Twin Cities renters shopping for new housing are heading to the mall. The former Apache Plaza shopping mall in St. Anthony, Minn., is being redeveloped into a thriving mixed-use development just across the Mississippi River from the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The project includes a mixed-income apartment community developed by Dominium Development & Acquisition of Plymouth, Minn.
"We felt it was a good infill opportunity with a close proximity to three large employment groups"–downtown Minneapolis and the major freeway corridors of I-35W and I-694–explains Mark Moorhouse, Dominium's project partner. "The site [also] offered good access to transportation."
So far, the company's assessment is proving correct. The first phase of the Landings at Silver Lake Village rental community came online late last year with senior, affordable, and market-rate housing. With Twin Cities apartment vacancy hovering around 6 percent, the existing inventory is filling up fast. The Landings, which is only partially complete, is 55 percent leased, with leasing continuing through the fall.
Dominium, which also owns and manages 13,000 apartments, is no stranger to greyfield development. The Landings is the firm's 11th such project, so it's familiar with the challenges inherent in this type of development. Most mall redevelopments encounter issues such as soil contamination, water retention and run-off, zoning changes, and public opposition.
"There was petroleum contamination in the soil that had to be removed due to an old gas station that was previously on the site," Moorhouse recalls. "We had to install a passive vent system that would vent any trapped remaining petroleum vapors that could accumulate underneath the garage slab."
Despite those obstacles, turning greyfields into other uses is a growing trend. A study by Price Waterhouse Coopers estimates that about 18 percent of the country's regional malls, like Apache Plaza, are greyfields. These mostly empty and poorly performing properties make them easy targets for redevelopment.
"The whole idea of developing closer in, in older suburbs, is on the rise," says Michael Pawlukiewicz, director of environmental and policy education for the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C. Developers are drawn to the existing infrastructure, transportation, and amenities, not to mention fairly large tracts of land. "Empty-nesters and young people are looking for homes close to work."
Like many projects, The Landings faced community opposition, despite Dominium's status as a local company. "The entitlement process was somewhat difficult," concedes Moorhouse, who says the small city (St. Anthony has just 8,200 residents and three square miles of area) initially resisted the idea of providing any subsidies to the "perceived larger developers" that were involved in the broader mixed-use project.
"Locals were resistant to the project in the initial stages, because they were losing a landmark that had stood in their community for years," says Ryan Lunderby, an associate developer with Dominium. "The plans for the site introduced a dramatic change to an area that some locals held close to their heart."
That was only the beginning. To meet the city's goals and the market's demand for more diverse housing options, Dominium decided to integrate general occupancy, senior housing, and affordable housing into one development. That made the 263-unit project a little cumbersome for the local residents who already were concerned about rental housing in general and the density it would bring to the neighborhood. By educating neighbors about the benefits of mixing market-rate with affordable apartments as well as senior and general occupancy renters, the Minnesota firm eventually overcame community's worries.
That decision (and the persuasion that enabled its success) created its own problems. Blending so many different types of housing in one two-wing building tested the architect.
"[T]hey didn't want each [group of residents] to feel totally separated from each other and wanted the seniors to be able to enjoy some of the other amenities like the pool, outdoor fireplace, spa, and leasing office, which are located in the market-rate common area," explains Gary Vogel, principal for BKV Group, the Minneapolis architecture, interior design, and engineering firm that designed the project.
The solution? Separate, uniquely designed entrances for each wing, shared common areas, and a different mix of amenities for each type of resident. The senior side has a fitness center, community room, and medical office. The two sides are linked by a two-story drive-through that also contains apartments.
Phase one of the community includes 173 market-rate units, a pool, year-round hot tub, fire pit, clubhouse, party room, fitness center, and theater. Phase two, still under construction, features 88 independent senior rental units, 53 of which are for low-income renters. The final phase was expected to be completed in March 2006.