Business leaders, developers and political figures Tuesday hailed the $400 million Downtown East redevelopment as a "transformative" project that will turn a now-desolate expanse into a bustling urban enclave that complements the new Vikings stadium.

Minneapolis developer Ryan Cos. is busily preparing the five-block site, previously mostly parking lots, for a mixed-use development that includes two 18-story office towers for Wells Fargo & Co., 193 apartments, restaurant and retail space, a parking ramp and a nearly two-block public park. The project sits in the shadow of the $1 billion stadium that is under construction where the Metrodome once stood.

"The [stadium] project next door was very, very important to revitalize this area, and this project is absolutely crucial to the redevelopment," said Gov. Mark Dayton before a shivering crowd of at least 250 invited guests.

"We built [the Metrodome] here 30 years ago with the hope and belief that it would lead to redevelopment around it," Dayton added, noting the only activity that occurred since then was a "concrete ring of nondevelopment."

Beyond the Vikings stadium locating in Minneapolis, the Downtown East project is the result of an unusual confluence of events over an 18-month period.

Wells Fargo, which is investing $217 million for the land and core construction of its office buildings, was looking to consolidate some of its local employee workforce, now spread among 14 buildings downtown. The Star Tribune was hoping to sell its swath of property. And the Central Corridor light rail service begins in June, bolstering ridership between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"It's amazing to visualize this today after seeing it on paper for so long," said former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a key player in the development. "Now I'm definitely seeing it as reality, and it's pretty impressive."

About 5,000 Wells Fargo employees, out of 20,000 statewide, will work in the Downtown East offices — the east tower is expected to be completed by late 2015, with the second tower following in the first quarter of 2016. Spokeswoman Peggy Gunn said the estimated closing date on Wells Fargo's purchase of the land and buildings is also "late 2015 or early 2016."

Native Minnesotan John Stumpf, chairman and CEO of San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, said, "This is not just any other place, this is not just any other building, this is not just another community. This is where my heart is."

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said few other cities have such large tracts of underutilized land available for redevelopment. "We want to make this the most-vibrant downtown in the country and the whole world because we have to aim big," she said.

The event Monday was ceremonial and largely scripted. After about 50 minutes of speeches, the cheery throng moved through a pothole-pocked parking lot to a mound of dirt where shovels and hard hats were poised for staged photo ops. Nearby, piles of salvaged steel were neatly stacked — the remains of the Star Tribune's Freeman building, which was demolished a week ago.

"This was an incredibly short time frame," said Collin Barr, president of Ryan's north-central region. "But the vision was there to take an underutilized and uninspiring district and turn it into a neighborhood."

The Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, the public body in charge of the Vikings stadium construction, will ultimately own the six-story, 1,610-space parking ramp. The city recently awarded Ryan the "air rights" to develop the space above the ramp into a 150-room Radisson Red hotel and 200 additional apartments — representing another $100 million in investment.

Daniel Gumnit, president and CEO of the People Serving People homeless shelter next to the Downtown East development, said in a statement that he welcomes "our new neighbors. This project is an important investment in our neighborhood, and we hope the jobs it will generate will provide opportunities for our guests."

Ryan estimates that about 3,400 tradespeople will be hired to build the development.

Staff writer Jennifer Bjorhus contributed to this report.