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Soon after the Walmart in St. Anthony went dark in 2014, neighbors began floating ideas of what could take its place.

A community center. A school. Maybe even a roller rink.

But year after year, the building sat empty in Silver Lake Village, a key shopping district in town, turning into a persistent reminder of how tricky it can be to backfill big-box stores. It’s a growing reality for suburbs across the metro as bankruptcies, downsizing and the changing retail scene leave behind sprawling parking lots and dormant spaces.

Now a suitor for the property has emerged, with a plan to tear down the vacant hulk and replace it with hundreds of apartments. Residents and city officials got an early glimpse this week of developer Kelly Doran’s proposal to build just under 500 units in two four-story buildings on the 13-acre Walmart site.

It’s the first serious plan to reach City Hall in the five years since the store closed.

“I think this is a big project,” Mayor Jerry Faust said at the Tuesday meeting. “We will not make haste, but we will not dilly-dally.”

No formal application has been submitted to the city for the property off Silver Lake Road, but informal feedback on the housing concept seems favorable.

“We’re very encouraged,” City Manager Mark Casey said. “With a community our size, you only have so many opportunities for redevelopment. We want to make sure it’s done right.”

If the proposal moves forward and wins City Council approval, construction could begin this winter.

When a big-box store goes dark, years may pass before a new tenant comes along to revive it. Empty stores in some suburbs are getting scooped up by expanding retailers looking to keep the big-box layout intact. Others are being carved up into smaller spaces for several businesses.

In Blaine, a Kmart sat vacant for nearly four years before it was transformed last year for new tenants, including an Xperience Fitness gym and AutoZone.

A Home Depot in Cottage Grove closed in 2008 and was empty for about 10 years until a similar push began to subdivide the space. Planet Fitness, T.J. Maxx and HomeGoods opened last year and now fill much of the building.

Less traditional uses have won out in some suburbs, with the mammoth buildings converted into churches, schools or adventure parks with zip lines.

Ripe for redevelopment

St. Anthony officials at first thought retail would eventually move into the Walmart after it closed. The store had opened in 2005 as an anchor tenant along with Cub in a massive redevelopment of Apache Plaza, a 1960s-era shopping mall reduced to rubble after years of decline.

The mall’s replacement, Silver Lake Village, was envisioned as a type of faux downtown, with smaller shops and restaurants alongside the two big-box stores. Developer Doran oversaw the retail portion of the Silver Lake Village development.

Now he has returned to St. Anthony with the idea of putting housing where the vacant 144,000-square-foot Walmart stands.

The St. Anthony Walmart closed after a new superstore opened less than 3 miles away in neighboring Roseville.

“It’s the first time that I’ll actually be tearing down something I built,” said Doran, the founder of Bloomington-based Doran Cos. “It really is a ripe candidate to be redeveloped, and that will help the remaining retail there hopefully prosper.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Doran described apartments with spacious walk-in closets, gourmet kitchens, fireplaces and access to amenities such as a game room, pool, underground parking and community spaces.

Early renderings show the two buildings connected by a common area, with a walking path leading into the nearby shopping area.

The developer is working to buy the site from its owner, IRC Retail Centers, and might request tax-increment financing from the city for the project.

Doran said the market-rate apartments would attract “lifestyle renters,” including aging homeowners who decide to sell and instead rent.

Hopes are high that new apartments could offer a boost to businesses dotting the area.

Lisa Nat can see the lifeless Walmart from the window of her restaurant, Fat Nat’s Eggs.

Nat, who co-owns the breakfast and lunch spot, said she imagines apartments will be a better fit for the area’s walkable Main Street vision than a big-box store.

“It’s going to bring more walking customers to this shopping area,” Nat said. “I think it’s a great plan.”

Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751