Demolition OK'd for 19th-century buildings in downtown St. Paul

The former West Publishing headquarters
Ramsey County voted Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2015, to tear down the row of buildings that were once the downtown St. Paul headquarters of West Publishing.
Tim Nelson / MPR News

Updated 3:25 p.m. | Posted. 10:10 a.m.

A Twin Cities business landmark will soon be coming down to make way for new riverfront development in downtown St. Paul.

Ramsey County commissioners on Tuesday approved a plan Tuesday to tear down the old West Publishing buildings, more than 20 years after the company left them empty.

The commissioners voted to sell $11.5 million in bonds to pay for the demolition. County officials estimate that the site could put $150 million in new development on the tax rolls, which could fill a huge hole that St. Paul struggled to fill since 1992, when West Publishing moved to Eagan.

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For decades, deals have fallen through, among them a condo development that fell by the wayside in 2008. West ultimately sold its former headquarters to the county for one dollar.

So far, no one has stepped forward with a plan to remake the site and its spectacular views. Built into a downtown cliff starting in the 19th Century, the offices tower up to 10 stories over the Mississippi River and overlook Harriet Island.

"That location is probably the single most attractive site in the Twin Cities, particularly given its location on the Mississippi River, in St. Paul's entertainment district," said Patrick Seeb, executive director of the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation. The non-profit's mission is to promote redevelopment in St. Paul.

"By making this site available and clear, it really positions it for probably the most powerful development we've seen in years here in St. Paul," he said.

Aerial photo St. Paul riverfront
This aerial photo is marked to show the area of the St. Paul riverfront the county intends to clear to make way for redevelopment.
Courtesy of Ramsey County

For lack of any other buyers, Ramsey County has been using the office buildings since the 1990s.

Public health, elections, property taxes and family court all found homes there at one time or another. The site also includes the old county jail, which officials abandoned for a new jail across town in 2003.

For the last 15 months, the buildings have been completely vacant.

Part of the problem: the seven-story cliff between downtown St. Paul and the river.

That's made tearing down the buildings especially tricky, said Bruce Thompson, director of property management for the county.

"What's unique about the buildings, is the way they're pinned into the cliff, and in a number of different places, especially the Adult Detention Center," Thompson said. "It is actually pinned back into the cliff with 15 foot rods."

Complicating matters further is that the site includes seven different buildings built between the 1880s and 1979. They include a former refrigerated warehouse and printing plant. Kellogg Boulevard runs over part of it.

The county has struggled to find anyone to take on that kind of a rehab project, Ramsey County board chairman Jim McDonough said.

The West Publishing offices on Kellogg Blvd.
The West Publishing offices were built into a downtown cliff starting in the 19th century.
Courtesy Ramsey County

"To take on the risk of what it takes to tear that building down, that's a risk we need to share," McDonough said. "We always knew that we were going to have a responsibility for that, and it was important to get ahead of that, again to send the message we are ready for that development."

That's why Ramsey County commissioners have voted to finance the demolition, he said.

That work is expected to start next summer. County officials hope to have the site cleared and ready for building by April, 2016.

Redeveloping the property could fundamentally change the character of St. Paul, County Commissioner Rafael Ortega said.

Ortega, who represents the area, would like to see a mix of affordable and luxury housing there. He'd also like to pair the nearby RiverCentre and the Xcel Energy Center with an upscale hotel to help attract conventions and other events.

"We don't attract that kind of business. Most of the conventions go to Minneapolis," Ortega said. "And I think that's part of the energy we need in the city and in downtown, to create that vibrancy."