St. Paul ‘outsider’ wants to reshape city’s downtown


Great article in the Dec. 4 Pioneer Press on the mysterious Dean D. Johnson, the St. Paul boy who grew up in the Dayton’s Bluff and Payne-Phalen neighborhoods, graduated from Hamline University and then went to Europe. He made a lot of money and now fashions himself a developer. And get this — he loves talented architects.

Sooch on developer Dean D. Johnson
St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Joe Soucheray muses on Dean D. Johnson, the Brussels-based developer the paper dubbed as “mysterious” on Monday. Johnson, as has been noted here and here in recent days, has big plans for revitalizing the city’s downtown and hiring top-notch architecture talent to do it.

Sooch, like many observers, is excited by the prospect of a man with deep pockets, vision and is a hometown boy. “Man alive, let’s go, here,” writes Sourcheray. But the columnist also cautions that St. Paul has seen its share of developers who “dazzled us with their sharply cut suits and inflections of various European accents.”

Johnson proposes two big changes for downtown St. Paul. He’s one of two developers that wants to remake the Ramsey County Jail site overlooking the Misssissippi River into condos, but he’s hired Harvard Huniversity Professor Toshiko Mori as his architect. His firm — Wingfield Corp. N.V. of Brussels, Belgium — has also hired London architect David Adjaye to design a 40-story hotel/office/condo project called Wabasha Tower on a vacant lot across the street from Macy’s, also in downtown St. Paul.

Let’s see. The guy has money (his firm already owns the land for the proposed hotel/office/condo project). He’s local (in a way). And he hires architects unafraid of risk taking. So what’s the problem?

“What I say is, ‘Why don’t you get one project gong and then start talking about the others?” says Dave Thune, St. Paul council member.

Says John Manillo of the CapitolRiver Council, “He’s going around buying [land] and nobody knows the guy, and he hasn’t done anything yet.”

Two other quick points: Andrew Baluveldt, design director at the Walker Art Center, describes the hotel/office/condo skyscraper designed by Adjaye this way: “If you took a regular rectangular building and put two slices into it and jogged out the middle section — it’s kind of a feat.” You can watch Adjaye’s presenation at Walker Channel, the museum’s source for archived video. He shows slides of the St. Paul design near the end of the presentation.

And finally, Dean J. Johnson loves his hometown. He says its downtown is much more similar to NYC than that city across the river. “It feels much more like TriBeCa or SoHo than anything in Minneapolis.”