ST. PAUL, Minn. — The day Eric Swanson sought a permit to build out his first Minnesota coin-op, officials hinted the property might get caught up in a future redevelopment project. When a condemnation letter arrived five years later, the action didn’t exactly come as a complete surprise. But what was totally unexpected was the faith he placed in a former house of prayer to rebuild.
Finding a new home in the Twin Cities metroplex—a market the veteran owner describes as “pretty well built-out”—wasn’t as easy as throwing a dart at a map. With a drop-dead date looming to utilize a quarter-million dollars in compensation funds, the stakes grew each passing day.
“I wanted to be in an area where there weren’t a lot of laundries around,” Swanson says. “I wanted to find a niche spot where I could incorporate an office with the laundry.”
The seasoned general contractor was also a real estate licensee and relied on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) for leads. After a couple of potential sites fell through, he found himself drawn to an unorthodox St. Paul property with an Orthodox history.
The building had most recently served as a Chabad-Lubavitch center, where faithful followers assembled for Judaic lectures, religious study and community events. A place of Torah service was being eyed for self-service.
The structure, set into a slope on the north side of a busy stretch of 7th Street between St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood and the banks of the Mississippi River, boasted similar traffic counts as Swanson’s former Brooklyn Park laundry, but that’s where the similarities ended.
Reaching the coin-op’s parking lot and main entry from the arterial requires patrons to turn off the roadway and traverse uphill along a side street.
With vehicles either accelerating or decelerating as speed limits change from 30 to 50 miles per hour along that portion of 7th, exiting the busy thoroughfare, Swanson maintains, enhances safety for both drivers pulling in and for those already parked in the lot pushing carts. Nevertheless, he admits the location was a roll of the dice.
“It was a concern, but I felt that the parking lot being off of a side street is a benefit,” Swanson says. “Once people find you the first time, then they’ll know how to get back in there the second time.”
When he put in his offer on the property, Swanson was at the 14-month point of his search.
“I started to feel pressure because, after 18 months, if you don’t rebuild, you lose all the money that’s allocated toward rebuilding.” At stake was enough money to bring the property up to snuff and ready for equipment hook-up.
The rabbi was a motivated seller, Swanson says. A deal was struck after City Hall gave him a green light on zoning and parking, and the local council member backed the project.
While the city was on board, others took exception as the remodel commenced.
“There were some neighbors who were not receptive to having a laundry,” the operator recalls of those voicing concerns over who the new business would attract.
Swanson says he allayed such fears with a gentle reminder of a laundry’s role and those who provide the service to the public.
“Clean clothes is a basic human right,” he recalls telling inquisitive neighbors. “We want to run a clean, decent operation. We’re not going to let just anyone come in here and ruin the property.”
Before possession of the premises had transferred, the remnants of its sacred past had been removed, leaving behind walls and a low-hanging ceiling. Demolishing partitions and exposing the deck gave iWash Express Wash & Dry both ample space underfoot and overhead.
BATHED IN NATURAL LIGHT, GREAT SIGHT LINES
Large glass panes running along the street-side building’s face were added to bathe the premises with natural light and afford great sight lines to autos whizzing by below.
From painting the bar joists and deck to running mechanicals and laying a new slab, Swanson oversaw the building’s transformation from the site of Torah study to a textbook example of space utilization.
The store layout was constrained by structural elements that could not be altered. Four interior columns supported the roof, and one-third of the building had a basement. Code compliance dictated that dryer exhaust be vented a minimum of 10 feet from the property line. Swanson worked around the impediments while keeping an eye trained on maximizing throughput.
In Thursday’s conclusion: The importance of “owning the dirt”