A plan to renovate St. Paul's 60-year-old former Sears building for several different purposes — including an event center, sports complex and virtual theme park — is the latest development in a flurry of transactions involving the building over the past four months.
The 17-acre property off Rice Street, which has sat vacant for almost five years just blocks from the State Capitol, was purchased in mid-May by Pacifica St. Paul LLC for about $7 million. The seller was Seritage SRC Finance, which had owned the building since about 2018.
Less than a month later, Pacifica sold it to Minneapolis nonprofit Asian Media Access, a partner in the initial sale, for $8.2 million.
Now the new owner is opening up about the purchase. "Everyone is so urgent to see that site live," said Ange Hwang, executive director of Asian Media Access.
For decades, the Sears building was a bustling retail site. It opened in 1963 and closed in late 2018 after struggling with debt and consumer buying habits that had undergone dramatic changes.
Marshall Nguyen, then vice president of Caspian Group, was involved in both purchases. He told Sahan Journal earlier this summer that Hwang and her organization decided to buy the property at the "last hour."
Nguyen, who was involved with the Asia Mall grocery and retail development that opened last year in Eden Prairie, said the plan presented for the Sears building at the time of its first purchase was similar to the Asia Mall concept.
"What we wanted to do was apartments, affordable housing, more retail and a food hall, so a lot of uses to drive traffic to the property," Nguyen said.
The two-story building has more than 180,000 square feet, making it bigger than the Asia Mall property, according to Asian Media Access. The first floor holds 114,000 square feet and the second floor more than 72,000 square feet, and the parking lot contains more than 1,000 stalls.
For months following Asian Media Access's purchase, Hwang was quiet about the building's possible future. But she's now saying that it will be renovated to house several uses, and Asian Media Access last weekend hosted a meeting at Eden Prairie's Asia Mall about what might be included.
According to a presentation by the Asian American Business Resilience Network, a Minnesota nonprofit working to nourish Asian American businesses, a number of options are envisioned for the Sears building. Among them: a charter school, an event center, a food court, a virtual-reality theme park, a sports complex and a Zen garden.
The sports complex is one idea for the second floor, though a structural engineer would have to determine whether that's viable, Hwang said.
The timeline for the project is two years, she said. While the building is paid off, a loan will be needed for the renovation work and one is expected to be finalized soon. The project is likely to cost around $7 million, according to Hwang.
That, plus the building's sales price, would add up to more than $15 million to draw people back to 425 Rice St.
Hwang told those at the meeting last weekend that the project's timeline is "aggressive." Lots adjacent to the building that are part of the site most likely would be sold for mixed-use or housing developments.
A hurdle might be posed by the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, which must approve any redevelopment in the area around the State Capitol. The board had put on pause a plan by former owner Seritage to redevelop the site into an "urban village mix."
The board may still want to split the property up, Hwang said, but she added that she hopes Asian Media Access' plans for the future of the site will align with the board's. A representative of the planning board wasn't available for comment last week.
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