St Paul takes step toward historic preservation of Island power plant

The St Paul City Council has voted unanimously in favor of local historic designation for the Saint Paul Gas Light Company Island Station. The ordinance is set for consideration for final adoption July 17.

At a public hearing Wednesday, nearby residents said the industrial building, unused since 1973, could be a valuable access point to the river. They said it could be turned into a museum, an arena, a place for climbing, or kayak rentals. But the building owner, Paul Breckner of Breckner Riverfront Development, said the building is deteriorating and dangerous, as well as a magnet for criminal behavior. He said he’s considered many options for the former power plant but none worked for the site.

“I’ve tried for years to come up with an idea, and we just don’t have any,” Breckner said. “What would we gain by trying to preserve this thing?”

Constructed in the 1920s, the station was the first power plant in the Twin Cities area with pulverized coal technology. The multi-story building adjoins a water tower and its 289-foot smokestack is easily visible on St. Paul’s riverfront. The area separating the island from the mainland has been filled in, mostly by pulverized coal, and its general boundaries run along Randolph Avenue, Shepard Road and the Mississippi River.

Local designation as a historic heritage site doesn’t necessarily mean protection for the empty power plant, according to St Paul preservation specialist Amy Spong. She said designation would mean any new permits for the property would have to be reviewed by the preservation commission, which would issue findings.

Breckner said his listed asking price for the property is $6 million, but it’s been assessed at $3.5 million, and he’s received a low-ball offer of $700,000 for the site. He showed the council pictures of holes in the building’s roof, cracks in its walls, and graffiti covering the inside walls.

But St Paul resident Richard Miller told the council the building’s deteriorating state shouldn’t deter them. He pointed to the successful conversion of an exploded flour mill into the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis.

“Where there is a will, there is a way,” he said. “If we want to do it, it’s completely possible.”