alliance Bank Center parking ramp.

The Freedom Development Group already has demolished 12 of the former Ecolab building's 16 stories and hopes to complete all apartment build-outs in the next 12 to 18 months.

If the remaining building renovation permits are secured from the city next week as hoped, the first two floors of renovations could be done by year's end. At that time, rental of the first units will begin, Thomas said.

City officials were not available for comment Friday.

Apartments will range in size from 600 to about 1,000 square feet and rent for roughly $1,400 to $3,000 a month, Thomas said. Once completed, the building will also sport a gym, lounge, coffee bar, dog walk, perhaps a rooftop pool and 200 parking spaces next door in the Alliance Bank Center ramp.

While the pool and parking have yet to be finalized, the grocery store will be called Jet Express and is also run by Thomas. The grocery on Wabasha will have 20,000 to 30,000 square feet and cater to downtown St. Paul residents, Thomas said.

The food store will be Jet Express' first in Minnesota, and Thomas plans more through his Jet Foods company. He is looking at buying or developing up to 10 shopping centers in the Twin Cities area and plans for some to house a Jet grocery store.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725