Those were the days

Invisible Cities

There was a fun surprise in the May 1st agenda of the Community Development committee of the Minneapolis City Council, which is considering a gazillion dollars’ worth of subsidy (edit: that is, subsidy and bonding, see James’ comment below) for a rehab of the Pillsbury A Mill into affordable apartments for elderly diabetic artists or something.

I don’t know if it was a mistake or what, but the Data Worksheet for the project actually featured a rendering of an earlier incarnation called East Bank Mills, conceived of and consumed by the condo craze, which in addition to the rehab would have constructed at least six mid-to-high rise buildings.  Instead, the site was split between two owners, one of which is rehabbing the mill complex and the other of which is building this:


I’m not a skyscraper fetishist, but I do have a fervent belief that Density Will Save Us.  Low rise buildings like the ones proposed for the A Mill site are some of the most efficient, if not always attractive, ways to add density, but only if they can be dispersed throughout the city.  They don’t need to obliterate the traditional housing stock, but if sprinkled liberally along bus routes they can provide riders for those buses and justification for transit upgrades, as well as a base of customers for local businesses.

Unfortunately, NIMBY forces have thus far prevented the diffusion of this building type.  Even those corridors that the city identifies as appropriate for low-rise, high-density infill languish under low density zoning.  So growth needs to be maximized in areas that already have high-rises, like this one.  On the upside, these areas also tend to be close to major job centers and the last dying vestiges of urban retail, maximizing walkability.

So while the 300-400 units to be added in the current A Mill proposals should be welcomed, Minneapolis sure could have used the 1,000 units East Bank Mills would have brought.  That project may have been the product of a greed-fueled credit bubble, but it may have delivered something more in the public interest than the timid footsteps of a wheezy recovery.  (Of course, that same credit bubble produced a massive expansion of low-density fringe development, so it’s all random.)

Again, I’m not saying Tall = Good.  I’m saying Tall = Good IF Density = Good AND Density is not allowed in 95% of the city.

You’ve come a long way, baby

12 comments on “Those were the days

  1. Lots to say about this project, but I had one quick question:

    Why does every new project have a snazzy rooftop pool? They are rarely used, expensive to build and make association fees higher. Oh well, bigger fish to fry …

  2. The $75 million in housing revenue bonds for this project sounds like a local subsidy, since it has to be approved by the City Council, but it really isn’t. Strib reporter Eric Roper has the details here:

    • Alex says:

      Thanks for the link James. I was thinking the $75m were tax credits, but if it’s bonding I agree that it shouldn’t be construed as subsidy. I’ll correct the post. Note, though, that according to the Data Worksheet there are about $40m in other subsidy (historic preservation tax credits, environmental remediation grants, and TIF) going to this project (all but the TIF are already allocated I believe). Those are all great programs in my opinion, although I wonder if it might have been worth sitting on this structure until a project came along that could provide more private investment – we are talking about one of the probably two most in-demand pieces of land in the city after all.

      Nate (below), I’m not familiar with the details of this particular program, but it basically uses state bonding authority to provide a 2nd mortgage for the project (although the Data Worksheet implies this is merely a construction mortgage). So there is only so much available per biennium based on the state’s debt capacity (“use it or lose it” on a biennium basis), and as the post James linked to mentioned, the total is divided among cities but can be shifted between them. I believe it is tied to affordability, but that may be a city policy rather than state law.

  3. James –

    You bring up a very interesting point that I overlooked. It does sound like a local subsidy, but it’s not! It just needs local approval. This changes things. In my mind the question shouldn’t be “should they approve the use of these funds?” But more so, “how may we best allocate these funds?”

    I don’t know the nature of the funds. Is it “use it, or lose it”? Does it need to be for projects that are “affordable”? I’m not sure.

  4. Reuben says:

    I don’t know why Nate is bagging on rooftop pools. I think they’re cool. I want to install one on the roof of my ’39 tudor in south minneapolis home but zoners won’t allow it. The only drawback to rooftop pools is that they’re harder to sneak into than the ones that are just surrounded by an easily-climbable fence.

  5. Guy says:

    Nathaniel – The housing unit comparisons between the old East Bank Mills proposals and the current Doran & Dominium proposals are comparing apples and oranges. The on-site grain elevators were demolished and replaced with housing in the old East Bank Mills proposal, but nobody has proposed redevelopment on that site in the current round of proposals. Likewise, the East Bank Mills proposal developed a block-long frontage of Main Street that is proposed as a possible second phase of Doran’s proposal, but those units aren’t known or designed yet, and aren’t included in any formal filing I’ve heard about.

    Also, for the reasons talked about by others, the cost comparisons around the Pillsbury A Mill are really are apples and oranges. The A Mill is one of just 25 National Historic Landmarks in the state of Minnesota. Perhaps better than almost any other structure, this structure explains why Minneapolis is where it is. Historic structures left empty succumb in relatively short order to structural damage from neglect, weather, vandalism. In a more extreme case, the old Washburn-Crosby A Mill across the river substantially burnt down about 20 years ago, and that too is a risk in a structure like this. Best to preserve and protect it sooner, lest its preservation become even more expensive, or worse yet impossible.

    To preserve this National Historic Landmark, most all of the money is in the forms of bonds and tax credits that are bankrolled by the federal government, not locally. About $25 million of the low-cost bonds are being taken from St. Paul’s allocation, never needs to be repaid, and would otherwise go unspent. The only local revenue generated through the City of Minneapolis proposed to go into the project is the $3 million in tax increment financing. $3 million in TIF for a project of this scale is minor, especially considering its deeply significant historic status.

    And the reality is that before you make this into housing or anything else, ten of millions of dollars need to be spent on the stabilization and preservation of the property, pollution remediation, and adaptations to allow more modern uses. At the height of the condo boom, the East Bank Mills project thought (unsuccessfully) the market would help address that gap. But in normal times, for a project of this scale, that kind of money generally does come more from government tax credits or bonds. Historic preservation, pollution remediation and reuse is what makes this project so expensive. The alternative – leaving a National Historic Landmark to rot or tearing it down – is far worse.

    I’d conclude this way. If you listened to the testimony at the City Council meeting, a good part of the concern about this project was about adding affordable housing where neighbors didn’t think there should be more. That is what is behind a good part of the financial scrutiny. As neighbors note, there is affordable housing to the north of the project. But this would be just about the only affordable housing anywhere on the riverfront itself. It’s true that each unit of affordable housing does cost a lot more than other projects. But that’s because a huge part of the project costs are leveraging financing that is needed to protect this National Historic Landmark. Good luck on seeing this building renovated in the private market anytime soon. The real alternative is probably to have an empty, and deteriorating landmark sit for many years to come.

    In my opinion, Minneapolis should count it’s blessings that it was able to leverage tens of millions in no-strings-attached subsidized bonding for the project from St. Paul, and get this kind of proposal in such a down real estate market. The Council needs to make sure this project moves forward soon.

    • Alex says:

      You make some great points, Guy, and I agree with almost all of them. I certainly agree that the A Mill needs to be preserved, and even that it’s worth this level of subsidy to preserve. It seems possible to me, though, that in normal economic times (which these are not – financing for housing is still tough to come by) there could be a private development large enough to cover more of the cost than the current proposal does. I stick to my guns that this is the most desirable site in the city, with the possible exception of 2626 W Lake, for which a high-rise is now proposed. But of course these funding sources would still be available for a larger project and anyway you may be right that it wouldn’t be worth the wait.

      And sure, the unit totals aren’t exactly comparable, but a glance at the renderings should be proof enough that there was more total living space proposed for East Bank Mills. The rendering shows buildings that are 3-5 stories taller on the footprint of the Doran building – clearly the only thing that boosts the unit count is the miniscule sq footages of today’s buildings. We don’t know for sure what will be built on the remainder of the site, but it’s unlikely to be as tall as East Bank Mills, which of course was sort of a fluke for the time and probably wouldn’t be repeated.

      • Guy says:

        Thanks. I enjoy appropriately robust but cordial debate, so hopefully this is taken in that spirit.

        I think we can agree one of the potential disappointments was having the old East Mills split apart in bankruptcy. In terms of design, the A mill project simply preserves an historic landmark in place. If there’s a disappointing design in some regards, it is on the Doran project side. Problem is, they are financing that privately, and didnt need much in the way of zoning, so the city didn’t have too much more say over design than they already used. Kudos to them on making that work in this market.

        But in some ways it was in fact the scale and ambition of East Bank Mills that kept it from being embraced in even a good marketplace.

        I’d argue that rejecting decent and pretty dense projects in hopes of more density may be ill-advised, if like me your goal is in part to see density at the urban core. The more new units we add and the sooner we add them to the urban core, the less ground we cede to the exurbs, and the better in that regard. Moreover, a denial of financing now could send a chilling message to the development community that when they take big risks at the urban core, the city may not have their back. That could incrementally scare some development we may have otherwise seen. It’s not like the city lacks for development sites. Au contrarie.

        Finally, there’s several helpful justifications for having lower buildings at Main Street than in blocks further from the river. First, the city’s old and new historic design guidelines and plans have long called for development to be no taller than the red tile roof of the historic A mill to preserve the general historic context. Second, if we don’t max out height with a wall of buildings on Main Street, that allows for taller buildings behind on sites harder to develop than Main Steet to take advantage if the economic benefits of more skyline and River views in making their projects work. And generally, for this and aesthetic reasons, the city has called for lower buildings at the Riverfront, which helps avoid creating a “canyon wall” effect along the central riverfront making that viewshed more widely available. Just pointing out there are real upsides, even starting with our mutual preference for more density.

        Well, anyhoo…food for discussion.

  6. Guy says:

    Sorry – the comment should have been addressed to Alex. 🙂

  7. […] Commission (or its appellate body the Z & P committee) has any say on.  As I mentioned last week, I have wistful feelings for the potential of past proposals for this site, but the only thing I […]

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