Celebrating Historic Reuse Tax Credits in Saint Paul

Photo Courtesy of Andrew Wald
I recently struck up a conversation with a stranger on the bus and at some point, commented casually that although I only recently started getting to know St. Paul, I have found downtown St. Paul to be “a really cool place with a lot going on.” My conversation partner—the same age as me, 24, and a resident of “really cool” and “lots-going-on” Uptown—responded with a politely incredulous are-you-serious eyebrow raise, effectively severing that particular thread of discussion. 

A stout defense of my new-found admiration for the neighborhoods of St. Paul eluded me on that particular afternoon, but nevertheless, my belief that St. Paul, too, harbors healthy elements of coolness and lots-going-on-ness remained strong. On Saturday, April 30, 2011, that feeling was confirmed. The year’s first installment of the PAM-o-rama tour series took us lucky participants to three sites in St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood—the Tilsner and neighboring Northern Warehouse Buildings and the Renaissance Box—as well as the vacant Schmidt’s Brewery on West 7th Street. The four sites are in different phases of maturity—completed, under construction, and undeveloped—but, in keeping with the theme of the tour, are all clear examples of federal and state historic tax credits at work. In each case, tax credits have provided investors and developers with a much-needed financial boost to tackle potentially tricky projects in historic buildings.

Photo Courtesy of Andrew Wald

The Tilsner Building and Northern Warehouse, neighboring brick warehouse blocks each over 100 years old, were the two completed projects on the tour. Both buildings were developed by Artspace and house vibrant artist cooperatives, complete with ample exhibition space, fantastic live-work studios, and a healthy mix of ground-level businesses. These steadfast timber and masonry monuments symbolize both the proud industrial heritage of Lowertown and its current revival as a colorful, energetic neighborhood. These two projects, funded in part by tax credits, are a fine display of the super rad possibilities of adaptive reuse. 

Renaissance Box—the former O’Donnell Shoe Factory—is an exciting work in progress. Purchased by local nonprofit developer Aeon, the once-vacant 1914 building is undergoing an impressive rehabilitation project that aims to create 70 high-quality low-income housing units, achieve LEED Gold status and preserve the historic integrity of the structure. The combination of addressing Lowertown’s need for quality affordable housing while also protecting its built heritage and the natural environment is a triple win that should set a new standard for responsible and conscientious urban development.

Our final stop was two miles upstream from Lowertown, at the vacant Schmidt Brewery. Walking around the bottling house and rathskeller, I could understand the many challenges Schmidt’s has posed to would-be developers. However, the site’s immense potential was also clear, and with the help of historic preservation tax credits, a new life for Schmidt’s seems likelier than ever. I’m sure that there are countless other forgotten or neglected historic treasures that, like Schmidt Brewery, are just waiting for that extra nudge—a shot of cash, a concerned neighborhood group, a creative developer, an ambitious designer—to burst back into the limelight.

Photo Courtesy of Andrew Wald

I’ve come to realize that St. Paul appeals to me in large part because of its potential energy—the possibility that, with the right touch, its neighborhoods could really start to blossom into something fabulous and mega-sweet, much like Lowertown and West 7th are doing right now. Okay, sure, people might still complain about downtown going dark and tumbleweedy after five, but if what I saw on Saturday’s tour was any indication, there are plenty of neighborhoods that are starting to tumble like snowballs from the Summit of a Grand mountain (oh yes I did), gathering momentum, speed, attention, buzz, coolness, lots-going-on-ness, launching off a huge jump and arcing across the sky in a face-melting display of mega-blinding awesomeness to a chorus of oohs and ahhs from the people below… but I digress. In any case, perhaps Minnesota’s new State Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit is just the push we need to get more of St. Paul’s snowballs rolling and achieving their full potential.

Andrew Wald is an architecture student and intern with PAM and Minnesota Main Street.

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