Jaci Obst Bell has been around the block. She helped spearhead the development of the Kraus-Anderson (KA) Block in downtown Minneapolis near U.S. Bank Stadium that included the new headquarters for the KA real estate company as well as the construction of the HQ apartments, Elliot Park Hotel and the Finnegans microbrewery. Obst Bell was recently hired by Mortenson Development as a development executive where she will lead the build-out of the Midway “super block” that surrounds the new Allianz Field in St. Paul. Development of the entire 35-acre “super block,” which encompasses land between University Avenue, Interstate 94, Snelling Avenue and Pascal Street, will likely take a decade to complete and cost two to three times the $250 million spent on the soccer stadium itself.
Q: What attracted you to Mortenson Development?
A: It’s really diverse. It’s diverse in a number of ways. I think that for me it’s diverse culturally where women are in many important leadership roles. It’s also diverse in terms of the type of work that they do and the expanse of work that they do. Their innovation in research. There’s a lot of different creative strategies and forward-thinking areas of business. Those were all things that I was really drawn to. And not to mention they have 12 different regional offices so there’s also many other locations as well.
Q: How do you define your new role at Mortenson?
A: My background is very different from most developers. My background is environmental design [in which she has a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the U] meaning the visioning part of a project is deep. It runs deep with me. And I really rely on that background and those skill sets. … That’s my starting point. I describe my development work as partly visioning, so where is Main and Main? I look at what to create alongside incredibly talented professionals like architects and civil engineers, investors and of course then the next step is working with communities and municipalities and going through the process of matching what is the vision for the client with what is possible or the vision of the community or municipality. Then there’s pulling that all together and of course building something. The best part of development is actually creating something real.
Q: How would you compare the work you did on the KA Block and your work to establish the Midway “super block?”
A: When I came on board to both groups, these were both mixed-use projects and they were both already entitled. This [“super block”] project in particular has already gone through the initial visioning steps of what is possible. What is next is how does that meet market needs. … That guidance is interwoven with what the client wants which is a tremendously successful, integrated part of the community fabric with mixed uses meaning retail, residential, office, service uses. … While I would say that this area is also in some ways at this scale unproven, there are tremendously successful universities within 3.5 miles of here — nine, that’s a lot. The population is intensely dense at this location, and there are a number of thriving churches and thriving businesses. The context is richer here. … In this case, this build-out is going to be more of a build-out over time.
Q: What are some of the challenges with redeveloping this site especially considering the heavy traffic?
A: It is a tremendously populated intersection. Snelling is like 30,000 trips a day and University Avenue is like 20,000 trips a day, which is really intense. But this area gets to rely on really successful mass transit. The Green Line is a really big deal. It’s a big deal for the metropolitan area and it’s a big deal for our region and it’s a big deal for this site.
Q: Would you wait for possible tenants before you start building or will some developments in the Midway be constructed on spec?
A: On something like this where you would build it out over time, the preference would be to not build it out on spec. It would be to have a client that you are building something very specific and tailored for. It will be a phased project with likely the west side along Snelling [being developed first] … and then wrapping along University and then Pascal. … To see the level of interest internationally and locally is really impressive. I think it falls within the anticipated and proven development of TOD [transit oriented development] sites.
Q: In a decade when you visit the completed “super block” what would you want it to feel like?
A: I would say lively and cared for. … That the “super block” bridges that icon [Allianz Field] with the rest of the community.
Q: What are some other projects or property types you want to work on at Mortenson?
A: I like trying new things. I like to be a part of things that matter for our metropolitan area. Working on something as big as this or as important or iconic is inspiring, and it’s a joy to be a part of and it matters for our region. This stadium project matters internationally. Working on projects that are of importance whether they are medical, industrial, educational … is exciting. I think mixed-use is really intriguing and challenging.