Sleek new buildings feature a wide array of amenities.
The squat, drab auto dealerships that have pocked suburban landscapes for decades are giving way to a new breed of buildings that look more like sleek office or shopping complexes.
Visitors to a BMW dealership in Minnetonka can relax in a lounge with a fireplace or a 12-seat movie theater. A Subaru dealership in Burnsville was the city's first to be LEED-certified for eco-friendly building practices. Other new dealerships use off-site parking, cutting down on the need for sprawling, unsightly surface lots full of cars.
The transformation is being driven by automakers eager to create distinctive looks for their brands and give them a competitive edge. But for suburban communities, the payoff includes a better-looking commercial landscape and new and revamped properties with higher property taxes.
"Traditionally, auto dealerships have not been the most beautiful buildings in the world, and some of our brothers have made it worse by doing things like putting giant inflatable gorillas on top," said Doug Sprinthall, director of new and used car operations for Walser Automotive Group. "In some ways, we've been our own worst enemies."
The new dealerships generally get a good reception from city planners, Sprinthall said. "When you're showing plans for an upgrade, it's a pretty easy sell."
In Minnetonka, the tax on the glitzy BMW dealership built in 2010 is now close to $1 million, compared with about $82,000 just a few years ago.
Community Development Director Julie Wischnack points out the tax benefit extends beyond city borders. Among other things, some goes into the metrowide fiscal disparities pool, where it's tapped by less affluent communities. "It's good for the region, not just Minnetonka," she said.
There are other benefits that accrue to the city. BMW and other revamped dealerships face a stretch of Interstate 394 where about 100,000 cars pass each day, making it a public window into the entire community, Wischnack said.
On Brooklyn Boulevard in Brooklyn Center, Luther Automotive is putting up a Honda and Toyota dealership, and the difference between old and new is in very plain view. Across the street from the gleaming two-story facade of the new dealership stands the nondescript structure that has housed Luther's Brookdale Honda for many years.
Gary Eitel, Brooklyn Center's business and development director, said part of the site for the new dealership had sat vacant for several years. With a price of $25 million, the complex to be completed this fall stands to be a much bigger contributor to the city's tax rolls, he said.
"These projects create jobs, they create commerce, they create interest in the area that builds to other successes," Eitel said.
New Hope architect Darwin Lindahl, who specializes in auto dealerships, said city planners have greeted plans for new facilities more positively than in the past. With small buildings surrounded by seas of asphalt, auto dealerships traditionally have been resisted or grudgingly approved.
But that's changing, and not just because the newer dealerships are more attractive. At a time when other commercial development has yet to rebound from the economic downturn, dealership projects are filling a void, Lindahl said.
Luther's new Brooklyn Center dealership isn't the only one to be built on dormant property. Its Burnsville Volkswagen, opened last year, was built on the site of a General Cinema movie theater that had been closed for several years. Other new dealerships have replaced dealers' facilities that went out of business.
Lindahl said the working relationship with cities now "is almost like a 180-degree change in attitude compared to 2008."
The volume of building activity has prompted Lindahl to devote his entire practice to the automotive market. His recent projects include renovations of a Toyota dealership in Burnsville and a Chrysler Jeep dealership in Roseville. His current work includes upgrading Maplewood Toyota, replacing its stucco exterior with aluminum composite panels to give the building a silvery look. Interior work will include revamping "customer touch points," he said, such as the showroom, customer lounge and reception area.
Lindahl and area dealers say that auto manufacturers have mandated the upgrades, in some cases providing financial incentives. Part of automakers' goal is to establish a uniform design so consumers can recognize a brand anywhere in the country.
Distinct brand identities
As it emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, General Motors began encouraging dealers to renovate as part of an overall initiative to buff up and provide distinct identities for its brands. As a result, local dealerships including Mauer Chevrolet in Inver Grove Heights, Friendly Chevrolet in Fridley and Village Chevrolet in Wayzata have undergone makeovers in recent years.
One of the most ambitious recent GM-related projects by Morrie's Automotive Group was a new Cadillac/Saab dealership in Golden Valley built on the site of another dealership that had closed. The $5 million building could pass for a restaurant or shopping complex on the outside. "The bathrooms are nicer than the ones in my home," said Karl Schmidt, Morrie's chief operating officer.
Schmidt believes the impetus for better-looking dealerships also has come from foreign automakers, especially higher-end brands. "When Lexus came in here, it grabbed big market share with fewer but more impressive facilities," he said.
The BMW dealership in Minnetonka was developed after the city revised its code to allow a new one to be built on the site. The city and the dealership agreed the new building would have underground parking for about 500 cars to reduce the amount of surface parking.
Peter Coyle, a Minneapolis attorney who represented the BMW dealership in its negotiations with the city, said some dealerships now use off-site parking facilities for some of their vehicles. That cuts down on the need for huge, brightly lit parking lots, a source of tension when those facilities are close to neighborhoods, he said.
The more cooperative relationship between dealerships and cities was highlighted in Burnsville in 2010, when Walser Subaru presented Mayor Elizabeth Kautz with a framed certificate to thank the city for its help in building the LEED-certified dealership. Awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED recognizes buildings for energy-efficient and environmentally friendly projects. It occupies a site vacated by an auto leasing operation.
Lindahl said transformation dealerships have spread outside the metro area. He's currently working on projects in Monticello and Pipestone.
Morrie's plans include building a Mazda dealership in Chippewa Falls, Wis. Schmidt said the new building will replace the existing dealership that "looks like a pole barn."
Susan Feyder • 952-746-3282