See more of the story

Sunlight streamed through the glass-paneled roof over the Town Square food court in downtown St. Paul, where workers sat at tables, wolfing down Potbelly sandwiches during the busiest stretch of lunch hour Wednesday.

A wooden picket fence blocks the pair of motionless escalators leading up from the skyway level to a third floor — once a beloved spot for work breaks. For two decades, the 26,000-square-foot atrium was an indoor city park, home to a trickling brook and waterfalls, more than 250 tropical plant species and a historic hand-carved carousel.

For the last 23 years, Town Square Park has sat empty, hidden from passersby.

The glass panes are foggy and discolored. Tarps and buckets have been placed to catch leaks. The cacti, palm trees and spider plants were sold long ago, eventually replaced by unwanted vegetation that city inspectors warned could compromise the roof system.

"It was this lovely oasis in the middle of downtown," said Joe Spencer, president of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance. "Nobody even knows it's there anymore."

Opened in 1980, the indoor park was the crown jewel of a massive development meant to revitalize downtown St. Paul as retailers moved out to the newer suburban malls.

The vision never fully came to life. By 2001, with maintenance costs rising and $2 million in repairs looming, St. Paul officials decided to close the park. A year later, the city sold the space to a caterer who wanted to turn it into an event center — plans that also never came to fruition.

In recent years, the former park was acquired by New York-based Sentinel Real Estate Corp., which owns the rest of the Town Square complex at 445 Minnesota St. Representatives from the company did not respond to questions about the future of the space, which has been considered a blight on downtown since it was added to the city's vacant building list in 2009.

"It's really a shame to see it sitting there vacant," said City Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents the area. "I don't have any specific prescription for what should go there, but just generally would like to see it have new life."

The escalator that leads to the third floor of St. Paul’s Town Square is blocked off.
The escalator that leads to the third floor of St. Paul’s Town Square is blocked off.

Angelina Katsanis, Star Tribune

Failed urban development

Though Town Square Park attracted weddings, proms, corporate events and concerts over the years, it didn't draw the crowds of shoppers city leaders hoped it might. Upkeep of the park was originally funded by assessments charged to nearby retailers.

That changed in the mid-1990s as stores became offices, which lobbied to stop paying the fees — meaning taxpayers picked up the full maintenance costs.

Citing dwindling use and a need for major roof repairs, city leaders chose to mothball the park, saving $180,000 in operating costs. In 2002, they sold it for $101,500 to wedding caterer Michael Wong, who planned to add a commercial kitchen for events.

St. Paulites with fond memories of the park were sad to see it go. City leaders were relieved to have it off their hands.

Sentinel had offered a lower bid for the park and argued the city should have fixed the roof before it sold the parcel. The company developed a contentious relationship with Wong, filing lawsuits for roof leaks that damaged tenants' offices.

John Rupp, a downtown developer who assisted Wong with financing, said Sentinel essentially blocked the caterer from using the park by shutting off utilities and limiting his access to the space.

"The city sold him a piece of property that he couldn't use," Rupp said. "They never stepped in to help."

Wong could not be reached for comment. In 2007, he told the Pioneer Press that he "lost everything" because of the Town Square failure. Through foreclosure, Sentinel took over the property in 2022.

St. Paul’s Town Square as it looked in October 1980, about a week after its opening, at left. At right, the food court bustles in July 1988.
St. Paul’s Town Square as it looked in October 1980, about a week after its opening, at left. At right, the food court bustles in July 1988.

Regene Radniecki, John Croft, Star Tribune

A foggy future

Over the years, many have wondered how the space could be reused — as a restaurant, as a senior center, as a department store. Spencer, of the Downtown Alliance, said he once brought Live Nation up there to see if the airy enclave could be turned into a concert venue.

"My understanding is that it has accumulated so much deferred maintenance over the years, that has just kind of intimidated people from tackling it," he said.

Staff from St. Paul's Department of Safety and Inspections said the abandoned park does not pose imminent danger to the public, though they haven't been up to the the space since a complaint in 2021. Inspectors walk through the skyway level every couple of weeks to look for signs of major problems.

To get off the vacant building list, which costs $2,700 in fines this year, Sentinel must first request a code compliance inspection, said Robert Humphrey, St. Paul's vacant building project facilitator. The property owner cannot pull building permits until doing so.

The city has unusually limited recourse, officials said, because the former park is attached to other core downtown properties. If a single-family house is left abandoned, the city can eventually take steps to demolish it.

"Why is it OK for a big New York real estate company to block Michael Wong for years from using it, and then when they buy it, they allow it to be sitting there derelict?" said Rupp, who has previously clashed with St. Paul inspectors at his restaurant at the Commodore. "The last thing we need is to further degrade the experiences of people who are trying to live and work downtown."

As public and private leaders debate strategies to push downtown St. Paul through a post-pandemic transformation, the old Town Square Park space remains left out of conversations, largely forgotten — just as it is by hundreds of others who stroll by to visit Caribou Coffee and Cassie's Deli, passing the still escalators that once led to a sunny, verdant respite in the heart of the city.

Most passersby by in St. Paul don't even know about the former green spot at Town Square.
Most passersby by in St. Paul don't even know about the former green spot at Town Square.

Angelina Katsanis, Star Tribune