The 20-year transformation of Washington Avenue S. in downtown Minneapolis is headed toward a finale that features five projects worth more than a half-billion dollars that would turn the area’s last surface parking lots into residences, shops and offices.

They include a 30-story office tower that has been four years in the making and a 17-story luxury apartment tower pitched by the owners of the Minnesota Vikings along the busy thoroughfare stretching from Hennepin Avenue to Interstate 35W.

As those projects work their way through the approvals process, developers, residents and city planners are wrestling with issues of density and design in a part of the city where a wasteland of weed-strewn lots and abandoned rail yards dominated not long ago.

“This was once the DMZ of the city,” recalled Gary Holmes, head of the Washington Avenue-based development company CSM Corp. “All of this area was risky.”

“This was a sort of a speculative venture,” said City Council Member Steve Fletcher, who represents the area. “You had to be a little bit gutsy as a developer to come in and build something here.”

Filling in the blanks on Washington Avenue

A building boom is underway on Washington Av. S. which used to be dominated by surface parking lots.

A turning point for the area came in the late 1990s when Brighton Development converted a string of abandoned mill buildings overlooking the Mississippi River into upscale condos. Later, a new Guthrie Theater and MacPhail Center for Music were built, and the Mill City Museum sprouted from an old mill building overlooking St. Anthony Falls.

During that same era, Holmes remembers being approached by then-Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton about redeveloping the derelict Milwaukee Road Depot, which had been sitting vacant for years.

“I thought she had been drinking whiskey,” Holmes joked as he remembered Sayles Belton popping into his office unannounced.

From 1999 to 2001, CSM restored the historic train shed and Depot landmark and created the Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel, the Residence Inn and the Depot event space, that included an ice rink and an office center across the street.

The project has been lauded as a success. And by the end of this year, CSM plans to finish a $7 million expansion of its event space.

This summer, a few blocks away, Sherman Associates finished East End, a half-block development that includes 180 apartments and a much-anticipated Trader Joe’s grocery.

The company, which works from offices along Washington Avenue, is doing more. On the other half of the East End block, Sherman is converting the Thresher Square building into a hotel. And just last week, Sherman presented updated plans to a neighborhood group to build 340 apartments and a possible new fire station on a sprawling parking lot on Washington Avenue between Portland and 5th avenues.

“East Town is not just the North Loop’s little brother anymore. It’s become its own thing,” said Shane LaFave, director of multifamily development for Sherman Associates.

Though competition for sites in the area has been intense, the projects that are expected to occupy the last of the Washington surface lots come at a time when apartment and office space absorption has slowed.

After a chosen developer stepped away last year from working on a small strip of land at 800 Washington Av. S. known as the Guthrie Liner Parcel, four developers responded to a second request for proposals.

Los Angeles-based AECOM emerged with the city’s preferred bid. AECOM, which has developed projects from Rio to London, wants to use a white “bio concrete” material that’s manufactured in Italy to build an upscale condo building with walls of glass and scattered “pocket gardens” for several units.

That proposal comes as developers prepare to break ground on two nearby condo towers that are expected to test the depth of the luxury condo market in the city, where seven-figure prices aren’t uncommon.

AECOM is still considering the final height and unit count before it makes final applications.

The biggest, and most risky, proposal is a 30-story tower that United Properties and JMI Realty Inc. want to develop on a parking lot at Washington and Hennepin avenues, the gateway to the neighborhood.

City officials have granted several extensions to the developers to secure financing for the project, which at one point was estimated to cost $330 million. Developers had planned to include a high-end hotel, but due to market conditions, the hotel component may no longer be part of the project. United Properties plans to submit the land-use application for the tower by the end of the month.

In all of the remaining Washington Avenue projects, developers and architects are being asked to more critically evaluate how their buildings’ design is affecting the rapidly developing neighborhood.

“It’s an exciting design challenge,” said Chris Palkowitsch, a senior project architect at BKV Group, which is designing a 17-story apartment tower being proposed by the development company of the Wilf family, owners of the Vikings football team.

Some neighbors have pushed back on that project, expressing concern over its size and its potential to block light and prized views from a nearby converted condo building.

At its latest meeting, the land-use committee of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association said it would provide a letter of support for the project, but the committee continued to have concerns about the height of the building and challenged the developers to make other design changes to make the complex more appealing to those who live close by.

Similar concerns are emerging just a couple blocks down Washington Avenue S., where TEMiller and Solhem Cos. want to build a low-rise apartment building that would wrap around the back of a historic storefront that’s now a restaurant and brewery. The owner of Day Block Brewing has said he was concerned the development blocked in his back patio and could cause a clash over noise and possibly parking.

Joe Tamburino, president of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association and a resident of the Mill District, said that while he’s an advocate of adding more housing and increasing the density of the neighborhood, he’s no fan of how some of those buildings look.

“It’s too cookie cutter,” he said. “It’s all looking the same, it’s the same as everything else.”

Fletcher agrees that more attention needs to be paid to the final projects that are built. He said that as space becomes limited, developers and residents need to make sure homes are built that are affordable and retail services needed in the neighborhood are being included.

Steve Cramer, president and chief executive of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, said the transformation of Washington Avenue S. has already been “truly remarkable,” and more is to come.

“I’m taking nothing away from North Loop,” he said, “but I think this area has the chance to be maybe our most interesting and dynamic neighborhood over the next five to 10 years.”