The corner of 6th Street and 15th Avenue S. is a windswept lot in the shadow of downtown Minneapolis, but it will soon become home to a 259-unit apartment building offering affordable housing for low-income families.

"I've always found this to be a very interesting, important neighborhood," said Bianca Fine of Fine Associates, which is developing the property. "It's so rich in culture and life, and in diversity, and being an immigrant myself, the diversity is a very good thing."

The project comes at a time when the vast majority of rental buildings under construction in the city are geared toward renters who can afford luxury apartments that rent for $2 or more per square foot. But at Five15 on the Park, half the apartments will be for low-income renters, creating a community with people from all walks of the life.

The $52 million development will also help serve as an economic bridge between the burgeoning Downtown East neighborhood, where a $1 billion stadium is being built, and the bustling West Bank campus of the University of Minnesota, where a student housing boom is underway.

Throughout the Twin Cities, there is a dearth of affordable housing for the working poor. Only a quarter of the thousands of apartments under construction in the metro area will be affordable to low-income renters, said Mary Bujold, president of Maxfield Research. Average rents this year in the Twin Cities area broke $1,000 for the first time.

"The demand for affordable housing is far greater than the supply, and she [Fine] was really thoughtful and persistent in her approach," said Kevin Filter, president of Oak Grove Capital, a Twin Cities-based commercial lender helping to finance the project. "It's going to be an incredible long-term project for the neighborhood."

Fine, who is originally from Italy, set aside a career as a molecular biologist at the University of Minnesota to take over her husband's real estate business when he died more than a decade ago. Not long after that, she started thinking about ways to redevelop the site.

She hopes the project will help spark even more urban renewal in the same way that 110 Grant, a luxury high-rise building developed by her late husband in the mid 1980s, helped jump-start development along the south end of Nicollet Mall. That 33-story development helped create more density in a part of Nicollet Mall that was still a fledgling neighborhood. It also helped spark creation of the Loring Greenway, connecting the Nicollet Mall to Loring Park.

The affordable-housing crisis in Minnesota is only expected to get worse. A new report from the Minnesota Housing Partnership shows that the fair-market rent for a two-bedroom rental in Minnesota is about $850, and that a minimum-wage earner in Minnesota would have to work 91 hours per week — or hold 2.3 full time jobs — to afford the rent. And for the fourth year in a row, Minnesota has ranked the worst in the Midwest on housing affordability for minimum-wage workers.

Fine is making a significant investment in the project, and she's getting help from the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, which is providing $33 million in financing.

Cedar-Riverside is positioned to become a magnet for working-class commuters because of its proximity to mass transit, including a new light-rail stop along the new Green Line that will connect downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. And there are dozens of bus stops and bike trails throughout the neighborhood, making it perfect for families that rely on public transit.

Despite its promise and the demand for affordable housing, the project hasn't been without glitches. After Fine acquired the site across from Currie Park, she bought a small brick commercial building that was one of several Gluek Brewing "tied houses" in the city. These corner saloons, which sold only beer produced by the Gluek's Brewery, are considered by some to have historic status. Fine bought the building from a University of Minnesota engineering professor who converted into a home. Fine said she was willing to move the building, but eventually received permission from the Historic Preservation Commission to raze it.

There was also some opposition to Fine's request for tax-increment financing, and concerns the building would take the place of green space and add more density to an already heavily populated neighborhood.

Five15 is still about 18 months from completion, but Fine said she's optimistic that with commercial space for supportive neighborhood services — such as a day care and/or a health clinic and two parks — the project will be an asset to the neighborhood.

"I've always felt that more public and private resources should be put in that area," she said. "It has the potential to be an absolutely wonderful part of the city."

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376