Groundbreaking held for Downtown East development

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May 13, 2014
By: Ben Johnson
The people behind the Downtown East development shovel a celebratory scoop of dirt
Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson
After all the negotiation and controversy, construction is moving full steam ahead at site of transformative redevelopment project

Current and former civic leaders, development and banking moguls and a horde of local media members got together earlier today for a groundbreaking ceremony celebrating one of the largest, most expensive and controversial redevelopment projects in city history.

The Downtown East development spans five blocks previously owned by the Star Tribune, next-door to the new Vikings stadium. When the $400 million project is completed in 2016, it will house 5,000 Wells-Fargo Bank employees in two 18-story office towers, 193 apartments in several low-rise buildings, a 2.3-acre park and a six-level parking ramp.

Ryan Cos., the developer behind the behemoth project, is also building a 27-story building on top of the parking ramp. That high-rise will stack a 150-room hotel underneath a 200-unit apartment building.

“This is historic,” said Pat Ryan, president and CEO of Ryan Cos., speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony underneath a white tent on an overcast, chilly morning. “I look forward to one day reading a case study on this project because I think this will be considered one of the most transformational public-private partnerships in the country.”

That partnership, spearheaded by former Mayor R.T. Rybak, brought together one of Minnesota’s most prolific developers, its largest newspaper and its second-largest employer.

Rybak first approached the parties in fall 2012 and decided not to run for a fourth term as mayor shortly thereafter. He spent much of his remaining time in office coordinating weekly meetings to iron out an agreement that would redevelop the Star Tribune’s five blighted blocks – two old, monolithic buildings and three surface parking lots – sitting sadly near the downtown core.

“I’m looking at [city attorney] Susan Segal, who was sitting in those meetings, man,  those were tough meetings, weren’t they?” said Rybak in a speech at the groundbreaking. “But the fact is every single time we came to an obstacle, we came back to the table. We didn’t give up, we respected each other, and we got a huge thing done.”

One of those obstacles was a last-second lawsuit filed by former City Council President Paul Ostrow and 2013 mayoral candidates Stephanie Woodruff and Dan Cohen.

Ostrow, an assistant attorney for Anoka County, presented a five-point argument in court two weeks before the deal’s Dec. 27 closing date detailing how he believed it skirted existing city and state laws.

Ostrow and company dropped the lawsuit when a judge dismissed most of their suit and required them to put up a $10 million surety bond to appeal.

The Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) also argued for the Star Tribune’s 1919 headquarters to be preserved. The HPC denied a demolition request, which City Council later overruled.

Demolition work has been underway for several months now. One of the Star Tribune’s buildings, the Freeman Building at 329 Portland Ave., has been completely demolished.

One of the parking lots has been torn up and is now the home to a giant hole that will someday hold one of the Wells-Fargo office towers. Construction will continue until an estimated spring 2016 opening.