Since the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources gained ownership of the Fort Snelling Upper Post in 1971, it's been a battle to maintain the two dozen yellow brick buildings and find a development plan.
That changed on Wednesday after a deal was inked to convert 26 buildings into 176 units of affordable housing. The complex will give housing preference to families and veterans.
"This is an outstanding example of a public-private partnership with important benefits for Minnesotans," Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement of the project eight years in the making by the DNR and invested in by his administration. "It comes at a time when there is a great need for affordable housing."
The project, called Upper Post Flats, will be managed by Dominium, a Plymouth-based company that develops affordable housing. Other historical projects it's handled include the Schmidt Brewery artist lofts in St. Paul and the Pillsbury A Mill artist lofts in Minneapolis.
The historic housing of the Upper Post is located near the Fort Snelling Golf Course and the fort itself. The $100 million, 40-acre development is expected to open in 2021.
"Our plan is to restore the buildings to their original design and give people a place to live for the next 100 years," said Owen Metz, vice president and project manager for Dominium. "I picture a neighborhood with kids playing in the streets and nearby woods."
Upper Post Flats will consist of apartment units ranging from one to five bedrooms, with the smallest unit renting for about $1,000 a month. The location already has good roads and is close to the light rail, and thousands of jobs are available nearby at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America, Metz said. Businesses may be attracted to the development, but he said it's already surrounded by plenty of amenities.
Dominium initially had some concerns about taking on the project because of the size of the area and proximity to the airport. Airport noise won't be an issue because the Upper Post isn't underneath a flight pattern and the buildings are made of brick.
Metz said they are now looking for construction bids and hope to break ground in a year. The final design needs signoff from the state Historic Preservation Office. The project will be financed through a combination of low-income-housing tax credits, federal and state historic tax credits, tax-exempt bonds and other sources. Dayton approved bonding authority for the project in this year's legislative infrastructure bill.
"We can hardly wait to see these beautiful old buildings occupied again after standing empty for so long," DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said. "With the condition of the buildings, this is not a project to be taken lightly."
The buildings of Fort Snelling were considered one of the most endangered historical sites in the United States until a few years ago, Landwehr said. Built in the late 1800s, Fort Snelling was the point of departure for thousands of Minnesota soldiers during the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II.
The base also housed the Buffalo Soldiers, members of an all-black regiment in the U.S. Army, and was the site of the Japanese language school for the entire U.S. military in the mid-1940s. The Mdewakanton Dakota have the longest history with Fort Snelling, for whom Fort Snelling represents scenes both of happiness and loss. The base closed in 1946.
Not part of any city, Fort Snelling and the Upper Post occupy the last unincorporated chunk of Hennepin County. There has been little development in the area beyond athletic fields and the Boy Scouts activity center. The Veterans Administration was the last group to occupy any buildings nearly 30 years ago.
Most of the buildings have hardwood floors, high ceilings and large windows. There are also some unique features such as Art Deco designs and walk-in safes that were used to store payroll for soldiers, said Larry Peterson, the Upper Post project manager.
"It's an intriguing part of history and too important not to preserve and reuse," he said.
The state didn't have much money to contribute to the project, but Dayton pushed the DNR to find creative ways to find funding.
Hennepin County has been one of many partners that brought Upper Post Flats to fruition, and it took work from the state's Historical Society, Minneapolis Park Board, Legislature and U.S. Park Services, Landwehr said.
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin had heard about redevelopment plans for the Upper Post when he was in the Legislature in the 1980s. Throughout the years, the county helped maintain the roads and used its Sentencing to Serve program to help maintain the crumbling, unoccupied buildings, he said. The program is made up of low-risk offenders working off jail time, and it contributed $2 million in services.
Now, the buildings will be permanently saved and house needy families and veterans, Landwehr said.
"It is a historic day for Minnesota," he said.