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Last building in Grain Belt complex redeveloped

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: April 17, 2015 - 2:46 PM

After a quarter-century of effort by city development officials, all buildings in the Grain Belt complex in northeast Minneapolis are now redeveloped and occupied – with new housing next door to boot.

That milestone was celebrated Thursday in the Sheridan neighborhood with an open house at the former Grain Belt office. The 1893 building was renovated by Everwood Development under its successful 2011 development proposal to the city that also built 150 units of new market-rate apartments next door.

“It looks like what you always thought it could be,” said longtime Sheridan activist Jenny Fortman as she gazed up at the skylight in the airy 1910 addition to the office building.  That skylight was covered by a roof in recent decades but once provided light for the brewery’s accountants, according to David Dye, an Everwood principal.

The firm has moved into part of the building’s upper floor from Little Canada, while representatives of Steven Scott Management will run the main floor rental office. Residents will get the skylighted area for a community room with wi-fi. They'll also have access to the brewery’s former hospitality room in the basement which retains a vintage German beer hall style bar, and adds pool tables.

Everwood’s proposal was selected over three competing developers, and it paid the city $1.55 million for the property. That included the office building, bare land for apartments that the city earlier cleared of two single-family houses a duplex and a warehouse, and a site that contains the foundations of the city’s first brewery. The office and housing development represent a $29 million project.

Dye said the apartment complex of two four-story buildings is 92 percent leased. One-bedroom units range between $1,300 and $1,500, two-bedroom units from $1,700 to $2,000, and three-bedroom units between $2,100 and $2,500.

The rental emphasis was a marked turnaround from an early 2000 competition for development rights for the Grain Belt complex. The winning developer then proposed 273 units of ownership housing in several phases across the former brewery grounds. But that deal never materialized and a new request for proposals was issued in 2011.

Dye said that the condo market was still in its recessionary hangover then.  He said he’s potentially interested in developing housing on other portions of the site. However, city officials haven’t decided if they’ll seek proposals for other bare-land sections of the complex.

There are site conditions that complicate building more housing at Grain Belt. One is a high-voltage transmission line that bisests the riverfront portion of the complex where higher-buck townhouses have been suggested in the past.  A rail line also bisects the complex. Using a parking lot on Marshall for housing likely would require an expensive ramp.

“I don’t know if it’s practical or not,” Dye conceded. Still, he added, “I’ve looked at a couple of sites and dreamed about them.”

Still, the Everwood project completes the rehab of the complex’s seven historically significant buildings.  The massive former brewhouse was redeveloped by Ryan Companies for RSP Architects. A former bottling house and a warehouse are occupied by artists. Other former buildings in the complex are incorporated into a Hennepin County library.

Brewing in the complex stopped in 1975 and it was bought by businessman Irwin Jacobs.  The city bought it from him in 1989 after twice blocking his plans to raze the buildings.

The office building, which housed some workers in the city’s development agency for about 10 years, proved the toughest to redevelop. That’s partly because it leaked copiously – through the roof, through the basement and even through walls, according to Kevin Carroll, the only one of four city development employees who worked closely on the redevelopment who hasn't retired. The others are Judy Cedar, Jerry LePage and Steve Maki.

It was Cedar who lined up state grants that supplied much of the nearly $300,000 the city sunk into trying to keep the building dry. That involved repairing the roof, improving sump pumps, clearing clogged window well drains, and making a better storm sewer connection.

One invisible bit of preservation was also accomplished by Everwood.  A piece of land fronting NE Marshall St. next door to the office building was protected with a membrane and grassed over.  That’s because it contains the foundations of the city’s first brewery, operated by John Orth, who began brewing in 1850. His brewery was one of four that combined to form Minnesota Brewing and Malting Company, which opened its new brewery in 1892.

One bit of arcana unearthed by Carroll points up the importance of the office building as the nerve center of Grain Belt’s operations. It was the place where beer salesmen turned in their receipts and also handled the company’s payroll. It was held up in 1941 by gunmen, reputedly Chicago gangsters, who made off with $50,000.  One employee, however, calmly remained in the basement hospitality room during the uproar, pouring himself another beer.

(Photos by Steve Brandt: Top: Community room in office building with new apartments through windows; Middle: Exterior office building entrance; Bottom: Hospitality room.)

Big changes urged for Cowles Conservatory

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: April 15, 2015 - 7:24 PM

The Cowles Conservatory of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden would lose its heat, its glass skirt, its current function and probably also its name under an advisory recommendation to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

The preferred option urged Tuesday evening by a study committee would keep glass in the building’s upper walls and roof, but remove it from the lower portion of the structure. That’s a compromise between greater sustainability and weather protection.

Regardless of whether you love or hate that idea, you’ll have less than 24 hours after the panel’s decision to react to the idea under an extraordinarily compressed time frame that puts the sculpture garden rehab plan before a Park Board committee for a public hearing at its meeting Wednesday evening.

Park officials chose to allow just one day for the public to absorb the latest recommendation in order to try to keep the overall $10.6 million project on track for a planned August construction start. The recommendation was the final piece in the citizen advisory committee’s five-meeting process of recommending how the garden renovation should proceed.

The main factor driving the conservatory decision is cost. The building brings in about $30,000 in rental income annually against an estimated $100,000 to heat and maintain it.

Eliminating heating will save on the expense side, and the group was told that selling warming and alcoholic beverages in the partially glassed building seasonally, plus rentals for weddings and other events, could boost the income side of the ledger.

The recommended option will cost an estimated $1.5 million, which fits within its allotment under the sculpture garden budget, which is already $600,000 over available funds.

The group rejected a different option that would have cost an estimated $400,000 more and heated only the central tower of the building, leaving its wings open. That would have cost more to operate.

It also rejected a more minimalist option that would have stripped the building of all of its glass, replacing it with some form of yet-to-be-defined covering for some protection from sun and precipitation.

The group was dubious about the weather worthiness of that proposal. Moreover, it was told that it that not removing all glass would be cheaper, leaving money that would allow restrooms and storage area to be moved to a new building. That would make the 60-foot square main hall more flexible.

The recommendation was made without full analysis of how well the various options will stand up to wind and the forces of cold and heat expanding and contracting an unheated building.

Olga Viso, director of the neighboring Walker Art Center, told the group that the structure’s capacity to bear the load of hanging art was even less than thought, and that an unheated building would be challenging for artwork.  But she said she’s discussed a potential lighted entrance installation with artists.

As for the building’s name, it will remain named after its Cowles family donors, but it will no longer serve as a botanical conservatory without heat.  Some members of the group suggested Cowles Pavilion as a more fitting appellation.

“It’s like Prince.  It will have a new name,” said panel chair Margaret Anderson Kelliher

Scrap recycler disputes state's focus on its dust

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: April 10, 2015 - 3:36 PM

A large scrap metal recycler on the city’s upper riverfront is claiming that a state regulator is singling it out over dust emissions and asserting that it has taken every step available to control such particles from its riverside yard.

Writing for Northern Metal Recycling, Michael Hansel, an engineer at Barr Engineering, asserted in a letter to the agency that for several half of the exceedances of a total particles standard the firm couldn’t have been responsible for them. A state monitor is located across the street from the firm.

The standard was exceeded for the fifth time in six months on March 19, according to that monitor. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency posted that on a web site for the monitor but didn't alert the public via e-mail until Friday.

Hensel said Friday that after a company Data Practices Act request, it appears that only other one of the six companies within one-quarter mile of the monitor responded with data when asked by the agency about their activities. That was GAF, a shingle company.

The engineer wrote that agency officials have told him that they intend to take the issue of the exceeded standards “to the next level.”  He said in an interview that could take the form of a letter asking for changes at the firm, a warning letter or a notice of a violation.

Hensel asserted to the agency that the wind direction and lack of barge loading operations suggest that the scrap yard didn’t contribute to or was a minor factor in all but one of the episodes. He said that unless the agency can show that the firm contributed to the emissions, further controls shouldn’t be investigated.

“My client already has every conceivable control measure installed and operating, and is the most tightly controlled and regulated metal shredder in the United States,” Hensel said. The firm has three types of dust control installed in its shredder building. It also sprays the yard and sweeps it, except in freezing temperatures.

The firm began operating a shredder several years ago to increase the market value of its scrap metal at mills. That followed a long-running controversy in which some area residents sought to block a shredder at a yard where scrap has been processed since 1951.

The agency in 2012 modified the company's emissions permit, which a test conducted soon after the shredder began operating in 2009 showed that the company was violating. The state rejected the need for further environmental studies sought by area lawmakers after concluding that the shredder would increase the area’s concentration of more dangerous small particles by 2 percent.  It installed the monitor shortly after but the violations haven’t involved the small-particle standard but rather those for overall particles.

Jeff Smith, director of the agency’s industrial division, said that because the investigation of the exceedances is continuing, he’s limited in what he could say. He said that Hensel’s assertions about the agency not following protocols and location of monitors are based on misunderstandings. He characterized Northern Metal as reluctant to participate in the agency’s investigation and said he hopes for more cooperation.

(Photo: Scrap metal enters the shredder operated by Northern Metal Recycling. Staff photo by David Brewster.)

City Council panel rejects Linden Hills height appeal

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: April 9, 2015 - 11:36 AM

A panel of Minneapolis City Council members Thursday nixed an appeal by some area residents against plans to build a 12,100-square-foot mixed office and retail building at a key intersection in the Linden Hills neighborhood.

The council's Zoning and Planning Committee unanimously denied the appeal brought by a group calling itself Residents Protecting the Shoreland Overlay. It claims to have attracted more than 100 signers for an online petition against the project.

The shoreland ordinance presents a set of additional zoning requirements for developments proposed within 1,000 feet of waters, in this case Lake Harriet.  The appealing residents argued that the proposed building's height of just over 50 feet violate the ordinance.

Nearby resident Kris Schweizer said the height approved by the Planning Commission under a conditional use permit sets a bad precedent for lakes area development.

But Council Member Lisa Goodman noted that the height limit in the zoning and shoreland ordinances of 2.5 stories or 35 feet, whichever is lower, applies only to what a property owner may build as a matter of right.  The council has the discretion to exceed that limit by attaching conditions to the development.

Much of the height that would exceed the ordinary limit is for mechanical systems, an elevator serving a rooftop deck for tenants and a staircase protrusion.

About half a dozen residents supported the appeal, some mentioning that their view of Harriet would be blocked. The project is being developed on land owned by Sebastian Joe's ice cream shop at the corner of W. 44th Street and Upton Avenue S.

Co-owner Michael Pellizzer said the business has considered numerous proposals and settled on one that would offer small retail specialty space, as well as small offices conducive to startup businesses. He said he delayed moving ahead until a Linden Hills zoning study was adopted.

Minneapolis considers new rental permit system

Posted by: Updated: April 7, 2015 - 6:32 PM

Jessica Jee

Star Tribune

Minneapolis city officials could soon stamp all rental properties with a new label based on their number of inspections, citations or police calls to give prospective tenants a better assessment of what they’re signing up for.

The rankings would reflect where landlords fall into a new tier system and determine property owners’ licensing fees based on their compliance with city standards. A proposal to establish the labeling system and hike some landlords’ fees is likely receive final approval in the coming months.

Minneapolis officials discussed the potential change at a committee meeting Tuesday, where some raised questions regarding the proposed system’s fairness on behalf of both tenants and landlords.

Councilmember Jacob Frey said it is important the change doesn’t negatively affect property owners who work hard to achieve a good ranking but manage tenants who drive up calls and citations for reasons beyond landlords’ control.

In addition to city inspections and other city-led assessments, the new labels will consider the amount of police incidents for drug offenses, prostitution, loud parties and violence.

Council members did not want to count incidents of domestic violence, fearing that tenants might feel pressured not to call police if they are the victim of abuse. The council also wants city staff to consider the makeup of the tenants of a building whe making the rankings for the property owner.

“How can we be sure that we’re not too hard on owners that are doing a really good job and are taking some [individuals who suffer from] mental illness or substance dependency or straight from homelessness," Frey said of well-meaning tenants who can result in more police calls. “I don’t want to discriminate against the individuals who are doing their work.”

Regulatory services chief Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde said the city staff would assess those scenarios case-by-case to ensure they are making fair assessments.

“We are cognizant that when we touch rental that we, perhaps, touch particularly communities more than others,” she said. “We sit down with folks, and we look at the circumstances…and adjust as needed.”

Only about 3 to 4 percent of the city’s total properties would fall into the most problematic category, Rivera-Vandermyde said. But those properties, she said, require more staff resources because of their amount of inspections, and the higher fees can make up for those costs.

“There are bad apples in every bunch,” said City Council President Barb Johnson, who authored the change.

Under the current billing model, property owners pay a $69 licensing fee and then another $19 per additional unit. The change would raise that fee based on properties’ placement in the three-tier system, while lowering the per-unit price for owners of large complexes since those are typically in better compliance with city standards.

If a property owner would move to appeal his or her ranking, Rivera-Vandermyde said the department would do an internal review and move forward by using that assessment. And based on the city’s more than 17,000 rental properties with one to three units that already use a similar tiered system, she said, landlords haven’t brought forward any serious objections to the appeal process.

The change follows the city’s introduction of a new, data-driven method to push landlords into improving their properties. City housing staff started inspecting and rating Minneapolis’ more than 23,000 rental properties last year to formulate a list of the city’s worst rental properties that unless improved, cannot obtain new licenses.

If it receives final approval in the coming months, the tiered system will roll out this summer. City staff will add the labels to landlords’ licenses and properties, as well as make them available online.

“We really tried hard to be balanced and fair,” Rivera-Vandermyde said. “We know this will impact people … We want to make sure property owners know that it rests on them, whatever tier they land on.”

Jessica Lee is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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