The American Academy of Neurology’s new five-story headquarters at S. 2nd St. and Chicago Av. across from the Guthrie Theater.

Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

CFO Timothy J. Engel in the building’s “brain,” its lobby and reception area. Since the association’s move downtown, he said, “it’s amazing the change that has happened.” Nearly a quarter of its workforce now bikes to work or uses public transit.

Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

Academy of Neurology strikes right balance in its new home

  • Article by: DON JACOBSON
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • June 28, 2012 - 6:20 PM

When the American Academy of Neurology decided it was going to relocate from a suburban-style, 1970s office building in St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis' trendy Mills District, its leaders wanted to make a statement about who they are and what they could add to the city's vibrancy.

Now, two months after the move to its 63,000-square-foot office building across from the Guthrie Theater, they feel they've accomplished that goal and more.

"We probably wouldn't change anything about the process we used and the way it's turned out," the academy's Chief Financial Officer Timothy Engel told members of the Minnesota Commercial Real Estate Women at a presentation this month.

Engel said the academy -- an international professional association of more than 25,000 neurologists and neuroscience professionals -- was seeking a new home that would be able to host more than 80 meetings per year of doctors coming to the Twin Cities to discuss the latest developments in the field of brain diseases. It also wanted to give its 120 employees a state-of-the-art working environment.

The new five-story, $20 million facility succeeds on both counts, he said, thanks to the close collaboration on the project between the academy and its partners in the effort -- commercial real estate firm Nelson, Tietz & Hoye, ESG Architects, interior designer 20 Below and general contractor Mortenson Construction.

One of first areas of collaboration was selection of the site. With the help of Paul Johnson of Nelson Tietz & Hoye, the academy learned of the availability of a city-owned L-shaped lot that wrapped around the Riverfront Parking Ramp fronting S. 2nd Street at Chicago Av., directly across from the Guthrie.

The so-called Parcel E Liner was originally slated for condos, a proposal that fell through in 2007, and was put out for requests for development by the city. A joint proposal by the academy and the nonprofit housing developer Artspace won out in 2010, with the academy's portion of it receiving financing partly through the issuance of $16.5 million in city-backed bonds.

"We spent a lot of time looking at various locations around the Twin Cities and took a really wide view of where we were going to be," Engel said. "What we had before was essentially a suburban location, and the staff was concerned about moving to downtown Minneapolis. They were concerned about traffic, parking and security."

But since the official April 29 move-in, those worries have been overwhelmed by the benefits of being downtown, including mass transit, he said.

"Since the move, it's amazing the change that has happened," Engel said. "Almost 30 people -- nearly 25 percent of our workforce -- have gotten out of their cars. They're now on the bus, on the light rail or on the Northstar commuter rail, and we have people riding their bikes to work."

Meanwhile, AAN was keen on the idea of producing a signature building whose design paid homage to the relationship between human brain and the rest of the body, added David Graham, a principal with ESG Architects.

"Early on, we came up with a metaphor for the building, which was to create a brain, a spine and a body," he said.

The "brain" of the building is its lobby and reception area facing the corner of 2nd and Chicago. In a reversal of usual office building hierarchies, the executive offices are on the first floor to facilitate openness with the public and staff.

Its "spine" is a wide, open stairway that connects the five floors, much as the human spine vertically links the brain to the rest of the body, while its "body" are the offices and workspaces, which were laid out by 20 Below to emphasize both casual and formal collaboration spaces.

Don Jacobson is a St. Paul-based freelance writer.

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