For nearly four decades, MSR Design has focused on creating one-of-a-kind spaces for their clients. These days, the firm is buckling down on plans for its own move.
And it's a big one.
For 16 years the firm has made its home in an award-winning stonewalled space that's perched atop one of the most historic buildings in the city with panoramic, jaw-dropping views of the Stone Arch Bridge and the St. Anthony Falls. A team of architects and designers at MSR is now drawing up plans for its new digs: 13,587 square feet of raw space on the second floor of a nondescript downtown Minneapolis office building overlooking a light-rail stop at the corner of Fifth and Marquette.
The firm is trying to do for itself what it gets paid to do for its clients: Embrace change. Of the original founders — Jeff Scherer, Garth Rockcastle and Tom Meyer — one has already retired and the other two are in the home stretch.
Their neighborhood of 16 years has changed, as well. What was an neglected rail yard that once served the city's riverfront mills is now a fully developed neighborhood that's dominated by upscale condos and apartments.
It's a different situation at the north end of Nicollet Mall, which is in the midst of its own renaissance. Commercial space is plentiful and much less expensive. And from the firm's new second-floor corner space, which is lined with tall windows, the staff will look out into a more vibrant part of the city where people work and live. They will also be more engaged with the city through a skyway connection and a street-level storefront that will serve as a kind of pop-up space that might feature their work.
"We'll never replace the view we've now got," said MSR's managing partner, Jack Poling. "But I think we're connecting visually to the community in a much different way. The economics were good for us, as well."
Poling said the growing firm is bursting at the seams in its current space, where a long-term sweetheart lease deal is nearing an end. Though money played a role in the decision to leave the Mill District, it wasn't the primary factor.
Bike storage awaits in the new building along with an exercise room, and the firm will have an opportunity to create work spaces that encourage more collaboration and reflect its deepening commitment to designing spaces that enrich lives and the environment.
"This is the first time we'll be out in the public," said Rhys MacPherson, the MSR senior associate who will serve as project manager for the build out. He said the firm will be swapping an expansive "privileged view" of the river for one that will make employees feel more connected to the city and engaged with people on the streets.
Even for a firm that's defined by its flair for creating space that reflects the changing needs of its occupants, leaving the riverfront has been something of a gut-punch for those who have grown attached to the current building's sense of history and the inspiring view. It's also been an adjustment for the three founders of the firm whose long-ago decision to buy two floors of a mill building became a catalyst for the transformation of one of the city's most historic neighborhoods.
In the late 1960s, a young Tom Meyer and his friends used to hang out on the neglected riverfront. Later, as an architecture student, Meyer's senior thesis was a design for a museum dedicated to the history of the St. Anthony Falls.
"There wasn't anybody around," he said. "Back then it was even more special, we felt like we were the pioneers."
In 2001, when Brighton Development Corp. partnered with the Minnesota Historical Society to redevelop a collection of five abandoned mill buildings, Meyer and his colleagues were commissioned to design the condos, a museum and adjacent offices.
When a federal historic tax credit was denied because the ruins portion of the site was considered ineligible for the credit, Meyer, Scherer and Rockcastle bought the top two floors of what's now known as the 710 building. Equity from that purchase made the whole project possible, Meyer said.
Those three founders still own those two floors, one of which is leased to StoneArch Creative. The top floor space that has been occupied by MSR is now being offered for lease.
Meyer said that while such transitions are inevitable for firms as they mature, the riverfront is a particularly nostalgic place for him. Though he's now part-time, he's on the company's board and is still doing design work. He's anticipating the end of his career with a certain amount of trepidation.
"I can sit at a window and from my desk and elicit memories of college hijinks by just looking out the window," he said.
Meyer said the timing of the move and his decision to ease out of full-time work is purely coincidental. If he was in his partners' shoes, he added, he would probably being making the same decision.
"I don't have any regrets about that, but transitions have a certain emotional component to them," he said. "Everybody who has a lifelong career they enjoy has to come to grip with how it ends, I'm fading out of MSR at a pace that's right for me, I'm grateful for that good fortune."
To Meyer and others, the firm's home for the past 16 years has been an integral part of the company's identity. And that's why he supports the decision to leave.
"It's not easy and not many firms have succeeded in transition to another generation," he said. "They'll carry on our values and what we've stood for and I'm really proud of that. This move is one more bit of evidence of their independence."