Calhoun Towers developer dreams big

Bader Development President Robb Bader inside a new penthouse at Calhoun Towers.

The 22-story Calhoun Towers was never meant to be a single tower when it was built in 1962. Hence the name. But the original developer failed financially and the neighborhood saw low demand for luxury apartments in the ‘60s and ‘70s, according to the former property owner, and plans for the second tower never materialized.

Until now. Bader Development purchased 3404 and 3430 List Pl. in late 2016 for $32.5 million, and the developer reports they are working to buy an additional .93 acres off the Midtown Greenway.

Bader’s current proposal would add 739 units to the 113 units there today, adding two 22-story towers, two six-story buildings and a parking ramp with an amenity deck.

A bird's-eye view looking west.
A bird’s-eye view looking west of the development proposal.

“You’re trying to capture as much view and as much green space as possible,” said Robb Bader, the company’s president.

The overview

New buildings would surround the existing tower. The two 22-story buildings would rise in the first two phases of development, located northwest and northeast of the current building. Modern, higher ceiling heights mean the new towers would rise about 50 feet above the existing tower.

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Between the three buildings would stand a parking ramp topped by an amenity deck with an indoor pool, club room and outdoor patio. A third phase of construction would create a six-story building on the southeast edge of the site. Following light rail construction, an additional six-story building with 20 percent of its units designated affordable would border the Midtown Greenway north of 31st Street.

A view of proposed development at Calhoun Towers looking north along Abbott Avenue.
A view of proposed development looking north along Abbott Avenue.

In documents submitted to the city, the developer called the current site an “island” without much connection to transit and park space, despite the proximity to each.

“There’s no connectivity,” Bader said.

A realigned 31st Street would include sidewalks, a bike path and bus drop-off point that connect to the light rail station platform and Midtown Greenway. Bader said they would need to work with the nearby commercial property owner to improve connections to Whole Foods and other retailers.

Bader said parking would be provided at one space per unit — a ratio smaller than the neighborhood group requested, but double the amount city officials suggested, according to neighborhood meeting minutes.*

The scope of development is tied to Southwest light rail construction, which continues to face delays and is now projected to open in 2023.

“We’re going to build something here, but light rail does have an impact on what we build, both physically and philosophically,” Bader said.

The proposed view from the Midtown Greenway.
The proposed view from the Midtown Greenway.

He expects to submit plans for city approval in the spring. Construction is estimated to span five-seven years, due in part to land restrictions tied to light rail construction.

Since taking over Calhoun Towers, Bader has increased rents, renovated the lobby and started updating apartment units. The company added five penthouses to the top floor, which had been used for storage since the restaurant Top of the List closed decades ago.

“It was the most wasted space in the city, if you ask me,” Bader said.

Two of the penthouses are leased, and the remaining units are available for $2,300-$6,695 per month.

Calhoun Towers history

Brian Short said his family acquired Calhoun Towers in receivership shortly after its construction and managed the apartments for the next 50 years. The original developer ran into major cost overruns due to construction on the swampy site, which required pilings deep in the ground, recalls Doug Swanson, who has worked with the Short family for many years.

Calhoun Towers building

Short said they initially struggled to fill the building.

“That area is considered to be one of the hottest residential areas, certainly in Minneapolis and probably in the country, but at the time, it was a disaster,” Short said. “Nobody wanted to live over there.”

At a time when young people aspired to buy their own homes in the suburbs, the site was considered a road to Hopkins rather than part of the Chain of Lakes, he said.

“Occupancy rates at the Calhoun Towers, during the first 10 or 15 years that my dad approached it, when it got over 50 percent they were pretty happy,” he said, explaining that it gradually filled over time. “…We’ve had zero vacancies at that place I would say for 10 years.”

He said Calhoun Towers housed notable residents including Vice President Hubert Humphrey and his wife Muriel, who kept an apartment when they traveled to the Twin Cities.

Short said he’s happy to see the sculpture by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth remain at the front entry. The piece was part of the festive dedication of the Foshay Tower, he said, and it stood for years in front of Charlie’s Cafe Exceptionale in downtown Minneapolis before his father purchased it and installed it at Calhoun Towers.

“The current owners who bought it from me I think are really in a position to realize the value, and frankly the original dream, of the developers of that property to have more than one tower on the site,” he said.

Reaction to the project

A community-driven Midtown Greenway Land Use and Development Plan created in 2007 says the Calhoun Towers site is suited for tall, high-density apartment buildings. Most of the site is zoned to accommodate high-density residential, and Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority land targeted for acquisition is currently zoned as a community shopping center district.

The city Planning Commission took a first look at the project in early January. Chair Matthew Brown said he didn’t hear much concern from commissioners about the overall scale of the plans.

“Obviously that’s a large number of units in a single project, certainly more than we see in the city,” he said. “And obviously that’s a large, underutilized site.”

He said commissioners discussed the street wall and public realm along the project’s new street, the design of building frontage along the Greenway, and whether the new towers should be identical or varied in scale and appearance.

The West Calhoun Neighborhood Council (WCNC) has raised concerns about the potential for traffic and parking congestion.

“Unfortunately, our roads simply cannot absorb any more cars, especially during rush hour,” states a WCNC letter to the developer. “The location of this project would mean a major increase in traffic — slowing on-off traffic on Excelsior Boulevard. If light rail comes to West Calhoun there will be massive increases in Abbott Avenue traffic heading to the station, for both buses (that do not use the street now) and cars.”

The proposed view looking west toward the potential LRT station.
The proposed view looking west toward the potential LRT station.

The West Calhoun and Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhoods are drafting a resolution calling for more safety improvements on the heavily traveled Lake and Excelsior corridors, particularly at intersections like Lake & Dean. Ideas include signage on westbound Lake Street alerting of a divided road ahead. Hennepin County recently presented the neighborhood with a 2019 plan to create a landscaped island and new marked pedestrian crossings where Lake and Excelsior split.

“What’s the traffic going to be like coming through here when you’re quadrupling the number of people coming here?” asked a Calhoun Towers resident who declined to share her name. “…I just don’t think that what they’re imagining is practical in any way, shape or form.”

Jake, a Calhoun Greenway resident, said he doesn’t think there would be enough parking space, which he thinks residents would need regardless of the light rail line.

“In many parts of the city they keep building upwards without adding parking at all,” he said. “It just ends up being less parking for everyone.”

Bigos Management is building 89 more parking spaces in a new ramp for its residents at the Calhoun Greenway Apartments at 3121 Chowen Ave. S. Bigos said they manage 740 units in the area and currently offer 580 parking spaces. The developer said they expect light rail to bring more parked cars and drive the need for more parking.

Bader said he thinks parking demand would decrease along the light rail line, however, and said it’s a trend he’s seen in the past. He said city officials asked the developer to consider building the parking ramp so it could be adapted for other uses in the future if parking demand drops.

Short said 200 existing parking spaces had always been adequate at Calhoun Towers. He also operates parking ramps downtown, and he said demand for parking in the Central Business District is declining as young people drive less.

Aside from raising traffic and parking concerns, the West Calhoun Neighborhood Council is requesting stronger pedestrian connections and public space, highlighting the example of a bike and commuter lounge proposed next to the Hopkins light rail station. The group also wants a careful review of the impact on the storm sewers and nearby water quality, as well as a strong design that contrasts with the “dull, boring” design of the existing tower.

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Bader said an Environmental Assessment Worksheet is underway to review the environmental impact of the development, including the impact on stormwater management, traffic and parking. The review will be finalized later this month, according to the city.

The West Calhoun Neighborhood Council will discuss Calhoun Towers at its next meeting on Feb. 13 at 6 p.m. at The Bakken Museum.

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*Corrected to reflect that the West Calhoun Neighborhood Council is requesting one parking stall per bedroom in the first phase of construction, with the ratio decreasing in subsequent phases if light rail and changing auto trends make additional parking unnecessary.