The old Armory in downtown Minneapolis has a new owner who plans to turn it into a destination for people, not cars.
Minneapolis-based Swervo Development, led by Ned Abdul, bought the building Thursday from a company run by Doug Hoskin, a principal at Interstate Parking, for $6 million.
“I love the history of it, and I think I love the promise of it. The promise of what it could deliver for the next 50 years in the city,” said David Shea, principal of Minneapolis-based design firm Shea Inc., which is partnering with Swervo on the redevelopment.
The developer will likely turn the cavernous interior into a concert, event and sporting entertainment venue with a capacity of between 3,000 and 5,000 — landing it between large venues like Target Center and the smaller music clubs, said Jon Austin, a spokesman for Swervo.
“There’s not really an exciting or interesting venue in the whole Twin Cities that’s in that size range with the type of broad adaptability this space will offer,” Austin said.
Despite historical significance and a storied past, the Armory has operated as a parking garage for more than 15 years — a frustrating reality for the historic and design community, but one forced by economic conditions.
Built in 1935 during Art Deco’s Moderne architectural phase, the building was the most expensive single structure constructed in Minnesota with the support of a Depression-era Works Progress Administration grant.
Until the mid-1970s, it was used by the Minnesota National Guard and for trade shows, political conventions, boxing and wrestling tournaments. And from 1947 to 1959, it was used part-time by the Minneapolis Lakers, the pro basketball team that later moved to California to become the Los Angeles Lakers.
In later years, the building served as the filming site for several music videos, such as Prince’s “1999” and Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”
A preservation effort saved the building from demolition in 1993 when Hennepin County wanted to build a jail on the site. Hoskin bought it in 1999 for $2.6 million. And while many history fans may feel a parking garage is less than ideal, the income and daily activity have prevented it from complete disrepair.
“While it wasn’t the highest and best use, it kept it viable,” said Todd Grover, principal at MacDonald & Mack Architects. “The parking garage didn’t change the structure too much and it wasn’t sitting empty, which would have made it vulnerable to vandals or foreclosure.”
Grover and a group of historic conservation students at the University of Minnesota conducted an assessment of the building in 2012. They found the building structurally sound with only “some maintenance lapses, but nothing that can prevent it from really shining again,” he said.
Swervo, known for renovating vintage structures, recently celebrated a major sale of three Minneapolis properties, including 510 Marquette Av., to San Francisco-based Spear Street Capital for an eye-popping $87.5 million. Abdul was the subject of a federal investigation in 2012 over allegations of money laundering, wire and tax fraud, but he was cleared with no criminal charges.
Abdul said his goal is to preserve the Armory “in a way that preserves its signature style, honors its history and integrates the property into a revitalized Downtown East.”
He plans to protect and keep the WPA murals.
Shea said he has been working with Hoskin to find a more people-centric use for the 80-year-old building. He drew designs for nearly every imaginable adaptive reuse scenario and weathered the disappointment of deals falling apart because of a variety of market factors.
There was the time Hoskin had a deal on the table to sell the property to a company that was going to turn it into a computer farm, only to watch cloud-based technology roar onto the scene and destabilize the industry. Or last year when Hoskin announced his plans to turn it into an entertainment venue, but was unable to secure the right partners.
“It was the economic reality of redeveloping something that takes a lot of money,” Shea said.
It was Hoskin’s idea to pitch the property to Abdul.
“It’s been a passion for me, both to preserve it and to see it safely on to the next phase of its life. It’s been important that the Armory be passed into the hands of an organization like Swervo; it seems their sweet spot is repositioning complex buildings of this vintage to give them a new life,” Hoskin said in a statement.
The timing of the project is directly related to the major redevelopment efforts happening on the east side of downtown, like the new Vikings stadium, the Commons park, the two 17-story Wells Fargo & Co. office towers and all of the new projects along Washington Avenue E.
The first step after closing will be to stabilize the structure by fixing the leaky roof. Shea and Swervo’s team will spend the next several months developing its detailed site plan before bringing it to the city for approvals.
The team estimates that, if all goes well with the city, the project would take between 12 and 18 months.