New Habitat for Humanity HQ convenient to transit

  • Article by: JANET MOORE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 21, 2014 - 9:56 PM

The light rail played a big part in the nonprofits’ new headquarters site, and accessibility was a theme in the building’s design, too.

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The first “headquarters” for Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, if you could even call it that, was a spare church basement.

More recently, the organization crammed into a warehouse in southeast Minneapolis with little natural light, no parking and often-touchy plumbing.

On Monday, it will open a new headquarters in St. Paul — a three-story, 28,000-square foot building that cost $6.9 million and is designed to be more accessible to the low-income families it helps and the volunteers who support it.

The building needed to be a “welcome center,” said Betsy Vohs, senior associate for Gensler, the architecture firm that designed the sleek structure at 1954 W. University Av. “We wanted to create a place that is happy and hopeful. We want the building to say, ‘We are here to help,’ ” she said.

A key part of that welcoming vibe is proximity to the Central Corridor light-rail line, which begins service June 14, as well as to Metro Transit bus service.

Providing easy access for families who may not have a car was “absolutely vital,” said Susan Haigh, president of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity. The building is just a block away from the Fairview Avenue light-rail stop, and a bus stop is right at its front door.

Habitat for Humanity’s new home is one of the most visually striking examples of new construction along the Central Corridor line, which will link the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Since late 2011, the pending addition of mass transit in the area has spurred about $1.8 billion of new construction and renovation to existing structures along the trains’ path, including about 13,000 housing units and 2.3 million square feet of commercial space, according to Metro Transit’s Central Corridor LRT Project. Even still, spokeswoman Laura Baenen said the numbers are a conservative estimate, since many developers have not announced the value of their projects.

The new Habitat headquarters will be close to several other nonprofit groups. Less than a block away, Episcopal Homes is building a $46 million expansion to its Iris Park campus for seniors, the first phase of which is slated to open Nov. 1. The final move-in date is early 2015.

The 171-unit project includes three buildings — targeting skilled nursing, affordable units and “catered” independent living — on the site of the former Porky’s Drive-In. Episcopal Homes spokeswoman Deb Veit said there’s a five-year waiting list for affordable units and up to a three-year wait for apartments featuring skilled nursing care.

The campus already has 287 senior units, but Veit said the advent of light rail has proved to be a draw for residents. Public transit is also a plus for Episcopal Homes as it tries to attract employees to work at the complex, she added.

While the location of Habitat for Humanity’s new headquarters was a critical component of the group’s expansion, it was important for the design of the new digs to reflect the services provided within, Gensler’s Vohs said. While best known for enlisting volunteers to build and rehab housing for low-income families, the organization also helps homeowners maintain their homes, and assists with financial literacy programs related to homeownership.

“It was really important for us to buy property and put down roots,” Haigh said. “We really wanted to put our values out there.”

The first floor of the LEED-silver certified firm, which was built by McGough Construction, features a glassy face to the street, with rocking chairs and a fireplace providing a kind of living room for Habitat clients. There’s also meeting space for individuals, small and large groups, a kids’ play area, as well as space for Habitat staff on the second and third floors. The organization employs about 125 people, and has an army of several thousand volunteers.

Neat details abound: The front desk was crafted from an oak tree that was felled on a Habitat property; a wall is covered with donated fabric swatches arranged in quilted patches; and the fireplace brick was gleaned from the low-lying building that formerly inhabited the property.

In the past quarter century, Habitat for Humanity says it has served some 7,000 families in the Twin Cities, but Haigh said the new headquarters will help the organization serve an additional 5,800 in the next three years. “We’re building communities,” she said. “Our work is never done.”

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