Malaysian developer adds sleek boutique building to downtown Minneapolis

  • Article by: JIM BUCHTA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 9, 2013 - 1:56 PM

A Malaysian developer is adding a sleek boutique building to the downtown rental mix.

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Jane Delworth did a walk-through of her new apartment at 915 Washington Av. N., built by Brunsfield, a Malaysian developer making its U.S. debut in Minneapolis.

Photo: RICHARD SENNOTT , Star Tribune

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When Jane Delworth was shopping for a Minneapolis apartment this summer, there were plenty to choose from, but few had the kind of flair that she’d come to appreciate while living in New York and Australia.

“They felt like some of the hotels I’ve stayed in,” she said. “Yet the prices were insane.”

But the Brunsfield North Loop, also called BNL, was an exception. She loved the building’s sleek design, as well as the ability to choose her own wall colors.

“I’m not someone who has an interest in owning my own home, but I want my space to be my own,” she said.

Vincent Lim, general manager for Brunsfield America, said BNL’s minimalist style, angled balconies and soaring glass lobby make it one of the few truly modern apartment buildings in the Twin Cities. Lim said the boutique structure is a standout in a market dominated by apartments that were designed to blend seamlessly into the streetscape. BNL offers 21 floor plans and each of its 47 units is unique in some way.

“This is an untapped market,” said Lim. “From day one, the goal was to create a building that’s different.”

BNL is the first development in the United States for Brunsfield, a Malaysian company that has developed thousands of apartments and condominiums around the world. It comes in the midst of an increasingly competitive rental market in the Twin Cities. In Minneapolis alone, about 1,400 new apartments are expected to hit the market this year, and another 2,800 to 3,200 are expected during the next couple of years, according to Marquette Advisors.

At a time when rolling granite islands, yoga studios and outdoor fire pits are de rigueur, Lim isn’t alone in his efforts to differentiate his project from others. At 7west Apartments on the University of Minnesota’s West Bank campus, Robb Miller and Curt Gunsbury are using the principles of feng shui to woo renters. And at the 222 Hennepin Apartments in downtown Minneapolis, there’s a swank wine tasting room called the Jag Club.

Whether such enticements will pay off for Brunsfield and others is unclear. BNL is still in its early days of leasing and is expected to be fully occupied by the end of the year, with rents averaging $2 to $2.30 per square foot. Experts say the rental market will face its most serious challenge sometime next year when several big projects come online.

Lim, a licensed architect in charge of launching Brunsfield’s U.S. operations, is betting that BNL will be a success. The company has incorporated a number of expensive details into the building, including wide hallways, upscale plumbing fixtures and floor-to-ceiling windows. Some have speculated that the building is ripe for conversion to condominiums, but Lim said that the company has made a long-term commitment to rentals.

Lim joined the company in the late 1990s after six years as a design project manager for Target Corp. following a stint as an architect at Twin Cities-based HGA Architects and Engineers. It was at HGA where Lim worked with Matthew Kreilich, a principal with Minneapolis-based Julie Snow Architects, known for its innovative commercial projects, including the recent renovation of the Federal Office Building and the Target Commons building along Nicollet Mall.

Kreilich said BNL, one of his firm’s few housing projects, offered an opportunity to do something unique because the site is not within the historic district, which comes with significant limits on how buildings can be designed. David Frank, chairman of the North Loop Neighborhood Association, said the group has always supported the project. “It stands out in a good way,” he said. “The neighborhood was very receptive to something that’s slightly unusual. We love it.”

Kreilich said because the building is along a section of Washington Avenue along the outer edge of downtown, there was an opportunity to create a unique gateway into the neighborhood.

“The question was, how do you blur the public and private realms?” he said.

Kreilich took cues from the dozens of former factories and warehouse buildings that were built when the area was the city’s key shipping hub. Many had wide, covered driveways that enabled horses, and later trucks, to haul goods into a central parking area for unloading. Reminiscent of that era, BNL has a covered courtyard entrance that’s flanked by the main-level lobby and retail space. To create a strong connection between the indoors and outdoors, that main level is essentially a 22-foot-tall glass box that’s completely transparent.

“My favorite thing about this building is the way it meets the sidewalk,” Kreilich said.

The six-story building has an organic community garden and benches made by a local craftsman. And Kreilich and Lim wanted the building to have a visual connection to its industrial neighbors, so it’s clad in recycled aluminum panels with simple metal balconies.

“I like the simplicity and precision,” Lim said. “This is a building that people have to see, feel and touch to fall in love with.”

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