Tod Elkins and Noah Bly have left their mark on the Twin Cities with distinct residential and mixed-use designs that emerged over the past 12 years from their small-but-influential firm UrbanWorks Architecture.
Now, their relationship is changing.
Bly is selling his stake in the firm and leaving to pursue his own future as a developer. Elkins will become 100 percent owner and expand UrbanWorks into other Midwestern cities as it charts a course for its busiest year yet.
And while it may be the end of an era for the firm itself, Elkins and Bly said it won’t spell the finish for the pair’s efforts to produce memorable buildings together.
“The market timing’s right for Noah to do what I think what his first love is, which is developing buildings,” Elkins said. “And at the same time, I get to keep doing what I love to do, which is the architecture part of it. And we’ll still be working together on the same kind of quality projects as client and architect.”
“We’ve had vision statements and mission statements over our time at UrbanWorks, and one of them has been to make the world a better place through architecture,” added Bly. “And for me going forward as a developer, that’s going to remain the same, and maintaining my relationship with the firm as a client will be a big part of that.”
The pair’s legacy as partners is especially keenly felt in the North Loop, where UrbanWorks has been at the center of the neighborhood’s transformation from postindustrial bleakness into the hottest multifamily market in the Twin Cities. Their creativity with the condo buildings, apartments and mixed-use projects that came their way pushed the envelope for the Twin Cities market.
The firm established itself with a signature series of pre-recession North Loop condo projects that set the stage for a booming housing market that was to come: the 710, 720 and 730 Lofts from developer Schafer Richardson, the last of which was completed in 2008. They looked and felt different from anything seen previously in downtown Minneapolis and heralded the arrival of new level of risk-taking in multifamily design.
Elkins said UrbanWorks survived the Great Recession while other firms specializing in new development fell by the wayside in part because it remained small, efficient and client focused, allowing it to attract and retain the most stable developers during the worst of the real estate crash.
As a result, they were also in prime position to charge ahead when the economy improved and stood ready when the apartment-building phenomenon really took off around 2012. In the years since, they have designed such notable multifamily projects as 4Marq in downtown Minneapolis; Longfellow Station at Lake Street & Hiawatha; Be @ The Calhoun Greenway; and many others. In total, the firm has completed more than $700 million in projects, including the office, institutional and nonresidential buildings.
Its billings, Bly said, rose by 3 percent from 2015 to 2016, and are likely to grow another 12 percent for 2017 — signaling stability and providing him an opportunity to move to a new phase of his career with the practice on a firm financial footing.
Bly’s first apartment project as a developer demonstrates how he and UrbanWorks are likely to work together in the future. Called Ray, the project is a 79-unit building at a former industrial site in St. Paul near the Raymond Avenue Green Line station. It continues the pattern of forward-looking thinking Bly was known for as a partner in the firm in that it’s among the pioneering examples of “micro-unit” properties in the metro area.
Elkins, meanwhile, said UrbanWorks is poised to accelerate its expansion into the Des Moines and Kansas City markets this year, capitalizing on the cachet he helped Minneapolis earn as a hotbed of cutting-edge architecture.
Don Jacobson is a freelance writer based in St. Paul. He is the former editor of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Real Estate Journal.