Hafner lot, long empty, on market

Once home to the popular bowling alley and shopping complex Hafner’s, 1590 White Bear Ave. has been bare since 2002 when the building was razed. Now, the lot is being marketed in hopes of attracting a developer to build retail or housing. (Patrick Larkin/Review)
Once home to the popular bowling alley and shopping complex Hafner’s, 1590 White Bear Ave. has been bare since 2002 when the building was razed. Now, the lot is being marketed in hopes of attracting a developer to build retail or housing. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

NENDC hoping flea market, food trucks will draw attention to the spot

Just south of the border with Maplewood, a bare and disheveled piece of pavement has sat empty for over a decade at 1590 White Bear Ave.

The lot once held a bustling shopping center emblematic of the strip mall format of the 1950's, called Hafner's. Hafner's was a pillar of the Hillcrest shopping area along White Bear Avenue, just south of Larpenteur Avenue and St. Paul's border with Maplewood.

Hafner's held a bowling alley, restaurant and lounge along with several other commercial entities including a barber and a chiropractor. It was a booming mall with parking and a gas station. But slowly, business faded, in part due to changing times, suburban shopping centers, freeways, and the like. It changed owners multiple times, and the building slowly fell into disrepair.

By the time St. Paul's Housing and Redvelopment Authority acquired the land in 2002, it was on its last legs. The city bought and demolished the place, and shored up the 2.18 acre lot for redevelopment.

Now for the first time since it was razed, the North East Neighborhood Development Company, which now manages the lot through its real estate brokerage,  Capitol Brokerage, put it on the market this spring, hoping to draw in a developer to the blank spot on White Bear Avenue.

It was first listed on March 17, and according to NENDC's Chuck Repke, it has attracted some modest amount of interest from developers, although nothing's solidified.

To keep the site active, NENDC is allowing it to be used by two food trucks — a taco truck and a deli truck — as well as a church, which will use the lot to hold flea markets.

Mixed use possibilities

Dave Gontarek, project manager in St. Paul's Planning and Economic Development department, said the place has been informally on the market since the HRA acquired the property more than a decade ago.

Through those years, he said they've heard some interest in the parcel, including a church group looking to build a restaurant, but the proposed uses didn't add up to enough density to satisfy Hillcrest's small area plan.

The price tag for the empty concrete lot is $1.3 million, and the purchase and development of the lot is subject to the St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority's approval.

"With that," Repke noted, "the price becomes flexible based on how enthused the city is.

"The more positive the benefit to the neighborhood, the more likely the city is to come down on the price."

Repke said he's pulling for a mixed use or commercial development — a smaller grocery store like Trader Joe's, or an apartment building with storefront retail on the main level.

However, for residential uses to be approved, the site would need signifigant cleanup — there used to be a Clark gas station in the front portion of the lot, which had leaky gas tanks. Those old wells would need to be removed, and soil remediation would likely be needed.

'Heck of an enterprise'

Repke said that brining in an anchor building to the dated shopping district would be a good way to keep the place viable.

Though vacancy rates in the commercial buildings along the corridor are low, it takes a significant amount of time to find new tenants when one moves out, he said.

The goal would be to have a store with some draw, that would make the whole corridor more active, so prospective tenants were approaching the building owners, rather than the other way around.

"I want people to see it as a retail site," Repke said. "I figured over the course of the summer we would fill it up with things happening and draw a little attention to it."

"There's 19,000 cars going past that property every day," he added. "That ought to be enough customers for almost anybody to figure out how to make a buck."

Gary Unger, who lives just a few blocks from the site, used to pump gas at the gas station in front of Hafner's, and also used to set pins at the lanes.

He can recall Hafner's in it's full glory.

"It was a heck of an enterprise," he said, adding that the place was spick and span.

"It was the cleanest place you've ever seen in your life... the sanitaition around there, it was second to none."

With the idea of a new development coming to the spot, he said he'd like to see a destination store go in.

While White Bear Avenue was once a happening commercial strip; it's now a bit more off the beaten path, he said. He pointed out that as the suburbs flared out, White Bear Avenue connected to the Maplewood Mall, as well as the high-speed roadways Minnesota 36 and Interstate 694, which connect to various suburban shopping facilities, leaving the once bustling commercial corridor as just a connector.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.


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