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Commons at Penn: Workforce housing and food co-op to open in North Minneapolis

Devean George

The Green Line corridor isn’t the only area of MSP experiencing a boom in community-driven development. Two miles northwest of the Green Line’s Target Field terminus, at the heavily trafficked Penn Avenue/Golden Valley Road intersection in North Minneapolis’ Willard-Hay neighborhood, an ambitious mixed-use project is taking shape: The Commons at Penn Avenue.  
A four-story, block-long structure, Commons at Penn will house 45 units of workforce housing, a host of community amenities and the 4,000 square foot Wirth Cooperative Grocery Store — MSP’s newest grocery co-op. Watson-Forsberg and LHB Corporation are co-developing the project.
Building Blocks, a North Minneapolis nonprofit founded and overseen by native son (and former NBA star) Devean George, designed and financed Commons at Penn. Wirth Co-op is financed independently, thanks in part to a $500,000 federal grant, and will lease space in Commons at Penn’s ground floor.
If the current schedule holds, Commons at Penn and Wirth Co-op should open in spring 2016 — well in advance of the planned Penn Avenue BRT (C Line)’s debut later this decade.
“We’re shooting for an Earth Day opening for the co-op,” says Miah Ulysse, Wirth’s general manager.
The development will join nearby Broadway Flats in providing affordable housing and locally run retail along North Minneapolis’ densely populated Penn Avenue corridor.
According to Building Blocks, Commons at Penn’s residential component will feature a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units with touches common in downtown lofts: hardwood floors and nine-foot ceilings. Amenities include community rooms, an onsite fitness center and three laundry rooms.
Commons at Penn’s first floor will include a Northpoint Health & Wellness office. Though the Northpoint office won’t be a full-service clinic — the focus is on “community outreach with space for events and health education classes,” according to Building Blocks — the design does include two “flexible-use exam rooms.” Building Blocks will office in an adjacent suite.
Wirth Co-op’s arrival is another boost for the area, often considered a food desert: The closest full-service grocery store is the Cub Foods at Broadway and I-94, well over a mile to the east. Corner convenience stores and gas stations stock essentials and plenty of snack foods, but rarely fresh fruits, veggies or non-processed foods. According to TCYIMBY, about 40 percent of Wirth’s fresh food will be certified organic or natural; that proportion could increase as the co-op establishes itself in the neighborhood.
“Locally sourced items will be a huge focus for us, in addition to organic and natural,” says Ulysse.
As of mid-October, the most recent reporting date, Wirth Co-op had about 460 committed members out of a 500-member goal. Membership is $100 (one-time) per household, payable in $25 installments, and $15 for those qualifying for public assistance.
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