Flames that engulfed a six-story apartment building under construction in south Minneapolis in the days following the death of George Floyd in police custody on May 25 were so hot they cracked and warped the precast concrete panels at the base of the building. Even the concrete footings beneath that parking level were damaged.
“We have to start over,” said developer David Wellington, as he surveyed the wreckage of the building in the days following the riots.
He and his father, Steve, spent more than five years planning Midtown Corner, a 189-unit apartment building with rents below market rate that is part of a multiphase redevelopment project in the area, and he will spend nearly the next two years rebuilding it.
The building was among more than 1,500 structures in the Twin Cities that were destroyed or damaged during the riots in late May. While Midtown Corner sustained some of the worst — and most expensive — damage, it is one of the first to get rebuilt. Wellington and other property owners in the city are still assessing the damage and negotiating with insurance companies, if they had coverage, and it is still too soon to tell how many buildings will get eventually be rebuilt.
“At this point many property owners are just trying to figure out things and trying to get a sense of what they’re working with,” said Elena Gaarder, president of the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers and a longtime resident of that part of south Minneapolis. “Reanimating that space and reimagining that corridor is going to take a long time.”
Wellington’s St. Paul-based company has been one of the most prolific locally based developers in the Twin Cities. The company owns and manages more than 100 commercial buildings in the metro, including a half-dozen properties in the Lake and Hiawatha corridor, which was the epicenter of the unrest.
He said bids and estimates are still rolling in, but at this point the company estimates that several buildings owned by the company sustained well over $30 million in combined damages during several nights of rioting and unrest, and he is committed to rebuilding all of them. Midtown Corner accounted for about half of that total.
In the days following the protests, as the fires still smoldered, Wellington said there was no doubt in his mind that they would try to rebuild. The decision wasn’t theirs alone. There were investors, insurance companies and others who were all part of the decisionmaking process. And the company had already made significant investments in the area over the past several years, so pulling out was never a priority.
“Many of our buildings didn’t burn down,” said Wellington. “We believe strongly in that area and that community, so we’re just trying to find a way to recommit ourselves to building it [the community] back.”
Wellington said that only hours after Floyd’s killing, it was clear that tensions were rising and the Midtown Corner building, which was just a few months from completion, was vulnerable.
“I knew the energy was building from the rightful anger and frustration and sadness and pain [of the community],” he said.
Crews had recently finished assembling the upper five floors of the building, a mostly wood-framed structure that atop a street-level concrete base with one level of underground parking. Though the structure was complete, the building lacked windows and was unoccupied at night. And the building, which was just a few blocks from the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct station at 3000 S. Minnehaha Av., was just a week or two from having a fire suppression system installed.
Wellington feared that if the building caught fire, little could be done to prevent its spread to neighboring structures, including a fully occupied apartment building.
On the second day of protests, as the fires and looting worsened, Wellington and a construction crew spent the day trying to secure the site. He deployed a team of security guards with hand-held fire extinguishers to patrol the building, and warned city officials and the fire department that the building was a “tinderbox that could burn up quickly,” he said.
When it was clear the situation was out of control, Wellington ordered the security guards to abandon the building. Wellington, who lives not far from the area and could hear the sirens and see the smoke, sat in his car with his father watching the building burn.
“It’s hard to comprehend the impact that specific moment has on the next several years of our life,” he said. “But the fundamental feeling we all have is deep sadness for what happened to George Floyd.”
Wellington spent the next two nights in the area trying to monitor the condition of the buildings. At the Hi-Lake Shopping Center, fire broke out several times and burned for days. Other holdings in the area including Blue Line Flats, a 135-unit apartment building for low-income renters, were slightly vandalized, but survived intact. With power out and thick smoke filling the air, Wellington and his staff loaded residents of Lake Street Station, a 64-unit apartment building for low-income seniors the company developed in 2015, into their cars and evacuated them to a hotel in Roseville for several days.
“The lack of a police presence was making everyone very concerned, especially for those vulnerable seniors,” he said.
By the morning after the fire started, photos of the fully engulfed Midtown Corner building had become a visual symbol of unrest in the city and Wellington was at the site surveying the damage.
The building was insured, but Wellington laments the delay in delivering much-needed rental housing for low-income renters. More than three dozen of the units were for very low-income residents, the rest of the 189 units would be made available at below market-rate rents.
“There is a deep housing shortage and this was a big loss to our community,” said Allison Sharkey, executive director of the Lake Street Council. In addition to the damage at Midtown Corner, 35 families lost housing in other buildings damaged by fire in south Minneapolis, she said.
“It is very important to replace the homes and units that have been lost,” she said.
Gaarder, who is part of the We Love Lake Street Fund Oversight Committee, which is organized by the Lake Street Council, has already raised more than $7 million to help businesses in the area rebuild. She said that immediately after the protests property owners were being contacted by out-of-the area investors who want to buy parcels for future redevelopment, so it’s relief that Midtown Corner will get rebuilt and remain in the hands of local ownership.
Wellington, who has done several income-restricted rental projects throughout the Twin Cities on difficult-to-redevelop sites, says Midtown Corner will get rebuilt as originally planned, but he worries about the rest of the community. He’s concerned that so many of the businesses that once occupied Lake Street won’t get rebuilt, and that higher rents in new buildings will displace many of the businesses that have helped stabilize the neighborhood over the past several years.
“Our commitment to that neighborhood has been forged over several decades, but this isn’t about us,” he said. “The pain that’s reverberating throughout the community is very real and very deep.”