After more than three years and $17 million spent on site prep, Ramsey County officials are hopeful that the bluff alongside the Wabasha Street bridge in downtown St. Paul won’t be empty much longer.
The county manager’s office has been quietly talking with nine developers over the past seven months, said Josh Olson, the county’s redevelopment manager, and Lee Mehrkens, its chief financial officer.
Olson and Mehrkens plan to pick their top developer by the end of the summer and present county commissioners with a plan to start negotiating the details of a major redevelopment project and a sale price with that developer.
“We know we must do this one right,” Mehrkens said. “It’s an iconic site. It will have tremendous views of the river and it will be highly visible for everyone driving by.”
The site long has been one of the county’s top development priorities, since before a plan fell through late last year to sell the land to a Phoenix-based developer for a mix of restaurants, hotel rooms and apartments.
It’s a postcard property, along the bluff and overlooking the Mississippi River. Whatever is built there will shape the St. Paul riverfront.
The county demolished its old buildings on the site in 2015, with the main goal of getting 5 acres of downtown riverfront property back on tax rolls. For that reason, it’s not using or offering tax incentives to lure a developer, Mehrkens said. “We’re looking for a number of wins with this,” he said. “We want jobs. We want parking and we want that tax base.”
For more than a century, the property was the headquarters of West Publishing, which operated out of buildings that dated back to the 1880s.
The West properties grew into a somewhat sprawling complex atop and against the bluff. In the 1970s, Ramsey County decided to build its new jail next door to West, offering inmates some of the metro’s best views of the Mississippi.
After West left St. Paul in the early 1990s, the county was given the aging complex for $1 and moved most of its operations there. The property has been off the tax rolls since 1991. It’s been empty for five years, when the jail closed and the county finished moving out of the asbestos-filled buildings.
A 2014 appraisal of the site valued the land and buildings at $10.7 million. But it quickly became clear that nobody was going to pick up the property as long as the jail and the former West buildings were still standing, Olson said.
“The biggest thing was the risk,” he said. “Developers thought there was too much risk in paying for new construction, demolition and a retaining wall against the bluff.”
The county started demolishing the buildings in 2015, removing environmental hazards, and built a retaining wall to make sure the bluff was secure. The total cost of site preparation was $17 million.
In 2017, the county thought it had a buyer: Don Cardon of Phoenix-based Cardon Development. Cardon planned to build 300 apartments and a hotel with 200 rooms and provide nearly 100,000 square feet of office and retail space. Included in the plans were a 1,200-stall parking garage and a public plaza with elevators and stairs to move people between the downtown river bluff and the riverfront.
But it all fell through a few months later, when Cardon said public dollars were needed to make it financially doable.
“That’s when we decided to take a step back and start having these conversations with developers about what will work there,” Olson said.
Ramsey County wants to land something similar to Cardon’s proposal, if on a smaller scale, with offices, restaurants and housing.
Ideally, Mehrkens said, there would be a public parking garage that could be tucked out of sight against the bluff, along with a public plaza that could bring pedestrians down the bluff to the riverfront.
“That’s what has to be negotiated and discussed when we talk about a price,” he said. “We have to look at the value of the land versus the public use we can get from it.”