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Galtier Plaza

Galtier Plaza, located in the Lowertown historic district of St. Paul, Minnesota, provides space for working, living, eating, and recreating in a self-contained project on one square city block.

Features include 365 apartments, 121 luxury condominiums, 16 townhomes, a YMCA facility, of retail and restaurant space, of office space, and an underground parking garage for 800 cars.

As for ambiance, Galtier owes more to Riverplace, the mixed-use complex along the Minneapolis riverfront also spearheaded by local developer Robert Boisclair of the Boisclair Corporation. These two major urban developments share a certain glitzy spirit, and an eclectic architectural image. Both attempt in their approximately million square feet to create a new attraction to the city by accumulating a critical mass of uses.

History

At that time the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation, a non-profit coordinator of development in St. Paul's historic warehouse district, had sought to fill Block 40 for some three years. The site on Mears Park just east of the downtown business district represented the keystone in Lowertown's revitalization, and Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation's executive director Weiming Lu had patiently wooed developers with the concept of a mixed-use development and one eagar tenant, the downtown YMCA, in hand. "We wanted to carve something out of a concrete jungle to get people to come back to the city," says Lu.

Efforts to put together a project reusing existing properties on the block had fallen through, as had a modest proposal for housing and service retail by the Carley Capital Group of Madison, Wisconsin. The city had already secured an Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) from the federal government for the Carley development, and called for new developers with a three month deadline looming. Boisclair and Omni Venture, Ltd. the developers of Minneapolis' International Market Square, responded with a proposal of considerably more ambition. With the UDAG in hand, potential for tax-exempt financing, and a loan from Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation, Robert Boisclair took on the development while Riverplace was barely underway.

Miller Hanson Westerbeck Bell's selection as architects for the project was almost a foregone conclusion. Not only had they done massing studies of Block 40 for the Lowertown Coproration to help entice developers, bu they had a history of designing housing for Boisclair which included Lakepoint Tower and the Falls and Pinnacle at Riverplace.

Galtier Plaza is named after Father Lucien Galtier, a Roman Catholic priest who has historical involvement with the founding of the city of St. Paul.

Design

But if securing the assignment was easy, executing it was not. Designing a project of such architectural, legal, and financial complexity on one square city block in a sensitive historic area is one of the toughest challenges an architect ever faces. The conflicting demands of a developer convinced of his understanding of the marketplace and a nonprofit corporation committed to preserving the historic integrity of Lowertown had to be compromised under the pressure of the fast track schedule required by the UDAG. In the meantime, the economic climate was swinging from inflation to recession.

Galtier, in fact, was not designed once, but dozens of times. Construction was begun with minimal architectural plans and minimal budgets. Decisions were made when they had to be made, or sometimes afterwards. Wild swings in the economy changed the project's mix while construction was underway. "Originally we had more office space," says Mike Conlin, project manager with the Boisclair Corporation, "but the office market sagged, so we redesigned to build more rental housing within the same total volume. We also reversed the balance between condos and apartments. All this was happening while they were pouring columns for the parking ramps."

The location and form of the architectural elements was the subject of intense negotiation between the developer, the city and Lowertown Corporation. In addition, the financial partnerships involved in the project had to be expressed architecturally so that ownership of the complex could be physically divided. "There are baroque vertical relationships," says Steve Townsend of St. Paul's planning and economic development department, "that almost defy description."

The massing of the several elements on the block was the most important. The need to have a six-story base along the street front to maintain the cornice of the surrounding six-story buildings was dictated by historic and design considerations. The decision to fill out the block to the maximum met economic goals.

From those givens, it was a long and tortuous route to a final design.

The housing, originally proposed as one corner tower cascading to the base, was instead split between two towers. The taller one, the Jackson Tower, falls just under Federal Aviation Administration limits at . The lower one, the Sibley Tower, is located back of the Mears Park facade to lessen its impact.

The atrium, which Lowertown saw as a soft form -- perhaps a barrel vault -- beginning at the building line, became instead a gabled roof extruded beyond the building facade and stepping back to its seven-story peak. The developer wanted it to be wide. It was narrowed to 90.

The skyway linking Galtier Plaza and the Farm Credit Bank toward downtown was proposed as a "festive" design with gabled peaks, lots of glass, and cream and red aluminum trim to match Galtier's. Lowertown's Weiming Lu and the city planning staff stood fast for the standard Vierendeel truss and bronze aluminum. After three years and countless discussions, only a meeting in the city council chambers brought a compromise. The skyway has more glass than most, gabled skylights and cream-colored trim, but uses the standard truss.

Some of the decisions still rankle Weiming Lu, who is nationally known for his expertise on blending old and new designs. "All the parts of the project did not achieve the level of excellence we would like. Interior details could be handled better. The tops of the towers are not so good. I am not convinced that the changes in the typical skyway design were worth it.

"But as a whole, I'm very satisfied. It succeeds in relating to the historic district. The massing of the towers was handled as well as could be. And, with another developer, we might not have had the level of amenities we have. There is a real need for this project and it will ultimately be a success."

Galtier Plaza opened in 1986, while yet incomplete. The tile was still drying in the atrium, only a third of the shops were open, the housing towers weren't closed in, and the skyway link to downtown was unfinished. "It's like describing the first year in the life of a premature baby," says project manager Conlin.

Financial Difficulties

The project cost at least $140 million to build (not including the YMCA and other portions). Various parts of the project were funded separately: the rental apartments were funded by bonds sold through the Port Authority to private institutional investors; the YMCA was on a separate parcel; and much of the other private funding came from investors as equity and from Chemical Bank as a loan.

The project was a very large undertaking for any developer and was apparently more than its developer could handle. There were problems with construction, cost overruns, inadequate financial resources, high interest rates, delays, and strategic errors made in market analysis and design (for example, the retail areas were targeted toward upscale shops which require a greater critical mass, and the food court was located above the main circulation paths rather than in its current more accessible location).

As the project was delayed, it began to founder, and soon found itself having difficulty attracting new tenants. Eventually, private investors are said to have lost about $42 to $45 million in equity and Chemical Bank is said to have lost about $90 million on their loan. It is unclear how much public money may have been lost. The Port Authority took over the rental apartments after the default on that part of the project -- for which they had loaned $32 million and which would have cost about $36 million.

Excluding the YMCA, rental housing, and the energy plant, the balance of the project (retail, offices, condos, and the parking garage) was sold in 1989 to a Canadian investor for (reportedly) in the range of $10 to $12 million. This transaction took place immediately before the recession and steep decline in property values began.

His strategy was to aggressively market the condos, and to "reposition" the retail space from the regional high end target and toward services for the neighborhood and downtown. He relocated the food court to the ground level.

However, Henry Zaidan left the Galtier Plaza project in 1992, and in 1996 the building was foreclosed upon and was handed off yet again to an investor that turned around and sold it to, Martin Wasmer. Wasmer invested in an extensive remodeling project and decreased the size of the retail space and increased office space. The mall now contains several restaurants, a convenience store, a conference facility, and a credit union. Retail and office space are about 85% occupied.

From the point of view of its impact on the area, the project now appears to be successful. It brings residents, office workers, students and shoppers to Lowertown and contributes substantial property taxes (over $1 million per year) and sales taxes to the city. By most reckonings, however, this would not be a sufficient return to justify the public investment.

In an interesting assessment of the trade-offs between image and economics, an economist was brought in to shed light upon the balance between the projects' likely ability to succeed financially and the perceived benefits of having a large, visible project (with tall towers) from the point of view of the city's decision makers. The economist maintains that the symbolic values appeared to have overcome financial considerations, in the sense that there was not a clear justification for a project of this scale in terms of demonstrated market demand. The city and the developer had to believe, in effect, that the large-scale image would supposedly contribute to creating its own demand and would change the market. The history of the project is too complex to argue that its (temporary) failures prove that this line of reasoning could have been shown at the time to be incorrect and the LRC argues that it did attract other investments that might not otherwise have been made.

Today

Over the years, the building has seen quite erratic success, first as a shopping mall, then as an entertainment center, and currently is most notably occupied by a private Preparatory academy, independent technology companies, an event and presentation facility (carved out of the old movie theaters), a restaurant, and a food court. The most prominent member of Galtier Plaza is the new LoTo concept restaurant which may be considered an additional upscale food court for the complex, including a bar, wine tasting, café, bakery, deli, and pizza oven.

In the summer of 2008 a few new changes for Galtier Plaza were announced. Among them include the re-opening of the Galtier Cinema 4, set for this fall or winter, and St. Paul Preporatory School moving in to the building.

The building arguably set the standard for mixed use concepts with its new design that differed from the national mixed use trend. It also won the award for the first place design award excellence from Development Design Group, First Place from National Mall Monitor Center's of Excellence, and Signs of the Times award for electric sign graphics.

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