After Urban Organics, one of the former Hamm’s Brewery complex’s major occupants shut down, Rob Clapp bought the building, shown here in St. Paul on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. Clapp, one of the founders of Can Can Wonderland, has purchased or is in talks to develop multiple buildings at the Hamm’s complex. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)
TwinCities.com – Tad Vezner
The chief executive of St. Paul’s Can Can Wonderland has gone crazy for Hamm’s.
So much so that he wants to develop every single non-occupied building in the labyrinthine brewery complex that has sat half-vacant on the city’s East Side for decades.
He’s bought a few. And as for the rest — including every building facing the street — it’s Rob Clapp’s vision to create a sprawling, skyline-defying landscape for artists to work and play. An arts and entertainment complex with slides, rides, a Ferris wheel and high-riding zip line — from the tip of the tallest smokestack — among interactive exhibits to attract visitors from across the state.
“I’ve had a love affair with this building for a decade,” Clapp said. “I refer to it as beautiful chaos. The most crazy, dilapidated chaos, but there’s a beauty beneath.”
The insides of those decades-old, boarded-up brick megaliths have varying floor levels. Holes in those floors. Holes in the ceilings.
“Most people are intimidated, but for me, that’s opportunity. You could just get lost in there,” he said.
Anyone who’s been in Can Can has some idea of Clapp’s unorthodox vision.
He’s met informally with council members, and has put forth his proposal — a project he foresees taking 10 years — to the city’s planning and economic-development department. It’s still quite early in the whole process: details like funding or governmental partnerships haven’t been revealed, if they’re being discussed with any depth at all.
Still, it isn’t just talk: Clapp and his backers have already put money in. “I wouldn’t have bought that building if not for that,” Clapp said, nodding at one of the brick megaliths that dominate the skyline of one of St. Paul’s poorest neighborhoods.
Actually, Clapp and his partners — California-based Orton Development, the same ones that own the building Can Can is in — have already bought two buildings in the Hamm’s complex. And the first has seemingly little to do with art … though Clapp believes it does.
“Making food definitely falls under that creative umbrella,” Clapp said.
It’s the old Urban Organics site — a 56,000-square-foot, five-story space that used to be the Hamm’s Brewery stockhouse — which went out of business in May.
Clapp and his partners bought the building in July for $550,000, and he hopes to get it running, doing pretty much the same thing, by early next year.
The former owners grew greens in addition to operating a tilapia fish farm; all the equipment is still there.
Clapp said he wants to grow herbs and rices and tilapia and striped bass, and possibly mushrooms as well.
He’s partnered with Zach Robinson, executive director of Minneapolis-based Spark-Y, a nonprofit that teaches urban youths organic farming.
When asked why he could make it work where the previous owners hadn’t, Clapp said, “They were only occupying one floor. Had they been able to expand into additional floors, they would have been profitable.”
But at the same time, he noted the owners expanded to the Schmidt brewery site, and, “Basically, they scaled way too fast and weren’t able to give it the time to grow organically, no pun intended. Had they incrementally expanded it, instead of trying to fill 100,000 (square feet) all in one shot, it could’ve worked.”
But it’s really the rest of the Hamm’s complex where Clapp sees his arts complex flourishing.
Orton Development states in online literature that they prefer working with “large‐scale, highly challenging rehabilitation and redevelopment projects,” preferably over 100,000 square feet in size.
The group has entered into a purchasing agreement with the Gelb family for the complex’s technically tallest building: the old Powerhouse, with its high, singular smokestack rising above the complex’s western edge.
Clapp, who is also a real estate broker, wants to convert it into artist work studios. Which would require adding internal floors to the largely open, 15,000-square-foot space, which also sinks more than 30 feet below ground.
The site is in its early stages of rehab: The Metropolitan Council approved a $36,200 contamination investigation of the building, which just wrapped up. There are large boilers that need to abated, and Clapp will turn to various governmental entities to apply for cleanup dollars.
OPEN PLAYING FIELD
But the remaining 200,000 square feet — the massive city-owned buildings directly south of Minnehaha Avenue that have yet to secure any tenants — are what the group is focusing on next.
That’s not including the buildings that house the complex’s two existing businesses: St. Paul Brewing, a microbrewery selling growlers of craft beers, and the 11 Wells whiskey distillery. Neither of those buildings, farthest from the street, are included in the plan.
And there’s a separate, 30,000-square-foot grain drier, eyed last year by a Hawaii-based coffee roaster to use as a distribution hub, before they pulled out and went to Minneapolis instead.
Andy Hestness, the city’s project manager for the site, confirmed Clapp’s involvement in the buildings already bought but did not return a call late Thursday to comment about the overarching vision for the site.
Clapp originally said his team had “tentative developer status” on the site, but later said he’d spoken with Hestness, who told him the proposal needed some refining before such exclusive status could be awarded.
Multiple developers have toured the site, but its fairly unique character, layout and architecture have made it a difficult property to tackle. Housing developers haven’t bit, and the site’s “chopped-up” nature and non-standard floor plate makes it difficult for industrial or office space.
“There have been a number of fairly capable developers that came in there to look at it. Nobody has been able to figure it out,” said John Vaughn, former executive director of the East Side Neighborhood Development Co.
EAST SIDE ARTS SCENE
Clapp isn’t the first to eye the artist trend in the city’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood. While there’s certainly nothing of the scope Clapp envisions, artist space has popped up along Payne Avenue with, if not abundance, then increasing frequency.
In September, a pair of long-time East Siders opened artist in-residence studios in a former Payne Avenue linoleum store. Down the street, a former furniture store became two levels of galleries and studios. Another gallery is in the works by one of the co-founders of downtown St. Paul’s Amsterdam Bar.
As for the surrounding area, both Payne-Phalen and Dayton’s Bluff have seen a significant resurgence in the housing market in recent years. Some Realtors have noted one demographic in particular appears interested: Millennials, focusing on one of the few neighborhoods they can actually afford.
The prevalence of younger buyers caused some Realtors to dub the area the “hipster hood.”
With a restaurant revolution and now multiple arts spaces along Payne, Clapp sees the area as ripe for an even greater rebirth.
But he hopes to avoid a trend that has befallen other artist quarters across the city in recent years.
“Artists and creatives, they seek affordable places to live and then they improve it and they get displaced. There was an aggressive push-out of redevelopment in the northeast,” said Clapp, speaking of the area where he helped start Can Can. “Now we’re looking to create long-term affordability.”
How that would happen is not clear, but Clapp’s adherence to the artist mindset is. “There’s just so much artisans can create, wonderful experiences and emotions. … Having this large of a vessel for that, that is so cool, something you want to bring to your community.”
In 2017, Clapp’s Can Can Wonderland project transformed a subterranean 19,000-square-foot space in the former American Can building into a bizarrely creative mini-golf course — created in collaboration with local artists — along with multiple bars and a vintage arcade.