Developer Exeter Group has been getting attention because of its big-scale renovation of the former downtown St. Paul post office into a mixed-use apartment and hotel complex called Custom House.
Now, it's seeking to embark on another effort involving an old building in the city. But unlike the Custom House effort, this project is running into resistance from preservationists.
Exeter, headquartered in downtown St. Paul, has a long track record in the city.
With Custom House, it is repositioning the massive 1930s former post office into a combination of apartments and hotel rooms to be opened later this year. On the city's East Side, its Phalen Park Office Center is an attempt to turn the former 3M world headquarters building into a modern office venue.
The firm is also known for its 2012 rehabilitation of the former Chittenden & Eastman furniture warehouse at 2410 University Avenue into the C&E Lofts, boasting 104 units of market-rate apartments.
Response to that project near the Green Line's Raymond Avenue station has been so positive, Exeter is now planning to add 119 more units next door at 2390-2400 University — directly on top of an existing one-story structure known as the General Motors Truck Company Building.
The plans submitted to the city for the project, called Raymond Avenue Flats, are unique. While they envision preserving the now-vacant, 39,000-square-foot brick building, much of its L-shaped footprint would be covered by five stories of new construction. Only its storefront-like portion on University Avenue west of Raymond would be kept as it now is.
Exeter purchased the redbrick General Motors Truck building in 2011 to help facilitate its conversion of the neighboring C&E Lofts. It was originally constructed in 1927 to fit between the Chittenden & Eastman building and the Twin Cities National Bank building on the southwest corner of University and Raymond. It mainly consists of two large indoor garages, which for 40 years were used by Loomis Armored. That company recently moved to new quarters on the East Side, leaving it 100 percent vacant.
While not itself designated as historic — and so ineligible for historic preservation tax credits — the GM Truck building is part of the University-Raymond Commercial Historic District, thus bringing it under the purview of the St. Paul Historic Preservation Commission.
The commission last month rejected the project, partly because the five-story height of the new apartments would dwarf the existing structure. The preservationists also contended the project could negatively affect the entire district and put its eligibility for tax credits at risk.
Exeter Principal Tom Nelson said he is preparing to appeal that decision to the St. Paul City Council, which he feels will be receptive to his position that the light-rail-driven changeover of University Avenue from commercial to residential uses trumps the preservation concerns.
"We have tried without success for three years to find tenants or a buyer for the building," he said. "The storefront units suffer from being in the middle of the block where there is no on-street parking and access is limited because of the presence of a bus stop."
But, he feels, with the addition of more housing units on the block, service retailers could be attracted to the storefronts, while the garage portion of the building would be integrated into the new apartments and be used for residential amenities.
The St. Anthony Park Community Council is supporting the project. It also agreed with Exeter that because the five-story portion of the Raymond Avenue Flats would be set well back from University Avenue, it wouldn't destroy the storefront scale of the district.
Seth Levin, chairman of the council's land use committee, said there is strong support for the project within the neighborhood group, which feels it respects the commercial district's historic character while also attracting much-needed new residents.
"The height of it isn't even as tall as the next-door C&E Lofts, and we also like that they're planning to have a green roof and so it will be very energy efficient, which is something we encourage from all developers," Levin said.
Don Jacobson is a freelance writer based in St. Paul and the former editor of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Real Estate Journal.