Apartment proposal at former Island Station power plant promises Mississippi River access
Twin Cities Pioneer Press | Frederick Melo | May 26, 2019
Ryan Swingruber said he has big plans for the former Island Station site in St. Paul, but not too big.
The 10-acre parcel of land bordering the Mississippi River near Shepard Road and Randolph Avenue has sat vacant since 2014, and previously was home to a coal-fired power plant decommissioned in the 1970s.
By September, he hopes to break ground on three and four stories of rental housing — a mix of micro, studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments.
Working with a series of environmental consultants and architects, the Chicago-area developer drew up plans for 250 market-rate apartments, stepped back from the river.
Swingruber’s vision, set within a federal “Opportunity Zone,” calls for a multi-family housing complex that he said will increase rather than block river access.
Those plans include paved walking and biking paths to an inlet, a proposed public kayak launch and connections from the regional trail system along Randolph Avenue.
“From there, they’ll be able to traverse the peninsula,” said Swingruber, who has been meeting with Xcel Energy, which owns land on either side of the future development. “We want to make it public, with defined access and signage.”
The West 7th/Fort Road Federation voted to support the project’s conditional-use permit in March, but also included a letter to the city’s zoning committee raising two concerns. The federation sought deeper assurances the project would include improved public access to the river, and raised questions about the lack of affordable units.
“The Federation Board is being asked, once again, to support a market-rate housing project in our district,” said the letter, signed by board president Dana DeMaster. “We have a need for affordable housing, especially for families and for elderly persons, and this project proposal will not meet that need.”
She noted that the West Seventh neighborhood has among the highest average rents in St. Paul, and experienced a 17 percent increase in rental costs since 2010.
Swingruber said he’s also met with the Friends of the Mississippi River and, in response to their concerns, the building height will drop from four to three stories nearest the riverfront.
“We’ve seen some past development proposals that haven’t gone anywhere,” said Colleen O’Connor Toberman, river corridor program director with Friends of the Mississippi River. “From what we’ve seen of the developer’s plans, there are some nice components of community access to the riverfront, and we do appreciate that aspect of the plan.”
ISLAND STATION BLOWN APART
The site was once home to the Island Station coal-based power plant, an unofficial St. Paul landmark that drew its share of cheers and jeers before it was blown to smithereens.
At St. Paul City Hall, efforts to declare the decommissioned 1920s-era power plant a local historic site deadlocked with a tie vote before the city council in 2013, sealing its fate. Developers literally exploded the iconic but decrepit structure the following March.
As the 280-feet-tall metal smokestack collapsed into debris, hopes for new residences, retailers and other fresh real estate gained some ground.
Fast forward five years, and no one has built anything. After nearly 45 years in limbo, however, the Island Station property has once again caught the eye of a prospective buyer.
Swingruber, a vice president with the Stoneleigh Cos. of Barrington, Ill., hopes to add housing to the site under the title Waterford Bay. This will be the first Twin Cities development for the company, which has apartment properties throughout Texas.
On Thursday, the St. Paul Planning Commission’s zoning committee reviewed a request from the Stoneleigh Cos. to construct the 45-feet-tall apartment complex. Anything above 35 feet triggers the need for a conditional-use permit.
In addition, the main entrance would be situated facing the river on the east side of the property, rather than in the third of the building closest to Randolph Avenue, as currently required.
The developer has also proposed a fire access road and storm sewers in the floodway plain, as well as variances for a front yard setback.
Swingruber said the building will be set back 100 feet from the river, rather than 50, as presently required, in respect for the proposed river setbacks in the city’s draft 2040 Comprehensive Plan. It will be three stories tall closest to the river, and four stories closer to Randolph Avenue, creating a stepped-back approach from the waterfront.
The “Traditional Neighborhood” or “T2” zoning would allow a maximum of 375 housing units, but Swingruber plans to build two-thirds as many units so as not to overwhelm the site.
Given the site’s history as a coal-fired plant, the project will require carefully addressing contaminated soils. Swingruber said he’s worked closely with environmental consultants Braun Intertec, design engineering consultants Kimley-Horn and architects with the BKV Group.
The site sits within a federally designated “Opportunity Zone,” which allows certain tax benefits for investors who hold onto properties for at least 10 years.
In an interview, city council member Rebecca Noecker said she looked forward to a briefing from St. Paul Planning and Economic Development.
A previous developer, T.J. Hammerstrom, once planned 240 units of townhomes and condominiums on the site and in an adjoining eight-story building, which were never constructed.
In late 2014, after the power plant was demolished, Breckner River Development of Burnsville sold the site to Riverwalk of Scottsdale, Ariz., for $4.5 million.
The plot of land at 380 Randolph Ave. generates about $70,000 to $75,000 in property tax and special assessments annually. The listed property owner, St. Paul Riverwalk LLC, owes $343,000 in back taxes, according to Ramsey County property records.
According to the county, the land has an estimated market value of roughly $2 million.
St. Paul riverfront site has long vexed developers, but there’s a new plan
Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal | Nick Halter | May 17, 2019
A 10-acre piece of land along St. Paul’s Mississippi River riverfront, once the site of Xcel Energy’s Island Station power plant, could be home to as many as 250 apartments.
Several developers have taken a run at the site over the past two decades, most recently in 2014 when local developer Jim LaValle floated an office and residential project that never materialized. In 2004, Rich Pakonen and Dennis Doyle tried to do condos.
Now Stoneleigh Cos. of Barrington, Ill., has plans to use the site for 240 to 250 apartments in a building that steps from three to four stories. Those plans go before the city’s Zoning and Planning Committee on May 23 with a potential May 30 Planning Commission vote.
Ryan Swingruber, vice president of development at Stoneleigh, first visited the site last August, when he rented a Nice Ride bike near his downtown hotel and pedaled down to the river and took the trails southwest to the site, which is near the corner of Shepard Road and Randolph Avenue.
The site’s proximity to those bike trails and the river are influencing the design of Swingruber’s project. He’s working with Xcel Energy, which owns land around the project, to get easements that would bring the trails into the site and lead down to a peninsula, where he’d like to build a small launch for kayaks and canoes.
The project, called Waterford Bay at St. Paul, will have some of the amenities you’d expect, like an outdoor pool atop a parking podium, dog run, fitness center and wi-fi cafe.
But it also has some features geared toward the area, like storage for tenants to keep their kayaks, tents, hiking gear, cross country skis as well as a bike room.
The site is subject to flooding, so Stoneleigh is adding three feet of dirt to raise the building. It’s also going to use most of the first floor for parking — around 250 or 260 spaces — in case the water does creep up like it did this spring.
Swingruber said the apartments mix will skew heavily toward studios and smaller one-bedroom units, with a goal of keeping average rents in the low $1,500s, which would be $125 or $150 a month below the going rate of new Class A buildings in St. Paul.
While 10 acres seems like a lot for just 250 units, Swingruber said only around six ares are buildable due to utilities, easements and a river setback of 100 feet. Stoneleigh could have built 50 feet closer to the river but Swingruber said the city’s 2040 plan will change the setback to 100 feet and he wanted to respect that.
The current owner of the land, St. Paul River Walk LLC, is behind on his taxes by $342,000. Swingruber said Swingruber’s acquisition of the property will include an allocation to pay that debt off, avoiding a forfeiture of the land.
Pending approvals, Swingruber hopes to close on the land in mid July and break ground by Oct. 1. Construction should take 18 to 20 months, which would put an opening in the first quarter of 2021.
This will be Stoneleigh’s first Minnesota project. The company manages 11 apartment communities and has three more under construction, plus five in development. Those apartment projects operate under the company’s property management brand, Waterford Residential.
BKV Group is the architect on the project
Apartments pitched for Island Station site
Finance and Commerce | William Morris | May 14, 2019
The onetime coal-burning plant at 380 Randolph Ave. was built in the 1920s but closed down in 1973. St. Paul River Walk LLC, an ownership group tied to Arizona businessman
Robert Graham, bought the 10-acre riverfront property in 2014 and tore down the power plant, with plans by local developer Jim Lavalle to build apartments, offices and some public
space on the site. By 2017, though, that project had fizzled.
Now a Chicago-area developer thinks it has the right plan for the site. Barrington, Illinoisbased Stoneleigh Cos. and its affiliate Waterford Residential have approached the city with
plans to build 240 to 250 market-rate apartments on the site. The $58 million Waterford Bay project goes before the city’s zoning committee May 23 to obtain a conditional use permit
for height, setbacks and other requests.
Key to Stoneleigh’s vision for the project is the location, vice president of development Ryan Swingruber said in an interview. The property is on the north bank of the Mississippi River,
just east of Shepard Road. The land to either side, including a peninsula creating a small river inlet to the east, is owned by Xcel Energy.
Stoneleigh hopes to tap into the existing bike and walking trails along Randolph and connect them to the river, and is in talks with Xcel to extend those connections onto the utility’s land, possibly even including a new kayak landing on the river inlet.
“Obviously we are building apartments, but we are cognizant of the surrounding area,” Swingruber said. “We’re hoping to create a public and private connection through our property to allow public access to the river and extending the biking and walking paths.”
Stoneleigh has had the land under contract since November, Swingruber said, and hopes to get the needed city approvals to close on the site in July. The timing is important because the property is slated for forfeiture to the state in August due to unpaid taxes of more than $342,000, according to Ramsey County records. Stoneleigh plans to remedy that during closing and hopes to begin remediating coal ash and other contaminants on the site before winter.
Golden Valley-based Benson-Orth is on deck as the contractor. Plans prepared by Minneapolis-based BKV Group depict a four-story building facing Randolph, stepped down to three stories facing the river. Parking and other amenity space would occupy a first-floor podium. Floors two, three and four would offer a unit mix heavily weighted toward studio, micro and smaller one-bedroom apartments, Swingruber said, with the goal to offer rents in the high $1,400s or low $1,500s.
In addition to the natural amenities and central location between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the project has several big attractions, Swingruber said. One is the site’s location in an opportunity zone, a designation created in the 2017 federal tax law that offers investment incentives for development projects in low income communities. The second is a generally hot housing market with considerable unmet demand in St. Paul and the surrounding cities.
A third bonus is that St. Paul’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan update, which has yet to be ratified, is expected to impose new restrictions on development for at least a portion of the city’s riverfront, Swingruber said.
“We like the site due to the fact there’s going to be a limited amount of sites along the river. The  plan is going to be revised to limit building along the river,” he said. “I look at the site as an opportunity to be one of the last to build something that’ll be increasingly more difficult.”
Swingruber noted, however, that Stoneleigh has worked with other stakeholders to respect the spirit of the proposed 2040 Plan changes. After conversations with the Friends of the Mississippi River, Stoneleigh agreed to a 100-foot waterfront setback rather than the 50-foot setback required under current code.
“We haven’t been greedy either in the number of units we want to do,” he said. “Current zoning affords us the opportunity to build up to 375.”
In March, the district council, West 7th/Fort Road Federation, voted to support the project at its proposed height, although board members noted in their letter to the city Planning Commission their concern about the district’s need for affordable housing. Still, the council wasn’t about to turn away a large market-rate project, federation Board President Dana DeMaster said in an interview.
“For us, a lot of the discussion in terms of the positives was increasing the number of housing units. There’s a shortage city- and metro-wide of housing units, and especially rental apartments,” she said. “Also right now, there’s no public access to that part of the river, so this will increase accessibility for people.”
Swingruber said Stoneleigh has spent more than eight months working with the district council and other stakeholders to ensure the project, the company’s first in Minnesota, will be a success.
“We’ve spent an incredible amount of time making sure we’re cognizant of everyone’s concerns and wants,” he said.