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Small Park, Huge Impact: Rondo's Commemorative Plaza Under Construction

Since the construction of Interstate 94 in the 1960s tore apart St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood and destroyed his childhood home, Marvin Anderson has worked to make sure the heart and spirit of Rondo lives on. As one of the co-founders of St. Paul’s annual Rondo Days, and a board director of Rondo Avenue, Inc., Anderson has made it his mission to help others remember and revive the spirit of Rondo. “Happiness is the ability to give back to your community and make your community better than when you found it. That’s the key to me. That’s the key to Rondo,” Anderson says.
 
Anderson is currently spearheading a project to bring the Rondo Commemorative Plaza to life. Located at 820 Concordia Avenue, the plaza is intended to facilitate reflection, connection, conversation and community. “It’s a living reminder of living in a village of Rondo, and it’s bursting to find creative expressions of old Rondo and new Rondo in a space that’s ours,” he explains.
 
The plaza, which celebrated its groundbreaking in October, will be a pocket park located in a lot where old Rondo’s last two-story building was constructed in 1917. After that building burned down in 2013, Anderson organized an uplifting community funeral where residents came together and celebrated their memories of the place. During the celebration, the idea came to Anderson to create a gathering space in the vacant lot of the old building, which would commemorate the old Rondo neighborhood.
 
“I said, ‘We’re going to build something on this site,’” Anderson recalls. “‘We’re going to create something here in memory of the building, but also in memory of Rondo.’”
 
The plan for the space includes a promenade of steps, a built-in sound system, green spaces with benches, a 30-foot tall marker that can be seen from Interstate 94, and panels and exhibits showcasing the history of Rondo. Future neighborhood events are also planned for the space, including concerts, spoken word performances and events for children.
 
“We want to show people you can do something with something small and have a huge impact on your community,” Anderson says. “I got so much from Rondo. Rondo gave me the foundation to do what I accomplished in life and when I came back home after traveling for school, I felt that it was important that I become a part of this community—and what could I do? It was to bring this joy of Rondo to others.”
 
The space will hopefully be completed in Fall 2017. Follow along on the progress of the Rondo Commemorative Plaza on the organization’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
 
 
 

St. Paul Tool Library Will Contribute to Sharing Economy

St. Paul is soon getting a new type of library—one that includes power drills, wrenches and lawn mowers. The St. Paul Tool Library will be the newest branch of the Northeast Minneapolis Tool Library, a nonprofit where members can check out tools for home repairs and projects. The new St. Paul location at 755 Prior Avenue N., in the Midway neighborhood, is slated to open late 2016 or early 2017.
 
The idea for a new library branch location came about earlier this year when St. Paul resident John Bailey contacted the Northeast Minneapolis Tool Library to express his interest in bringing the nonprofit to his city. Bailey, who is now the chair of the St. Paul Tool Library Local Advisory Board, says the library is a good fit for the area. “I have known about tool libraries for a long time and they make so much sense,” Bailey says. “It seemed crazy that St. Paul didn't have one.”
 
Zachary Wefel, president of the Northeast Minneapolis Tool Library agrees: “In our strategic plan, we did say we eventually wanted to open multiple branches. So when a few people from St. Paul contacted us and said, ‘We’re interested in doing this,’ we met with them and determined it would be a really great fit.”
 
With the support of the Northeast Minneapolis Tool Library and a successful crowdfunding campaign, Bailey and his supporters raised the funds needed to make the St. Paul Tool Library a reality. Once the new lease on the space is finalized, the tool library will host a tool drive to fill the new space with inventory.
 
With the growth of the sharing economy, the tool library is a natural fit for those who want to work on home projects, but don’t necessarily want or need to buy power tools to keep around the house. “I think for many people in St. Paul, [the tool library] can help them save money by buying less tools,” Bailey says, “and as importantly, teach new skills.”
 
Tool library membership are $55 per year, which gives members unlimited tool checkouts as well as discounts on studio classes. The Northeast Minneapolis Tool Library is currently accepting membership applications in person at their location inside the Thorp Building. Members will be able to use the libraries at both locations.
 
 
 

Transforming Central Project Updates High School's Landscaping and Exterior

When classes started at St. Paul’s Central High School this fall, students were greeted by new improvements to the building’s exterior, including an outdoor classroom, vertical bike racks and landscaping. The improvements were part of a community effort led by a group of parents and volunteers behind the Transforming Central Project.
 
The Transforming Central Project grew out of discussions in 2011 at the Central PAC (Parent Advisory Council) meetings about simple ways parents could spruce up the campus. Initially, the group of volunteers dubbed themselves the “beautification committee,” and made small changes around the grounds such as planting bulbs and perennials.
 
The same year, the group decided to survey the Central community about what further changes they would like to see to the landscape. The committee then took those results to the Metropolitan Design Center at the University of Minnesota, which created a document of potential design concepts for Central. This document later helped the committee discuss the vision with the wider Central community, community councils and city council members; it also helped them acquire grants for funding the project.
 
The updates coincide with Central High School’s sesquicentennial. Established in 1866, Central is Minnesota’s oldest operating high school. “The first conversations in 2011 centered around ways we could soften Central's exterior to help it appear more welcoming,” says Lisa Heyman, one of the co-project managers. “We have always felt that the Central community is very welcoming in the building, and the drab concrete exterior did not accurately reflect that warmth.”
 
Heyman and the rest of the team at the Transforming Central Project organized a grassroots community effort to get input, raise funds and gain support for the changes at the high school. Some of the environmental updates focus on improving runoff, which included a new filtration design, tree trenches, rain gardens and permeable pavers. New trees better fit the site’s soil conditions. There are more outdoor seating areas, and as a new paved path leading students to the school bus pickup and dropoff area.
 
The transformation was truly a result of building relationships with the community and created what was needed. “All of the changes to Central have been inspired by comments and suggestions from teachers, students, parents and community members,” Heyman explains. “Our hope is that the community as a whole will enjoy the new space and find it more accessible.”
 

Nimbus Theatre moves to and renovates NE space

Building community is at the heart of Nimbus Theatre’s mission. That’s why when the 15-year-old theater company, led by co-artistic directors Liz Neerland and Josh Cragun, decided to relocate from their five-year-old space on Central Avenue NE to their new address at 2303 Kennedy Street NE, they did so to bring more staging opportunities to the local performing arts scene. 
 
“We kind of knew by the end of last year that we were going to be moving, so we really started [exploring] these ideas of expanding,” Neerland explains.
 
At its former location, Cragun adds, Nimbus was “partnering with other theater companies” and the space "sort of became a community center. We learned a lot in five years about operating a theater and about what we could do better.”
 
The new space, aptly named The Crane Theater for the five-ton crane that towers overhead, is 7,000 square feet—nearly double that of the old location. Built in 1922, the building was originally a Westinghouse factory. In 1953, the back section of the building, which is now the new home of The Crane Theater, was added on as a mattress warehouse.
 
Now the location will serve as a performance space with two stages. The new space will continue Nimbus’ tradition of staging fresh, original productions featuring its own company, as well as guest performing artists.
 
“It’s a gorgeous room that will work great for theater,” says Cragun. He loves how the facility, in which historically appliances were constructed, functions as metaphor for making—even when the space is now used for creating theater. Moreover, he adds, “We’re not remounting [existing plays]. We’re making theater from scratch here.” Thus the building, he continues, “fits well with what we do.”
 
The main stage will showcase Nimbus’s productions and seat around 100 people. The smaller theater will seat about 50 audience members and will serve several functions. “There are not enough performance spaces of any sort in the Twin Cities,” Neerland explains. “So just being able to offer more of it is really needed. [The second theater is] a smaller, flexible stage for a number of things, such as a small theater company doing a scaled-back production or a play reading.”
 
Providing extra theater space isn’t all that Nimbus is looking to do with The Crane. The company’s wants the space be a support center for people who create new theater locally, and provide services and access to shop space and educational opportunities.
 
In order to make the vision of The Crane Theater a reality, Nimbus launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign on September 16. “Pouring effort into the community has always come back to benefit us in a way that’s positive,” says Cragun. “We’re strong believers in building that. So the idea for a crowdfunding campaign was a really natural fit. We’ve done some traditional development work, but we wanted to sort of throw it back at the community and say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this for you. Can you give us a hand?’”
 
For those looking to see the new space firsthand, Nimbus is staging their first show, The Kalevala, a play based on the 19th-century work of Finnish literature, in their new home now through October 30. Tickets are available online at nimbustheatre.com.
 

The Funky Little Chair Offers Upholstery Services and Classes in the CEZ

The Funky Little Chair started with Cynthia Bleskachek’s desire to build a community around the upholstery industry through education. Now open on University Avenue in the Creative Enterprise Zone of St. Paul, The Funky Little Chair offers upholstery services and classes to individuals from all skill levels.
 
Bleskachek’s mission is to make the craft of upholstery accessible to all who want to learn. “I want this business to be able to share this industry, this craft—and make it approachable no matter how you’re coming in at it,” says Bleskachek. “I am just so excited to share everything that I love about this industry with clients, with students, and with hobbyists because I do think there’s so much beautiful furniture and too often people just don’t know what their options are.”
 
Growing up with a mother who was an upholsterer, Bleskachek saw firsthand how to take furniture apart and refresh the pieces using new fabrics and materials. When Bleskachek started working in the upholstery industry herself, she discovered that many people were curious and inquiring about what went into a re-upholstery project. Seeing an opportunity to create more transparency in the industry through education, Bleskachek began teaching upholstery classes.
 
Bleskachek explains, “If you ever got a quote from a custom upholsterer, people wanted to know why it was so expensive. Wasn’t it easy? Which is easy to think if you haven’t done [upholstery]. But through education, you are able to show people what you love about it. What it is beyond slapping fabric on it. It’s a whole craft where everything you work on is different. Every fabric is different and every piece has its own problem solving.”
 
A few of the educational opportunities offered by The Funky Little Chair include weekend workshops for those who have small do-it-yourself (DIY) projects, weekly workshops offering students a chance to work on larger, more complex projects, workshops for current or aspiring professional upholsterers, as well as free community events where activities might include a DIY Halloween costume brainstorming session or an evening of knitting and crocheting. For those who want extra help with projects, Bleskachek offers modern residential re-upholstery services.
 
In an age where consumers are inclined to purchase cheap, disposable furniture, Bleskachek understands that education is key to transforming shopping habits and helping others see the value of refreshing existing pieces of furniture. “I think there’s a lot of consumers who are trying to understand and make choices they feel good about. They need to know how. They need to know why. They need to know where. We’re excited to help crack that open a little bit.”
 
 

RoehrSchmitt renovates factory to address need for office and retail space in Northeast

 
The old Miller Bag Building, plonked on the outskirts of Northeast Minneapolis’ commercial core, is pretty big. Actually, the hulking four-story structure and its three outbuildings are legitimately out of scale with their surroundings.
 
But scale isn’t necessarily influential. Since 2013, when the anchor tenant (the former Sam Miller Bag Company, now Airtex Design Group) moved to a modern facility in the Northeast Broadway industrial zone, the building has been about 80 percent empty. According to the Star Tribune, the rapidly changing manufacturing landscape forced building owner (and Airtex shareholder) Mike Miller “to reassess our manufacturing needs” and find a more suitable space.
 
Not one to leave an historically significant building hanging, Miller brought in the Ackerberg Group to help re-imagine Miller Bag as a proper 21st century mixed-use space. They renamed the complex the Miller Textile Building and retained RoehrSchmitt Architecture in NE Minneapolis to craft a suitably ambitious plan for adaptive reuse.
 
Three years on, the $8 million redevelopment is paying off. Ackerberg recently finalized a lease with St. Louis Park-based Stahl Construction, which agreed to take the entire second floor — a major get that brings dozens of jobs from the suburbs to the urban core, and brings the 48,000-square-foot Miller Textile to 35 percent occupancy. (Other leases are in the works, so it’s likely that building’s actual occupancy ratio is higher.)
 
“We renovated the building to create class B office and warehouse space with new infrastructure to serve the burgeoning need for office and retail space in Northeast Minneapolis, [and] house the explosive entrepreneurial energy attracted to this established arts district.,” says architect Michael Roehr, principal and co-founder of RoehrSchmitt.
 
The building was sorely in need of an overhaul. “We basically gutted the building to replace all the basic systems: plumbing, HVAC, electrical and lighting, and sprinklers,” Roehr says. “The main entry, core and circulation system was relocated to the center of the building, with new restrooms and a lobby featuring images and artifacts that celebrate the building's manufacturing history.”
 
The remodel also added and expanded windows to create “bright, welcoming and efficient spaces for professional and creative businesses to take advantage of the building’s unique environment,” he adds. A problematic part of the third floor was removed entirely “to create a dramatic double-height space,” and an “old-growth subfloor” was salvaged and reincorporated into design elements throughout the complex.
 
Roehr is proud of Miller Textile’s economical, resource-light, even low-key redo. “The project was accomplished on a tight budget, and represents a case study in efficiently wringing value and relevance from a building that would typically remain abandoned or be threatened with demolition to make way for something new,” he enthuses.
 
It’s convenient, too. According to Roehr, Miller Textile has upwards of 80 free, off-street parking spaces and, when complete, will boast plenty of on-site bike parking.
 
 

Renovated Palace Community Center a new nexus of neighborhood activity

In the 1970s, the Palace Community Center in the West 7th area of downtown St. Paul was “a very popular place,” recalls Christopher Stark, architect for the St. Paul Department of Parks & Recreation. “But it was also very heavy and dark and closed in, without any windows, like a lot of community buildings of the era.”
 
Last May, the center closed for a much needed expansion and makeover. With help from LSE Architects in Minneapolis, the renovated Palace Community Center opened January 30, its new glass façade gleaming in welcome to visitors. “We really wanted a new front that was opening and inviting, and communicated how we’re accessible to everyone,” Stark says. “All of the glass brings in natural light and connects all of the spaces inside to the outside.”
 
After LSE noted that the existing building had “four backs to it” and no real front, the design team used glass to “engage all sides of the building with the outdoors,” Stark says. “We didn’t want any visual connections to be lost, and the building is now connected with the streets, the softball and baseball fields, and the playground.”
 
Approximately 5,000 square feet of the building—almost the entire structure—was demolished; only the gym remained. Expanding the building to 16,5000 square feet allowed the center to expand its programming, as well. “Instead of only targeting youth and physical activities, we created a place with opportunities for all ages, from kids in after-school programs to seniors who can use the center as a gathering place for forging social connections,” Stark says.
 
LSE kept the building entrance at the corner of Palace Avenue and View Street, and inserted a new central commons area inside that shows off a new wood structure. Off the commons at the center of the building is a new community room (the old one was on the second level, accessed only by one staircase—no elevator) with a kitchen. The community room and adjacent senior room are separated by a flexible divider, which can be opened to create a larger space. “Another one of our goals was to ensure our renovated building included a lot more flexibility,” Stark says.
 
A new awning and porch on the east facing the ball fields are for anyone wishing to relax in the shade on summer days and watch the kids play. In the winter, the ice rink outside now has a warming room with an operable wall that can be opened to the indoor fitness room for more space. The warming room and adjacent bathroom can also be kept separate and open when the rest of the building is closed.
 
The renovated center is a Buildings, Benchmarks & Beyond (B3) project. B3’s guidelines for sustainable building were “developed for and are required on State-funded projects in Minnesota, however they are easily applied to any project,” according to the B3 website. The sustainable-design strategies incorporated into the Palace Community Center include a storm-water retention pond on site, daylight sensors throughout the building and energy-efficient mechanical systems. 
 
“We had a popular facility people had been visiting for years,” Stark says. “But it was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. It wasn’t meeting its potential. Now we have an inviting, environmentally sound community center with programming that provides activities for everyone, and with the flexibility that will allow the Palace Community Center to evolve over time.”
 

Highlight Center brings new synergy and office space to "white hot" Northeast

“Northeast is white hot right now,” says Scott Tankenoff, managing partner, Hillcrest Development, about the Minneapolis neighborhood. Hillcrest redeveloped the historic Frost and Crown Center buildings adjacent to Broadway and Central avenues, and will officially open the Highlight Center (a former GE Mazda light bulb factory, and more recently workshops and administrative offices for the Minneapolis School District) on Tuesday, September 15.
 
“The job and labor markets are unbelievably tight,” Tankenoff continues. “People are looking for commercial, office and retail space that’s high quality and durable. If you can add bicycle storage, showers for commuters, common areas lots of people can use at one time, a distinctive micro-brewery that tenants and visitors will use, rooftop garden areas and patios, lots of free parking and retain the building’s character within the existing fabric of the neighborhood, you’ve got a good mix.”
 
The Highlight Center does all that. Sport Ngin, which makes software for managing sports league websites, is one of the building’s main tenants, occupying about 30,000 square feet. Other tenants will include a law firm, Internet radio company, furniture rep and MyMeds, a cloud-based web and mobile application that helps users manage their medications.
 
“Space is moving fast,” Tankenoff says. “Many creative class-type companies would have looked in the North Loop but they like the price better here, and there are parking lots and other amenities nearby.”
 
In an adjacent building, also redeveloped by Hillcrest, Able Seedhouse and Brewery is setting up operations. “Able will have unique large taproom, and produce and distribute their product, but will also source locally grown ingredients like hops,” Tankenoff says, putting the new micro-brewery in good company alongside the likes of Bauhaus Brew Labs (in Crown Center) and Sociable Ciderwerks (down the street).
 
“The synergy creating by the tenants is critical to creating buzz and a community within the building and in the adjacent neighborhood,” he adds. “People want to be part of a collective.”
 
They may also want to work in what Tankenoff calls “the last great building in Northeast near downtown.” The brick and timber frame structure, built in the 1920s, “was a disaster” when Hillcrest took over, he says, as it had been used for storage, and for plumbing, key, maintenance, carpentry and electrical shops. The former 807 Broadway is “right on top of good, future mass transit, and is a large building that allows for patios, rooftop gardens and gathering spaces.”
 
The Highlight Center includes a common room for the community to use and will eventually incorporate solar panels for generating electricity. RoehrSchmitt Architecture and Tanek Architecture and Design collaborated with Hillcrest with the project.
 
“The process was all about retaining the character of the buildings, while adding a whimsical twist with materials inside,” Tankenoff says. “Our goal is to express the classic nature of historic buildings while making them relevant, modern, appropriate and fun for today. Both those architecture firms clearly understand that.”
 
 

Fort Snelling's historic Upper Post to be transformed into workforce housing

If the criteria of marketable real estate — “location, location, location” — still holds true, then a prime parcel in the Twin Cities has it all. Open space. River views. Recreational fields. Historical resonance. Old-growth vegetation. It’s minutes from light rail and freeways, and is adjacent to a state park with a lake, bicycling and x-county ski trails, hiking paths and an interpretive center.
 
Most likely, you’ve sped past it en route to MSP International Airport or the Mall of America. Or maybe you’ve played ultimate Frisbee, baseball, soccer, golf or polo on the site. Or even, having taken a wrong turn, found yourself in a ghost town with crumbling houses, grand dilapidated structures and overgrown thoroughfares that begin and end seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
 
Welcome to the Upper Post of Fort Snelling. Home to buff- and red-brick buildings — including an imposing headquarters with a grand clock tower, rows of barracks, and a lane of once-stately officers’ homes with columns and porches — the Upper Post is a National Historic Landmark, and part of a larger National Register District that includes portions of the Mississippi River and its environs.
 
For years, however, the buildings have languished. Owned by the State of Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Upper Post has been largely used for parks and recreation. But in 1998, the DNR hired Miller Dunwiddie Architecture, Minneapolis, to access the buildings’ structural integrity and potential for reuse.
 
By 2006, a Save America’s Treasures grant secured by Hennepin County paid for the buildings’ stabilization. Work included re-roofing buildings, patching holes in the walls, sealing up windows and doors with plywood, and covering up porches.
 
But the structures’ only hope of long-term survival rested in their adaptive reuse. Many developers floated ideas. But only Dominium’s recent proposal to transform the structures into an affordable–housing community has generated true excitement.
 
“We’ve taken on similar adaptive reuse projects with lots of challenges,” says
Russ Condas, development associate, including St. Paul’s Schmidt Brewery on West Seventh Street and the Pillsbury A-Mill in Minneapolis—both of which have been developed and designed as affordable artist housing in conjunction with BKV Group. “But, as always, the Upper Post will pose its own unique challenges.”
 
Hennepin County, the DNR and other stakeholders “have done a good job of protecting the buildings,” he says. “They’re in decent shape because they were well constructed and feature strong architectural features from the late-1880s. But they’re old, weathered and in need of attention.”
 
The approximately $100 million project will be financed through a combination of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, Federal and State Historic Tax Credits, and other sources. “These tax credits make the project feasible from our perspective,” Condas says. Dominium specializes in affordable and workforce housing, as well as the adaptive reuse of historic structures.
 
“Projects like this one take an incredible investment from a construction cost standpoint, in order to make them work,” Condas says. “Without that stack of tax credits, the project wouldn’t be do-able.”
 
The project includes 26 buildings on the site, “which we’ll treat as one apartment community,” Condas says, with approximately 190 units of affordable housing. “While most buildings will provide housing, we’re also looking at other structures for amenities.”
 
According to Dominium, the Upper Post redevelopment “will meet a strong demand in the market; research…shows that in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, there are only 34 apartments that are affordable and available for every 100 residents making less than $20,000 a year.”
 
With the site’s location near the Mall of the America and international airport, the need for workforce housing is acute. The site is a half-mile from the Blue Line light rail. “We feel there will be a strong demand for these apartments, which will offer a great opportunity for people to live affordably in a beautiful location and easily commute to work.”
 

Cooperative real estate model goes national

Three years ago, the Northeast Investment Cooperative (NEIC) was created to allow people to collectively buy, renovate, and manage commercial and residential property. Despite a mix of restaurants and retail businesses on Central Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis, and the adaptive reuse of former industrial buildings into the immensely popular 612 Broadway and Crown Center nearby, the area has a history of rundown storefronts and absentee landlords. NEIC is changing all that.
 
With nearly $300,000 in member investments, and having transformed 2504-06 at the corner of Central and Lowry avenues into a successful building with thriving tenants, NEIC is sharing its innovative cooperative model nationally. Already, in New York City, inspired residents formed their own co-op modeled after NEIC — NYC Real Estate Investment Cooperative — and more than 200 people immediately invested.
 
In February, an article in Yes! Magazine about NEIC went viral. Since then, the first commercial-property cooperative in the United States has been happily fielding inquiries from groups across the country, and board members will be speaking at conferences in St. Louis, Phoenix and Milwaukee on NEIC’s innovative business model. The appeal, explains Loren Schirber, a NEIC board member, is the opportunity to make a difference locally.
 
“People who have a vested interest in their neighborhood see the cooperative, commercial real estate model as an accessible way to make that difference and get a lot of other people involved,” Schirber says, and there’s more. “Kickstarter, Go Fund Me, Facebook and other social media and crowdfunding sites have changed how we do marketing and communications, so real estate investment opportunities are becoming more localized and accessible to people. This is the next logical step, because people don’t simply donate, they see where their money goes, what it’s doing and take ownership in the process.”
 
The cooperative real estate model also takes our new cultural emphasis on the local and bespoke — whether beer, food or handmade goods — further, Schirber continues. “How you save for retirement or invest is a logical extension of trying to be more conscious of what to do with your money and the influence you have. So with NEIC, we tackled an eyesore in the neighborhood we wanted to see changed. That resonated with local people…. and word traveled.”
 
Through NEIC’s cooperative structure, any Minnesota resident could join for $1,000. They could also invest more by purchasing non-voting stock. After a year of seeking investors, NEIC purchased two buildings on Central Avenue. Aki’s BreadHaus and Fair State Brewing Cooperative opened in 2014. NEIC’s partner, Recovery Bike Shop, is located next door. In total, the project represents more than a million dollars in new investment on Central Avenue.
 
“We spent thousands of hours getting started, fine tuning our bylaws, figuring out our structures, setting things up,” Schirber says. “Sharing that information with other groups, to make the process easier for them, is a principal of cooperative ownership.” So far, groups located in places from Seattle to Silver Spring, Maryland, Northern California to Cincinnati, Ohio, Texas to Washington D.C., have contacted NEIC for information.
 
Meanwhile, NEIC is avidly seeking a second property to bring to investors, and holding three information sessions and happy hours to discuss past successes and future plans: 
June 4: Info session at Eastside Food Co-op (7-8 p.m.), happy hour at Fair State Brewing Co-op (8-9 p.m.)
July 16: Info session at Narobi Market (7-8 p.m.), happy hour at Fair State Brewing Co-op (8-9 p.m.)
August 13: Info session at TBD (7-8 p.m.), happy hour at Fair State Brewing Co-op (8-9 p.m.)
 
“People have plenty of opportunities to become a minority investor,” Schirber says. “But from a tenant, investment and neighborhood standpoint, a cooperative model offers people more accessibility, control, ownership and a tangible reason for success.”
 

Hoodstarter crowdsources solutions for vacant storefronts

 
Kickstarter connects you with people willing to fund the innovative idea you’re working on in your garage. Why can’t you get funding for the innovative idea you have for the vacant storefront down the block?
 
Hoodstarter may have an answer. Co-founders Justin Ley and David Berglund, who work together at UnitedHealth, recently finalized and launched a first-of-its-kind crowdsourcing/funding platform that allows users to post vacant properties, post and vote on ideas for new onsite businesses or public uses, and fund entrepreneurs willing and able to turn those ideas into tangible businesses.
 
Property owners, real estate brokers, entrepreneurs and Twin Cities residents mingle on its website, exploring property listings, offering ideas, gauging interest and forging new connections.
 
“The goal of Hoodstarter is to connect neighborhood and city residents — anyone with a stake in and ideas for the vacant space — with real estate brokers equipped to market empty properties, property owners looking to monetize their holdings, and companies or entrepreneurs willing to shoulder the risk of launching a new use,” says Berglund.
 
“We’re facilitating connections between all the parties to a typical real estate transaction,” adds Ley, “including community members directly and indirectly affected by the project. Basically, we’re taking a model that hasn’t changed in 50 years” — commercial real estate development — “and making it much more efficient, while also creating opportunities for businesses and ideas that might not have access to other sources of funding.”
 
Though the platform hasn’t yet provided direct funding for any nascent businesses, the founders follow the well-worn model used by other successful crowdfunding platforms: taking a five-percent cut of users’ contributions and passing the rest along to entrepreneurs.
 
Hoodstarter’s database includes vacant sites across the Twin Cities, from expansive, high-visibility spaces like the unoccupied retail level at St. Paul’s new West Side Flats to abandoned churches and petite storefronts along community corridors like Chicago and James avenues in Minneapolis.
 
In addition to listings with detailed information about the property, including its price per square foot (when publicly available), leasing agent and amenities, Hoodstarter has a social function that supports lively debate over user-generated ideas, posted properties and urban life in general. The community is largely self-policing: A recent post suggesting that a prime Chicago Avenue storefront be left vacant was met with swift, if polite, criticism.
 
Less than a year and a half since its initial launch, Hoodstarter is already gaining traction across the Twin Cities. “When you see a vacant lot or storefront, there’s an intrinsic desire to envision its potential,” says Ley, especially if it’s in your neighborhood. “You can’t help but wonder, ‘Why has that place been vacant for so long?’ It’s a frustrating feeling.”
 
The South Minneapolis resident speaks from experience. His commute takes him past the same vacant space every day — a retail storefront empty for so long that no one quite remembers what it used to be.
 
Ley’s “pet” storefront crisply illustrates the problems Hoodstarter seeks to remedy. The property sits on an otherwise busy corner, near Angry Catfish, the Baker’s Wife and other popular businesses. It has obvious assets: space for indoor and outdoor seating, corner visibility and a floor plan tailor made for a restaurant or cafe.
 
But before Hoodstarter approached him, the owner had legitimate concerns about developing the property, says Ley, or even finding a temporary tenant for the space. According to Ley and Berglund, even well-meaning property owners who care about their neighborhoods can be overwhelmed by the cost, time investment and risks associated with finding a commercial tenant or developing a space on their own.
 
And, counterintuitively, many owners prefer to leave their properties empty as commercial land values rise, in the hopes of cashing out as the market peaks. Hoodstarter’s success will depend on its ability to convince property owners that they stand to gain from filling vacancies now, not waiting to sell later.
 
If all goes well, the owner of the vacant South Minneapolis property may soon have a new tenant or buyer. Last fall, Hoodstarter held a Better Block event at the site itself, continuing the conversation that began online.
 
According to Ley and Berglund, this hybrid model — using in-person events to publicize vacant properties and build support for the best usage ideas — could be a big component of Hoodstarter’s model going forward. But first, they need to fill some vacancies.
 

Pillsbury A Mill transformed into 21st-century hub for artists

More than a decade after Minneapolis’ historic Pillsbury A Mill closed, capping the city’s reign as the country’s flour-milling capital, the four-building mill complex—which includes the iconic limestone A Mill—is once again becoming a hub of innovation and industry, this time driven by artists. The developer Dominium, which recently transformed St. Paul’s 1890 Schmidt’s Brewery into Schmidt Artists Lofts, is completing the adaptive reuse of the milling complex with BKV Group into the A-Mill Artist Lofts.
 
The first phase, Warehouse 2, a four-story, wood-frame building next to The Soap Factory, has been open since December and includes 43 living units, says David Lepak, community manager, A-Mill Artist Lofts. The 1881 A Mill designed by architect Leroy Buffington, the south A Mill cleaning house, and the 1910 elevator known as the “red-clay-tile building,” will be open for occupancy in August.
 
“Dominium knows there’s a need for affordable artists’ housing, and we’ve been successful with other projects in St. Paul and St. Louis,” Lepak says. The complex, which will be LEED certified, includes 255 living units designed for qualifying artists. To support artists’ work, the complex includes galleries, a performance and rehearsal space, and studios for dancers, visual and multi-media artists, photographers and potters.
 
“The neighborhood is already highly populated with artists,” says Lepak, referring to the Marcy-Holmes and Northeast neighborhoods. The transformed A Mill complex will further “drive people to the area for creative resources, and bring untapped resources to an already existing artists community with theaters and galleries.”
 
BKV Group, a Minneapolis architectural firm, has been working with Dominium on the project. The design team started by conducting laser scans of the buildings, to determine where structures and floors didn’t line up, and where components were missing. In addition to shoring up exterior masonry, structural repairs included new steel support columns (particularly in the limestone A Mill), floor decking and joist repairs, and leveling the floors.

The project was made possible through historic tax credits, because the A Mill is on the National Register of Historic Places. As such, the renovation was closely scrutinized by the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and the National Park Service. In particular, the red-tile building—a former grain elevator—doesn’t have openings on the first eight floors, and none could be created. “It’s like a crawl space and we treated it that way,” explains John Stark, project architect, BKV Group.
 
The 27 new living units, instead, are on floors 8-12, and were designed around the existing openings, “which means each unit is unique,” Stark says. In the basement, the architects created a gathering space, fitness room and connections to the two-level parking garage. New outdoor landscaping around the railroad tracks is in the works.
 
The new complex will also have a roof garden with panoramic views of the Mississippi River and downtown Minneapolis, Stark says, and the landmark Pillsbury’s Best Flour sign is being redone in LED lights for greater energy efficiency.
 
Dominium is also considering the use of a hydroelectric heating and cooling system for the complex, using water from the nearby river. The water would enter through an existing tunnel, drop into a turbine pit and generate power to operate the complex. The initiative “would make the complex largely self-sustaining,” Stark says.
 
The project has significant merit regardless. “We’ve helped put the buildings back on the tax rolls, and created a new source of industry that tells the character of what Minneapolis was and is today,” Stark says. Lepak agrees, adding that the new A-Mill Artist Lofts “will add tremendously to the further development of an economically vibrant area of Minneapolis.”
 
 

WorkHorse brews a perfect blend of art and community

Ever since she began working as a program director at the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (MRAC) in St. Paul five years ago, Shannon Forney has been excited about “the energy shift happening in the neighborhood.” The neighborhood is St. Anthony Park, which encompasses the Creative Enterprise Zone, and is home to the Metro Green Line’s Raymond Avenue light-rail station, which is across the street from MRAC’s office.
 
“People have been so excited about light-rail transit, what it would bring to the neighborhood, and how it might reinvigorate the historic fabric of the neighborhood,” she says. Forney and her partner Ty Barnett participated in Irrigate artist training last year, she adds, and “we really resonated with the idea of artists and businesses working together to raise each other’s profile.”
 
So Forney (also an arts administrator and performing artist) and Barnett, who has long been in the coffee business, decided to start WorkHorse Coffee Bar. Located half a block west of the Raymond Station on the Green Line, in a space that has housed both a coffee house and MidModMen + Friends’ extra inventory, WorkHorse is scheduled to open later this month.
 
That’s not all. Outside WorkHorse’s front door is a 24”x 35” vintage fire-hose cabinet, which Forney is transforming—with help from a Knight Arts Challenge grant—into the Smallest Museum in St. Paul. Forney will curate the micro-museum’s exhibitions with help from five-member board whose members she selected from local arts organizations and community members.
 
“Ty has been in the coffee industry for a long time,” Forney says—citing seven years as manager of Nina’s Coffee Café and a stint at Black Dog Coffee & Wine Bar, among other establishments—and “has dreamt of having her own coffee shop. So the impetus for WorkHorse really is coming from Ty. It’s an execution of her vision.”
 
“Mine is the Smallest Museum, and how I’ll bring my personality into the business,” she adds. Inspired in part by the Little Free Library movement, Forney explains, “I decided the cabinet is the perfect little nook for showcasing artwork.” She recently sent out a request for proposals. The first exhibition will open in June.
 
Meanwhile, Barnett has been working with contractors to renovate the 50-seat coffeehouse. The bathroom was made ADA compliant, and the kitchen, coffee bar and register area built out. They removed plaster to expose an existing brick wall and painted the tin ceiling silver.
 
“We’re restoring the space to its vintage grandeur,” Forney says. “There’s a real appreciation of history in this neighborhood, which Ty and I share.” The décor will be “vintage industrial,” she adds, “a cross between a machinist's shop and your grandfather’s workshop. We’re imagining a big, long, communal wood table down the middle of the space.”
 
Merging business, art and community is at the heart of the couple’s approach to WorkHorse, Forney says. A former colleague of Barnett’s, who now owns Voyageurs Coffee Roasters, will be roasting small-batch coffee for WorkHorse. “We have the delightful vision of two fledgling businesses helping each other,” Forney says.
 
She wants to create community in other ways. The exhibitions in the Smallest Museum will engage customers, passersby from the neighborhood and Green Line commuters. Forney hopes neighbors and commuters will become regulars, stopping by for beverages and simple lunch options. “For us, coffee and art are about community,” Forney says.
 
“We’re excited to become a part of the community synergy around transit, art and the exchange of ideas happening on University Avenue,” she continues. “‘Working together, all boats rise’ is a business philosophy we definitely live by. And it’s amazing how much support we’ve been getting already.”

 

First & First expands presence in NE Minneapolis

First & First recently purchased two buildings next door to Red Stag Supperclub and the former Superior Plating site (now under contract to Lennar, a major national housing developer). The buildings, located at 501 & 505 1st Avenue NE, are home to the retail store I like You and art gallery/tax consultants Fox Tax (in 501-503), and the chiropractic clinic Ambiente Gallerie (in 505).
 
“We are excited about the continually evolving neighborhood of Northeast,” says Peter Remes, CEO of First & First. “Although these two buildings are a bit neglected and right now don't offer the best street presence, they are charming and have tremendous potential. We purchased them from At Home Apartments, which had purchased the buildings for a residential opportunity which it later decided to not pursue.”
 
First & First plans on renovating the buildings to improve their overall appearance, installing new windows and rehabbing the common areas. The current tenants remain under leases and have no plans to leave at present, Remes says.
 
As additional spaces in the buildings are rehabbed and become available, Remes says he hopes to “fill them with dynamic, creative businesses that love the brick-and-timber ambience, the Northeast Neighborhood and want to contribute to the area’s growth.”
 
First & First has adaptively reused such Minneapolis structures as the former Theatre de la Jeune Lune, now the event space Aria and First & First’s offices; Icehouse; The Broadway; and Franklin Theater. The creative development company is also working on creative campus in St. Paul off the Green Line light rail in the Vandalia Tower, which will include a micro-brewery and restaurants.
 

SooVAC plans consolidation and move to Minneapolis Greenway

Soo Visual Arts Center, colloquially known as SooVAC, is making a big move in April 2015. Founded by the late Suzy Greenberg in 2001, the non-profit art space—which for two years has also operated a satellite operation called SooLocal—will consolidate the two galleries and move to 2909 Bryant Avenue South, a large three-story brick warehouse building adjacent to the Minneapolis Greenway.
 
“We have steadily increased our budget and programming for the past three years,” explains Carolyn Payne, executive director. “In evaluating SooLocal, we decided it would serve our organization best to be under the same roof as SooVAC’s main space, and the new location has room for that. We are also in the early planning stages of a visual arts residency program and this building has room for us to create that programming as well.”
 
SooVAC will move into a space previously used as an event center. “The building is very green,” Payne says, “and along with radiant floor heating, [the management] requires LED lighting. Many other organizations and museums have transitioned to LED lighting. We’re working with lighting designers that have been in on that to ensure that we continue to put our exhibitions in the best light, so to speak.” The space is also be designed by Will Natzel, an artist and designer, in consultation with  Lars Mason, director of academic services at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and a SooVAC advisory board member.
 
SooVAC prides itself on arts accessibility, building community through art and representing local artists. “As soon as we knew we were going to move, we had a public meeting with artists, supporters and community members,” Payne says. “We asked them where they would like SooVAC to move and what they would like to see in our new space. We had a size and price range, and looked at everything within those parameters.”
 
The new space was selected because it “met and even exceeded our requirements, and also allows us to stay in our current South Minneapolis neighborhood.” In addition, Payne is looking forward to the Greenway’s potential to attract new audiences for SooVAc’s programming and hopes to collaborate on projects with the Greenway Coalition.
 
 
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