Dinkytown was bustling with anticipation of the upcoming school year this week as students from across the state and country unpacked vans and pickups while moving into dorms at the University of Minnesota.
They were also taking up residence in some of the thousands of new, upscale student apartments that have sprung up around Dinkytown in the past few years. Since 2012, about 2,100 units have either been built or are under construction in the area.
It's a building boom that's far from over, as a groundbreaking ceremony held Tuesday at a Dinkytown lot demonstrated. But the backers of the Fourth Street Housing Cooperative say they will have something quite different from the growing cluster of U-area apartments with their new 66-unit, $12 million building when it's completed in time for next year's fall move-in week.
Riverton Community Housing, a nonprofit developer that owns 434 units of cooperatively run student housing around the university, celebrated the culmination of two years of effort with the gathering at the corner of 4th Street and 13th Avenue SE., where the new building will go up next to its 18-story Chateau apartment building. An older, 16-unit co-op building on the 11,000-square-foot lot is being razed to make room for the newcomer.
Student-managed co-op housing has been around since 1960s, established in response to rising rents in privately owned housing in Dinkytown and the West Bank. That dynamic is at work again in a big way, the group says — the new spate of apartments going up around the U are pricey and are coming at a time when many students of modest means must go deep into debt to afford a college education.
Backers say rents at the co-ops are 10 to 15 percent lower due to their nonprofit ownership structure and because the students themselves are responsible for the maintenance via their membership in the co-op board, which also provides them valuable experience in organizational management.
But while offering lower rents and management training, Riverton's 41-year-old Chateau building and its five other co-op properties have had little to compete with the "wow factor" and shiny amenities of the new, privately owned apartment buildings, most of which also offer trendy retailing on the first floor. The Fourth Street Housing Cooperative's designers say the new building will change that situation.
Veteran nonprofit developer Project for Pride in Living is managing the project. PPL's Mary Novak and architect David Haaland of UrbanWorks together have implemented concepts they say will combine the eye appeal of the other new apartments with its unique purpose as a co-op.
"Riverton's board was very intent on making sure the design represented the co-op model, but also wanted it to be vibrant and distinctive," Haaland said. "So we're using three different colors of Nichiha (fiber cement architectural wall) panels that we feel sets up an interesting contrast with the surrounding buildings.
"For instance, both the Chateau and the Library Bar and Grill across 13th Avenue are cast-in-place concrete, and we wanted to make the building really stand out."
As a co-op, the residents will need a boardroom, so Novak and Haaland came up with the idea of combining that function with a first-floor retail space. For instance, if a coffee shop were signed as tenant, it could use the 2,500 square feet facing Fourth Street the majority of the time but it could transform into meeting space when needed by the student board.
Novak said the project also accomplishes a stated goal of the city and the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood — the extension of storefront retail businesses beyond the four-block core of the Dinkytown "activity center." The neighborhood master plan, adopted this month by the City Council, calls for expanding the Dinkytown mixed-use business district to the blocks immediately surrounding the core area, such as the site of the new building.
Don Jacobson is a freelance writer in St. Paul and former editor of the Minnesota Real Estate Journal.