Stevens Square sees development surge after long wait

Leaders in Stevens Square tried for years to lure development to a vacant lot at 18th & Nicollet. Now Yellow Tree Development Corporation is proposing retail and apartments in a six-story building.

One site is a three-story building packed with vintage furniture, occupied by a single resident who supplied the desk chairs for the film “The Post.” The other site is a long-vacant lot that nearly became a hotel. Stevens Square neighborhood leaders tried for years to bring change to these sites. Now it’s happening all at once.

The building at 4th & Franklin is slated for renovation into market-rate apartments. And the vacant site at 18th & Nicollet may become a six-story building with apartments and retail.

“This is the biggest thing that’s happened in the neighborhood in 25 years,” said Steven Gallagher, the outgoing executive director of the Stevens Square Community Organization (SSCO).

At a crowded community meeting June 4 — residents were alerted in an email “you don’t want to miss this one” — attendees spilled into a larger room. Residents voted unanimously in favor of both projects, and one vote ended in applause.

This response is not typical of Southwest Minneapolis neighborhood meetings. Developer Dan Oberpriller expressed surprise at the lack of nay votes.

“Nobody, not one?” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had that with this many people.”

The reason for the applause has a decades-long back-story.

The Silver building

The Silver building stands across from the Electric Fetus at 1924 4th Ave. S. Current owner Steven Mogol rents movie props, restores furniture and keeps an inventory that includes more than 2,000 chairs. He’s supplied furniture for local restaurants like Red Wagon Pizza, and his film credits include “Spider-Man 2” and “Mallrats.”

Mogol would remain a partner in the new development with Oberpriller of North Bay Companies. The building would undergo a $7 million renovation to create a 26-unit apartment building, with no additions to the building footprint. Sixteen parking spaces would stand behind the building. The building would primarily consist of 400-550-square-foot apartments, and the first floor would provide “res-flex” or live-work units with the potential for retail. Some type of public art, perhaps featuring rooftop lighting, is a possibility, they said.

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A fall renovation of the Silver building at 1924 4th Ave. S. would create 26 apartment units, including ground floor live-work space.

Some of the June meeting attendees referred to the building as a thorn in their side, or joked about past wishes to pour gasoline around it.

“We’ve had issues with that building for 15 years and it’s about fricking time something happened,” Gallagher said.

The city has repeatedly cited the building, with fines for various code violations reaching thousands of dollars. Fire Inspection Services issued an estimated $25,000 in administrative citations from May 2016 through September 2017 alone, according to city staff. Concerns over the years have included exterior structural deficiencies, improper use of the structure and the amount of storage in the building, according to city staff. The city attorney’s office had started looking at other legal and enforcement options when they learned of the forthcoming development, staff said.

Mogol called the citations “totally out of line.”

“They treat me like there are 150 people living in this building,” he said.

A recent view of 1924 4th Ave. S. The nearby roadway is under construction.
A recent view of 1924 4th Ave. S. The nearby roadway is under construction.

He said his family purchased the building in 1992. He’s been fighting graffiti and vandalism for years, he said, and boarding up windows as they break.

“I’m looking forward to the renovation,” he said. “It will be done in a first-class manner.”

Dan Oberpriller of North Bay Companies (l) and Scott Nelson of DJR Architecture.
Dan Oberpriller of North Bay Companies (l) and Scott Nelson of DJR Architecture.

If the city approves the plans, construction would begin in the fall.

18th & Nicollet site

The vacant lot at the northeast corner of 18th & Nicollet was once home to the Johnson Meat Company.

The Stevens Square neighborhood group spent years trying to draw new development. They commissioned a retail study. And they convinced five major property owners to sign an agreement to pursue development.

Gallagher said one developer considered locating Trader Joe’s there, and a multistory Staybridge suites hotel was proposed for construction in 2011, aiming to take advantage of the Obama-era stimulus package. But Gallagher said the developer missed a key deadline by a week, and the plans were dropped.

Yellow Tree Development Corporation first approached the property owner three years ago, but the sale price was too high, said co-founder Bryan Walters. They restarted negotiations a few months ago.

“The market had to finally catch up to what the owner thought it was worth,” he said.

Yellow Tree is now proposing a six-story building with 140 market-rate units. It would include about 8,000 square feet of commercial space, perhaps split into smaller storefronts to make them more affordable for small businesses. Apartments would range from studios to three-bedrooms. Parking stalls would stand on the ground floor and on an underground level.

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The northeast corner of 18th & Nicollet may hold a six-story building with 140 apartments and ground floor commercial space.

The developer expects to seek city approval in the fall and start construction next year.

The current proposal covers the northeast corner of 18th & Nicollet, but property under contract includes a wedge of land on the west side of Nicollet, located north of Ace Hardware. The developer said commercial space and residences could someday extend to the west side of the street, but they’re currently focused on the eastside lot.


Neighborhood reaction

“I think it’s going to improve the neighborhood immensely,” said Paul Soderquist, who regularly circles the neighborhood picking up trash.

Residents said they’re interested in green space, ADA accessibility and solar access, and they pleaded for a grocery store. Yellow Tree said they’re open to considering solar, but grocers need more space than they can provide.

Attendees also asked about the building height.

“Six levels, is that more financially sound, or why not taller?” asked Aria Campbell, who will serve as the neighborhood’s interim executive director.

Sheldon Berg of DJR Architecture said a taller seven-story building would require concrete, rather than wood-frame construction, at an extra cost that would cause the project to jump in scale.

Renters’ rights advocate Natasha Villanueva asked both developers to include affordable housing in the projects. The Stevens Square board later passed a formal request for affordable rents.

Both projects are currently proposed with market-rate rents, however. Yellow Tree said studios would likely be affordable to income levels starting at $34,000.

“Our goal is to design naturally affordable housing,” said Walters, who said that generally means keeping the square footage low so rents are more affordable.

Yellow Tree Development Corporation co-founders Bryan Walters (l) and Robb Lubenow (center), pictured with Sheldon Berg of DJR Architecture (r).
Yellow Tree Development Corporation co-founders Bryan Walters (l) and Robb Lubenow (center), pictured with Sheldon Berg of DJR Architecture (r).

“How much less could you charge for rent if you minimized the parking?” asked Sam Jones. “We’re a neighborhood that’s interested in affordable housing.”

Yellow Tree co-founder Robb Lubenow said in response that savings would be minimal, as they are planning an excavation that would create parking space for the entire footprint of the building.

Stevens Square board members later considered formally asking for a parking reduction in exchange for more housing units, but following a debate, voted against it. Some board members said parking is tight, and others said they don’t want to put extra pressure on the developer.

Bob Marshall, who owns the shopping center home to Family Dollar and Ace Hardware across the street, said he hasn’t seen the details of the proposal yet, but he’s delighted to finally see movement there. He said he bought the shopping mall nearly 20 years ago when apartments were renting for $350 per month. He said nice new retail and housing is popping up everywhere in town except Nicollet Avenue.

“Now it’s coming,” he said. “…I’m still living. I just got a pacemaker put in, so I think I might see the ground broken sometime.”