Vacant Sears Parcel in St. Paul Being planned as an Asian Community Hub

The former Sears department store building in St. Paul.

By Greg Hugh

Following the acquisition of the Sears site last month, the developers have been busy putting together their vision as to how they plan to develop the parcel and this article is based on their press release other articles issued by various media organizations.

Led by Asian Media Access, collaborating with Asian American Business Resilience Network (AABRN); they are honored to announce the ownership, and leading the repurposing and redevelopment of the former Sears site in St. Paul. Working with the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board (CAAPB) and the City of St. Paul, they envision the creation of a community hub to serve a diverse set of purposes, including residential, commercial, cultural, educational, and artistic—creating such a vibrant and unique atmosphere to attract locals and distant visitors alike, encouraging investment and the revitalization of a historically impoverished neighborhood.

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 month 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.

AABRN’s current plans include:

  A. An Innovation Hub

  • a sports and digital arts focused charter school
  • a wellness center for health modalities research, business developments, IT and food enterprise training
  • an event center, food court, and 3D theme park for entrepreneurs to experiment
  • a Zen garden for green space
  • a kids’ zone for childcare needs

  B. A Complementary Housing Development Plan

With the belief that traditional and modern technologies can support and enhance our day-to-day lives, AABRN plans to enhance wellness and culture ecosystem to blend with artistic creations through the use of novel technologies, encouraging the enterprising spirits of entrepreneurs in lifestyle medicines and entertainment. Services like business development and IT skills-building can help our entrepreneurs turn their visions into realities, as well as for the artists to create virtual realities to inspire and to entertain. These activities will support our very own charter school students to have access to all the resources and opportunities available to pursue career pathways, such as multimedia or sports therapy, etc.. As a true community hub, we look to create an environment that is welcoming to families, giving shape to our kids’ zone, an area designed to engage with child-friendly activities under supervision, in order to better suit the needs of visiting and employed parents, as well as residents from our housing developments (ex. senior condos and affordable housings) to enjoy services and complete the ecosystem.

AABRN ultimately plans to redevelop the former Sears site to become a World Cultural Heritage Corridor to be guided with twin visions of community and innovation, as one cannot exist without the other. We believe that innovation cannot happen in a vacuum, that community enhances the contents and transforms the shape of innovation, and that innovation should continuously work to improve the conditions not just of the individual, but of the community as a whole. This site could become such a space, providing resources and opportunities to adults and youth alike, in hopes of growing a vibrant hub that will brighten the futures of the surrounding areas and of those who come through. AABRN welcomes area residents and interested parties to join our planning process. Please contact us at [email protected] or 612-376-7715.

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