Michael Lander: building a new Southwest

From firehouse renovations to million-dollar condos, the developer wins neighborhood praise despite some doubters

While many future developers seek advanced architectural degrees to sprout their careers, Michael Lander made a more unconventional entrance into the profession, dropping out of college to design, build and sell houseboats in California — with little to no training.

"I was just building because it was cool and fun," he said.

More than 20 years later, Lander is established in Minneapolis with CARAG-based development company, The Lander Group. He has numerous high-end housing projects under his belt and more on the way.

Lander’s notable projects include his most recent — the glistening new million-dollar condos on the edge of the Walker Sculpture Garden — and his first in Southwest, a renovated and restored 1906 East Calhoun fire station at 3524 Hennepin Ave.

Other Southwest Lander developments include: a six-condo development in the CARAG neighborhood called Hennepin Court, 3529-3533 Hennepin Ave. S.; a four-condo conversion in the East Isles neighborhood, 2637-2641 Humboldt Ave. S.; and two condos at 2200 Irving Ave. S. He’s preparing to break ground on his biggest local project, the 72-condo Midtown Lofts at Bryant Avenue and 29th Street in the Wedge.

In an age when new development draws criticism for looking too suburban and cheap, Lander doesn’t seem to fit the mold, gaining notice in architectural magazines.

City Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) said of Lander, "He understands urban development, and he doesn’t think about it from a suburban mindset."

Lander said, to improve housing developments in Southwest, he’s following a progressive approach called "New Urbanism," a somewhat controversial development philosophy, complete with a charter and members (including Lander). The mantra is to focus developments on public and pedestrian connections, building less to accommodate the automobile.

While building creatively and progressively, Lander said there is a frustrating downside — he must constantly work to overcome the public’s fear of new development, commonly referred to as the Not-in-My-Back-Yard (NIMBY) philosophy, that has been triggered by decades of poor development.

From boats to million-dollar condos Lander, a North Dakota native, said moving to Sausalito, Calif. inspired the type of housing he wanted to build, featuring a welcoming front porch that forges a connection with the street.

After leaving college in Stockton, Calif. to build houseboats, Lander moved from sea to land development and formed his then-California-based company, the Lander Group, in 1984. Until recently, the company only consisted of him. He joked that now he actually has a "group" to fit the name, with nine employees, including his eldest daughter.

Lander said California development was rough but probably the best training he could have had. With skeptical residents and restrictive zoning laws, California makes it difficult for developers to bring their visions to fruition, he said.

Although he started small, Lander slowly moved into larger-scale development when he moved to Minneapolis in 1990. Lander started with Hennepin Avenue projects, such as East Calhoun’s Station 23 Lofts, 3524 Hennepin Ave. S. He converted the former fire station into five condominiums. Soon after, across the street in the CARAG neighborhood, he built Hennepin Court, featuring six condos spread among three new and separate buildings.

Lander said he came to Southwest Minneapolis by accident. He said while helping with some family obligations and working a couple of projects in Grand Forks, he’d retreat to Minneapolis for "urban weekends." Lander said during that time, he decided he wanted to stay instead of heading back West.

He said its urban plan, the chain of lakes, residents’ values and the opportunity to do meaningful work were all positive attributes beckoning him to stay in Southwest. "It all happened naturally," Lander said.

Lander said developing his passion has its perks, such as a house near Lake Calhoun’s east shore, but the job can be very challenging, too.

The business of development Lander said his passion grew out of development’s variety. The job includes design, market research, construction and financing, he said; design is his favorite, and for less-satisfying areas, such as finance, he forges partnerships.

Lander said that for decades, zoning codes in cities nationwide have become more homogenized, limiting the kind of development possible. "Development has been so bad for so long," he said.

He said the desire to make roads wider and separate commercial from residential makes building up quaint cities such as Seattle nearly impossible. "The built environment has been around the automobile, yielding not- good consequences," he said.

As a result, Lander said people generally are very skeptical of any new development — and rightly so, he added. He said the sentiment "Are you going to wreck our neighborhood like the last people did?" is a common development roadblock.

Apprehension and anger have been an issue in Lander’s next development called the Midtown Lofts, part of the three-block-long Urban Village in the Wedge.

Although the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association recommended city approval of the design concept, the development’s immediate neighbors said they felt left in the dark about late changes to the project.

Next-door neighbor Linda Gowan said Midtown Lofts are too big and don’t fit the neighborhood. Another neighbor, Dan Haley, agreed and said the plan will dwarf his house, and he may move once the project is complete.

At the neighborhood’s June meeting, Lander pushed for final recommendations for his project; by July, the board president expressed regret they had moved too fast, though he still supported Midtown Lofts.

Niziolek said the city only asks developers to go before neighborhood groups, giving developers responsibility for contacting neighbors. He said that should change. "The city should make it more specific," he said.

Still, Niziolek said he has confidence in Lander as a developer, especially Lander’s willingness to listen to and work with community members on his projects.

Howard Verson, CARAG neighborhood board president, said Lander has a good reputation, and he’s seen Lander work honestly and openly with the neighbors. "That’s part of their corporate philosophy," he said.

Verson said Lander projects in the neighborhood have been well received. He said Lander didn’t incorporate all neighborhood suggestions into his projects, but they still turned out well.

Lander said working to overcome apprehension and antidevelopment sentiment, combined with his desire to "install a community vision," has led him to the increasingly popular philosophy of New Urbanism.

New Urbanism: A passing fad or a change for the better? Ann Forsyth, director of the University of Minnesota’s Design Center for American Urban Landscape, said the movement has picked up speed and, although it has critics, has been packaged as a way that gets people excited about planning issues.

Forsyth said New Urbanism followers can be classed under two different styles. The first want to model precar ’20s and ’30s developments that are nicer looking but don’t increase density much. The second group, she said, sharply increases density and focuses more on transit.

She said Lander seems to fit the philosophy, but said the title New Urbanism is really just sensitive approach to infill development.

Many of Lander’s early Southwest projects match the traditional design approach and emphasis on making a connection with the street by landscaping and adding porches listed in the book "The Charter of the New Urbanism," by the Congress for New Urbanism, of which Lander is a part.

Lander insists the philosophy differs from other housing developments, such as those along the Mississippi River, which are secluded from the public at ground level. These developments build the life of the development upwards, as opposed to making a connection with the street and public spaces.

Forsyth said despite its engaging face, her profession has many criticisms of New Urbanism.

High-end developers have criticized the philosophy and its followers for having too much of a traditional style in their developments, said Forsyth, jabbing that they lack creativity. She said she doesn’t share this view.

Some developers also say New Urbanism-style projects don’t have enough density and could involve more ecological and sustainable building techniques.

Lander acknowledged that many others in his profession scoffed at the New Urbanism philosophy, labeling him and other New Urbanites dreamers, but he said it will continue to gain popularity because people hate the status quo in development.

"We’ve got to change the way we build the world," he said.