The vacant Sears building and parking lot in St. Paul photographed on Thursday, June 8, 2023. The property was recently sold. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

A vision is beginning to emerge for St. Paul’s 60-year-old former Sears building, which has sat unused for almost five years just blocks from Minnesota’s State Capitol.

Revelation of the plan for multipurpose use of the Rice Street property is the latest in a flurry of transactions over the past four months.

Most recently, the 17-acre property was sold twice in the span of a month. In mid-May, Pacifica St. Paul bought it for about $7 million from Seritage SRC Finance, which had owned it since about 2018. Less than a month later, Pacifica sold it to Asian Media Access, a partner in the initial sale, for $8.2 million.

Now the new owner, a Minneapolis nonprofit, is opening up about the purchase.

“Everyone is so urgent to see that site live,” said Ange Hwang, executive director of Asian Media Access.

Everyone is so urgent to see that site live.

Ange Hwang of Asian Media Access, which bought the former Sears site

For decades, the old 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 this year’s first purchase. He told Sahan Journal in June that Hwang and her organization decided to buy the property at the “last hour.”

Nguyen, who was involved with the Asia Mall development 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 in June. 

The former Sears building is bigger than the Asia Mall property at more than 180,000 square feet, according to Asian Media Access.

It’s a two-story building with a parking lot with more than one thousand stalls. The first floor holds 114,000 square feet, the second floor more than 72,000 square feet.

For months following Asian Media Access’s purchase, Hwang was quiet about the building’s possible future. But she’s now revealed that it will be renovated to have a multi-purpose operation. 

On Sunday evening, Asian Media Access hosted a meeting at Edina’s Asia Mall to talk about what might be included in the renovated building.

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 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 timeline for the project is two years, Hwang said. While the building is paid off, a loan will be needed for renovation, she said. One is expected to be finalized soon.

The renovation project is likely to cost Asian Media Access and any partners around $7 million, according to Hwang.

That, plus the building’s sale cost, would add up to more than $15 million spent to get people back to 425 Rice Street.

Challenges lie ahead

For Asian Media Access, one challenge might be the second floor. One idea for that floor is a sports complex, but a structural engineer would have to determine the viability of that idea, Hwang said.

She told those present Sunday evening that the project’s timeline is “aggressive.” Lots adjacent to the building that are part of the site would most likely be sold for mixed-use or housing developments.

Another hurdle might be the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, which must approve any redevelopment in the area around the State Capitol. That board put a plan by former owner Seritage to redevelop the lot into an “urban village mix” on pause.

The board may still want to split the property up, Hwang said, adding that she hopes Asian Media Access’s plans for the future of the lot align with the board’s.

A representative of the planning board was not immediately available for comment Monday.

*Correction (August 31, 2023): This story has been changed to note that the Asian Mall is located in Eden Prairie, not Edina.

Alfonzo Galvan is a reporter for Sahan Journal, covering work, labor, small business, and entrepreneurship. Before joining Sahan Journal, he covered breaking news and immigrant communities in South Dakota,...