Alan Arthur, chief executive of the nonprofit developer Aeon, is retiring after more than 30 years leading an outfit created to replace some of the thousands of rental-housing units lost to redevelopment in downtown Minneapolis.

Arthur, 70, who earned his way through college as a carpenter, will remain an adviser after the Aeon board selects a successor.

He will see through a still-evolving plan with St. Olaf Catholic Church to build up to 500 units of affordable housing on its campus amid the downtown skyscrapers. With price tag that could reach $200 million, the project would be the largest affordable housing project in downtown history.

"It requires raising a lot of capital to construct,'' Arthur said. "And also funding for services, for the supportive-housing portion and rent subsidies.''

Sarah Harris, an Aeon executive vice president, called the St. Olaf partnership "a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to bring affordable housing downtown at scale."

The plan envisions a building of around 20 floors on the St. Olaf parking lot at S. 3rd Avenue and S. 8th Street, as well as refurbishment of the Exodus Housing building for the homeless on S. 2nd Avenue.

Exodus is being vacated by Catholic Charities in favor of a rehabbed former nursing home in Minneapolis' Elliot Park neighborhood. A third building would be built on a small park.

"We're pleased," said the Rev. Kevin Kenney of St. Olaf. "We're moving ahead. We want this to be a success. But this still is not a finalized project."

The church would receive up to $200,000 a year, below market value, for leasing the space to Aeon over a 99-year term.

Ryan Cos. and Luigi Bernardi, a member of the congregation who is developing with Ryan the Eleven luxury high rise near the Mississippi, have been advising St. Olaf and Aeon on an informal basis. Retired Ryan CEO Pat Ryan also is involved.

Harris envisions studio to two-bedroom apartments for low-income singles and families whose income is up to 60% of the Twin Cities area median household income.

The first 25% of the project cost would be covered by donations, including $2 million pledged by Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. The rest would be covered by a combination of public bonds and private finance.

"Our goal is to ensure housing for lower-income people, including those working downtown in offices, at Hennepin Healthcare, in retail and restaurants," Harris said.

The median household income in the metropolitan area is about $80,500, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The target market for the St. Olaf project is households with under $45,000 in annual income.

Aeon, with revenue of $70 million, survived a tough 2020, similar to other businesses, thanks to several million in COVID-related assistance and forgivable loans from the federal government.

Arthur, whose pay has grown from $35,000 to about $200,000 since 1990, is quick to praise a resourceful staff of 220 that worked with residents who lost jobs to secure unemployment, rental assistance and other benefits.

Under Arthur, Aeon has grown from a few downtown buildings to 60 properties totaling 5,660 apartment homes for 15,000 residents, from the inner city to suburbs.

Rick Purcell, an Aeon resident and board member, said of Arthur: "Whether someone was in a suit or in charge or cleaning the bathrooms, Alan treated them with respect and is always just himself. That says a lot about his character."

In 2019, I wrote about Dorsey Howard, a man who spent most of his adult life in prison, before he found personal empowerment, Aeon, training and employment — and a friend in Alan Arthur.

Arthur who signed on as a staffer in 1988 at Aeon, is bemused by the complicated, tax-driven "sideways" approach to paying for affordable housing.

"The people we serve need more income," he said. "We talk about $15 an hour. [The Massachusetts Institute of Technology] has calculated a living wage in the Twin Cities is $20 to $23. We use an indirect system to provide people an ingredient of life. You need air, water, food and a home.''

Aeon may be best known for four apartment buildings it developed with partners over a decade at the once-decrepit intersection of E. Franklin Street and Portland Avenue. Arthur says the organization is up to the challenge of its biggest project ever.

Asked about his success, Arthur credited Aeon colleagues and stakeholders. He cited this quote, often attributed to writer Ralph Waldo Emerson: "To find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!"