Not so long ago, contaminated “brownfields” in Minnesota were viewed as a little more than hopeless blight. But now with consumer demand spiking for close-in locations, developers are increasingly on the hunt for polluted sites that benefit from easy access to the urban core.
With government subsidies available to clean them up and demand still high for inner-ring locations, builders are now converting these “infill” sites into an ever-expanding variety of uses. The trend was clear in the 10 metro Twin Cities finalists for this year’s ReScape Awards, which will be handed out by the nonprofit industry group Minnesota Brownfields on Nov. 9.
“When we started the ReScape awards program in 2012, the real estate market was still in the doldrums, and we struggled to find infill projects to recognize,” said program executive director Martha Faust. “Here and nationally, however, infill and redevelopment has led the real estate market recovery.”
This year’s crop, she said, reflects growing diversity of project types on reclaimed sites, signaling a maturing market as commercial developers have found that even with the added costs of remediation, such brownfield sites are financially outperforming suburban “greenfield” development.
“It’s an even split this year of housing and mixed use, commercial and industrial, institutional uses and infrastructure and energy,” Faust said. “And there’s a diversity of project locations, highlighting how brownfields can be used across the metro and state.”
Making the list for the first time this year are infill sites used for midsize energy and stormwater systems, built with a goal of achieving sustainability objectives on brownfield sites.
Here’s a rundown of this year’s 10 metro-area finalists:
700 Central, Minneapolis. Nolan Properties Group and Bader Development purchased an 1897 building and adjacent vacant lot out of foreclosure and tapped funds from the Metropolitan Council and Hennepin County to abate asbestos and clean up contaminated soils for this mixed-use project.
Catholic Charities Higher Ground, St. Paul. This project to create a new kind of overnight and emergency shelter for the homeless in downtown St. Paul was built on reclaimed land that had been contaminated by hydrocarbons, arsenic, lead, mercury, diesel range organics and asbestos.
Chaska Firemen’s Park Redevelopment. The former Chaska Brick brickyards had been polluted by underground petroleum tanks, but has since been redeveloped into a multipurpose community space with a firemen’s memorial, a brickyard history walk and a 300-seat event center.
Millworks Lofts, Minneapolis. Dominium’s project to renovate a 1926 industrial building along the Hiawatha Corridor into affordable housing included the installation of an active sub-slab vapor mitigation control system and the removal of a 10,000 gallon above-ground fuel storage tank.
Oxbo West 7th Street Mixed Use Project, St. Paul. A $52 million effort to redevelop a key corner near the Xcel Energy Center required builder Opus Development to excavate and haul away 19.4 tons of soil contaminated with asbestos, as well as a further 13,400 tons unfit for reuse.
Plymouth Building/Embassy Suites, Minneapolis. Among the many hazardous material mitigations necessary for Ryan Companies to transform the 1911 Plymouth Building on Hennepin Avenue into a new Embassy Suites hotel was the removal of a potentially dangerous 100-pound chlorine gas tank from the building’s basement.
Saints Business Center, St. Paul. The effort by the St. Paul Port Authority to ready the former home of the St. Paul Saints for redevelopment into a new 190,000-square foot office/warehouse included dealing with high methane levels on the site, which was once a dump for the State Fair.
Towerside District Stormwater System, Minneapolis. The Mississippi Watershed Management Organization spearheaded a collaborative effort to establish an innovative, $1.3 million shared stormwater treatment system in Minneapolis’ fast-developing Prospect Park neighborhood.
University of Minnesota Combined Heat and Power Plant, Minneapolis. The U’s project to retrofit its outdated 1912 steam plant had to navigate challenges including a difficult site built into a Mississippi River bluff and the abatement of contaminants in tight working areas.
Northern Stacks Buildings II & III, Fridley. The two buildings, completed in 2016 and 2017, are part of Hyde Development’s larger project to convert a former federal and state superfund site into one of most successful office/industrial projects in the metro area.
Don Jacobson is a freelance writer based in St. Paul. He is the former editor of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Real Estate Journal.