More than 30 years ago, Dick Brustad, Linda Donaldson and Peggy Lucas pooled their collective expertise and founded Brighton Development Co. (BDC), a company that has developed more than 3,000 affordable -- and not so affordable -- housing units in the Twin Cities. Several of those developments helped transform the once-neglected Minneapolis riverfront, starting with some Georgetown-style brick rowhouses (Lourdes Square) that turned what was once a weedy, abandoned industrial site along the Mississippi into one of the city's most coveted urban neighborhoods. That project was followed by the conversion of several abandoned brick warehouses, including the North Star Blanket Co. building, and a couple of mill buildings into luxury loft-style condos along the river. They also spun off a nonprofit called Community Housing Development Corp., which now manages thousands of low-income rentals.
The company survived the housing crash, but even though some experts say that the downtown condo market is ready for new units, Lucas and the other principals at BDC say that they'll sell their land holdings and won't pursue new projects.
On behalf of the team, Lucas reflects on the past and the future.
QWhen the three of you founded the company, did you have a particular niche in mind?
AWe never did really big projects and we never had outside financial partners. ... I think our specialty was "catalytic projects," ones where we stepped in and got things going and then the big developers moved in and we moved on to something else. A good example of that is on East Hennepin [Avenue in northeast Minneapolis] where we saved the historic buildings and cleared the way for bigger things.
QDoes this mean you're no longer on the hunt for interesting projects?
AI can't say for sure that I won't get involved in some other project down the line. Catalytic projects still are an attraction. However, Brighton as an entity won't be taking the lead on anything. It is nice to feel good about what we have done and move on.
QWhat was the inspiration for these projects?
AGreat design. For many years we worked with an amazing architect, Paul Madsen. He was very much into [making projects] appear to fit into a neighborhood context, so many of the projects look like they have been there for a long time. We valued his approach and were devastated when he died 10 years ago. [Former Minneapolis Mayor] Sharon Sayles Belton challenged us to "bring stakeholders back to the city." The riverfront needed attention. Lourdes Square was our first river project and amazing people stepped up to buy the units.
QWhat made you decide that rich people might want to live along what was then a largely neglected riverfront?
AI always give credit to the first buyers at North Star Lofts who were able to see past the broken glass, dead pigeons and graffiti. Bruce Abrahamson was one of them and I think those early buyers provided the momentum to make that part of the riverfront come alive.
QYou live in one of the buildings you developed, but which is your favorite?
AI really don't have a personal favorite but I think that the most transformative project we did was redeveloping the historic buildings on East Hennepin. There are 20 townhomes, 20 affordable apartments and some wonderful commercial there now [Punch Pizza, Rachel's, Taraccino and Bruegger's]. I often think how different that side of the river would be if those buildings had been torn down for surface parking lots, which is what some neighborhood merchants wanted.
QWhat's your biggest regret?
AWe had a wonderful vision for a residential "village" on the Koch Mobil site in St. Paul. We called it Victoria Park. Our timing was terrible and we got caught in the downdraft, plus the city was not able to acquire half the site from ExxonMobil. We are still trying to do what we can to turn that site into something that the neighborhood deserves and are in negotiations with other developers.
QWas there ever a time when you thought that the city wasn't ready for what you were trying to offer?
AI am an optimist and always thought I could "see" something that could be transformative. Most of the time these things came to pass, but when we hit the housing downturn we did leave a couple of amazing projects on the drawing board.
QSome say that it's time for new downtown condo units, do you feel like you're pulling out too soon?
AI believe that the condo market can and should come back, but lenders will be slow to get on board. I will "stay in the game" in that I will never stop seeing opportunities for catalytic projects. It is in my DNA. My job now will be to talk other developers with good design sense into taking a chance on them.
QYou're used to being busy. Now that you'll have some free time, what are your priorities?
AMy top three at the moment are chairing the stakeholder subcommittee of the stadium implementation committee, helping the University of Minnesota establish a study abroad center in Istanbul, and serving on the Artspace board so that I can live vicariously with all of the great projects they are doing for artists nationwide. Lots of travel and grandchildren, too.
Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376