The developer renovating the former Ecolab University Center in downtown St. Paul said it received the permits needed from the city this month to finish converting its first set of offices into apartments, which should be completed by September.
Chicago real estate developer John E. Thomas and Illinois-based T2 Capital Management bought the building on the corner of Wabasha and 6th streets for $5.35 million during a foreclosure auction in December 2018.
The glass tower at 386 Wabasha St. went into foreclosure after its bank learned that the main tenant, the $15 billion cleaning chemicals giant Ecolab, had moved out.
By late last year, Thomas said his Freedom Development Group and Jet Structures LLC contracting team had demolished much of the interior of the 16-story structure. But they had to wait longer than expected for the city permits to begin the electrical, plumbing and other work needed to create about 230 apartments plus a Jet Foods grocery store and Jet Fuel coffee shop on the main floor.
"We will open up the building in stages," using a 50-member crew, Thomas said. "We are doing a nearly $30 million renovation. We'll open up the [bottom] five floors first" in the next few months.
The project, which includes plans for a gym, community room and co-working space, pool and dog walk, should be entirely completed in a year, he said.
On Thursday, a team of Muska Lighting contractors installed electricity in one of the seven studio apartments on the fifth floor. Other teams drilled drywall-holding channels into concrete as Jet Structures construction manager Ron Basara and site supervisor Mike Eichinger showed a visitor the 15th floor that overlooks the State Capitol on the north side. "The best views are higher up," Basara said.
Each floor will have eight studios, seven one-bedrooms plus two two-bedroom units on the south side, Basara said. "You'd be amazed at how quickly the studios will go," he said, since downsizing, minimalism and public transportation are so popular, especially with millennials.
The project will have some competition, as Doran Cos. and Kaeding Management are currently erecting a nearby $69 million hotel and apartment complex across from Xcel Energy Center. Other former office buildings converted to apartments are just a few blocks away, including the former Degree of Honor Building and the former home of the Pioneer Press, which relocated across the Mississippi River from downtown.
The activity comes after nearly a decade of multifamily housing developments that came online in Lowertown and close to the river on the West Side, said Hannah Burchill, spokesperson for St. Paul Planning and Economic Development.
Joe Spencer, president of the Downtown Alliance, said he is pleased to see the Wabasha Street project advance.
"Seeing this kind of investment is really great," he said. "We have been really excited that our downtown population has doubled over the last eight years to about 9,000. That is great growth. We have set a goal of growing by another 20,000 people downtown."
Thomas said the 386 Wabasha apartments will be amenity filled and have rents of about $1,200 to $3,000 a month.
The penthouse should go for substantially more, he said.
The colorful Freedom Development chief executive spent 39 months in prison for defrauding the town of Riverdale, Ill., of $370,000 in public funds in connection with a marina redevelopment project. Part of his prison sentence was served in Duluth. He was released in 2017.
During his time in Minnesota, he said he grew to admire the state and its largest cities.
"I love Minneapolis and St. Paul. I am looking forward to setting things up there for many, many years," Thomas said. He also hopes to rent to some of the hockey players who practice next door at the Wild training facility.
Thomas purchased 200 parking spaces for his Wabasha tenants in the adjacent outdoor garage and said he is finalizing an agreement to buy a 50,000-square-foot office across the street, which he plans to convert into apartments.
The Ecolab University signage on the Wabasha building will soon be taken down, ending a decades-old landmark. The building shares a plaza with Ecolab's former headquarters building, which was renamed Osborn370 when Ecolab also vacated that building about a year and a half ago.
Ecolab relocated its headquarters several blocks away to the former Travelers tower on 7th and St. Peter streets.