The number of commercial property foreclosures in Hennepin County dropped by nearly half in the first quarter in what one local professional called a possible lull before the storm.

A total of 24 properties went back to the bank in the first quarter -- including Brookdale Center -- down from 46 in the first quarter last year, according to numbers out Monday from the Hennepin County Taxpayer Services Department. Driving the drop was a falloff in the number of Minneapolis apartment buildings that went into foreclosure -- only eight this year compared with 25 last year. By comparison, the number of foreclosed office-industrial-retail properties in Minneapolis stayed flat: Six.

Excluding apartment buildings, there were 13 commercial property foreclosures in the county during the first three months of the year, down from 19 in 2009.

But the numbers remain elevated. "It's one more indication of stress on the whole system," said Ken Howe, a manager in the Hennepin County Taxpayer Services Department.

The single largest foreclosure, judging by estimated market value of the property, was one of the buildings in Edina's Pentagon Park, a stalled office park redevelopment. The four-story building, at 7600 Parklawn Av., had an estimated market value of $3.85 million, according to the county.

The second-largest was a 1920s apartment building at 220 E. 19th St. in Minneapolis valued at $2.8 million owned by a Minneapolis entity called Arts Avenue Properties Inc.

Brookdale Center, which went back to lenders in February, had a market value of about $1.8 million.

No one knows exactly what caused the foreclosure decline or whether it will continue. At least two real estate professionals speculated that inexperienced owners who purchased small apartment complexes at high prices with aggressive loans during the boom were flushed out of the market last year, unable to get refinanced after values plunged. Generally speaking, the apartment sector has fared relatively well through the commercial real estate bust.

"We've seen operations stabilize," said Ted Abramson, an associate in the multi-housing group at CB Richard Ellis. "We've seen vacancies go down and rents stay flat."

Abramson also said he thinks lenders are getting more creative with apartment loans as they come due, "trying to work on loans with people they believe to be good operators."

Jeffrey Larson, president of Eagan-based JBL Cos., which handles distressed real estate and receiverships, said the drop jibes with what he describes as a lull in activity this year. But he's not reading much into the drop because so many landlords are facing loans coming due in the next few years. The next phase, he said, starts as the five-year loans community banks made near the peak of the market for commercial-industrial buildings come due.

"There's a little blip going on right now," Larson said.

Others agree.

"You wait and see what happens this year," said Jim Bifaro, a mortgage broker at Minneapolis-based JMB Realty Services Inc. specializing in commercial and apartment lending. The apartment market is basically OK, he said. It's everything else that's a concern.

Bifaro said he recently reviewed a portfolio of 17 Class A office properties in the Twin Cities' first-ring suburbs. Every one of the buildings was underwater, he said, meaning that the owner owed more on the property that it was worth.

Said Bifaro, "Everybody is struggling."

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683