St. Paul still searching for downtown business boom

St. Paul still searching for downtown business boom, Twin Cities Agenda

St. Paul’s sleepy downtown has seen a recent surge of life, thanks to new restaurants, bars, entertainment options, and, perhaps most significantly, an influx of market-rate apartments and condos. But the business landscape has remained comparatively stagnant, and job growth in the CBD (Central Business District) hasn’t kept pace; something Mayor Chris Coleman has recently acknowledged.

After the successful sale of the city-owned Penfield apartment building, which features a shiny new Lunds & Byerly’s grocery store at the base, eyes have turned to the former police building across the street. The building adjoins the site of the razed Pedro’s Luggage store, which was originally meant to be turned into a full-block park. After interest from developers, plans for the park were scrapped in favor of potential office space. The city is currently accepting proposals.

St. Paul still searching for downtown business boom, Twin Cities Agenda
The former police training facility on 10th Street, currently seeking developer

But, and this is a big but, no housing. The city wants offices. The city wants work space. The city wants jobs.

As the St. Paul Planning and Economic Development stated plainly,

“Proposals to demolish the building or to repurpose it for housing will not be considered.”


Downtown jobs

Coleman announced, in 2016, a goal of adding 3,000 jobs to the city by 2018. It’s an ambitious goal, supported by incentives from the city.

Downtown’s office vacancy rate is still hovering around 18%, only slightly lower than before the recent downtown renaissance, and a portion of that dip is a result of offices turned into, yep, housing, as well as adding amenities such as gyms and “tenant lounges” to existing properties.

The looming departure of supercomputer company Cray, Inc., which has operated out of Galtier Plaza in Lowertown since 2009, will leave another hole in the landscape.

And while the job growth is lacking on a large scale, there is still a noted lack of retail downtown on a smaller scale as well. No one is expecting a return to the glory days of downtown department stores and packed streets for Christmas shopping, but without storefronts to provide basic goods, whether it be a pair of socks or home goods and supplies or an outfit to hit one of downtown’s new bars in, it will be hard to sustain the housing influx. The few specialty stores that are open for business, Heimie’s Haberdashery, for example, are exactly that: specialty.

In addition, the empty lot surrounding Central Station is still waiting muddy and desperate for development. Work on converting the decaying former Woolworth’s Building into Class A office space has yet to begin. And the level of interest in the former police building, for something other than housing, of course, remains unknown.


Reason for optimism

But it’s not as though there is nothing to look forward to.

Recent bright spots include the former Ecolab HQ sold fairly quickly to a team of private developers with plans to modernize and keep it as office space.

Brighter days are ahead a well for the empty Macy’s shell in the middle of Wabasha Street: Work is well underway on Treasure Island Center (as the new facility will be called) and the rooftop ice skating rink/Wild practice facility (Tria rink), with additional plans for a multi-level, full-service Walgreen’s, and street level craft brewery (Looney Bin Brewing) featuring outdoor patio.

A plan for another prime development opportunity, along Kellogg Park overlooking the river where West Publishing and Ramsey County jail once stood, has been submitted as well. Cardon Development Group is planning to build 4-star hotel, some 300 apartments, and a parking ramp built into the bluff, with 60,000 ft2 of office space, and 30,000 ft2 of retail space at street level.

Cardon Development Plan, courtesy of Ramsey County

And a promenade on the bluff overlooking the river, running from Union Depot in Lowertown to the Science Museum at the mouth of downtown, connecting the city’s core in in a way that also utilizes the riverfront, is also in the works (which will connect to the plan submitted by Cardon, as seen in the rendering above).

Perhaps the downtown landscape will continue to change for the better.

Only time will tell.