Afterlife of Billy Graham properties looks heavenly for residents

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January 26, 2004 // UPDATED 2:42 pm - April 24, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

A new pharmacy, a possible grocery and a campus/coffee shop emerge for evangelist's Downtown properties

Redevelopment of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association (BGEA) property near Loring Park is beginning to take shape, with a CVS pharmacy, a possible grocery store and neighborhood "lifestyle center" on the drawing board.

Bear Creek Capital, a preferred developer for pharmacy giant CVS, has a contract to buy 1201 Hennepin Ave. S. from BGEA, said Tim Baird, a principal with the Cincinnati-based firm. The deal would include the three-story World Wide Pictures building and adjoining 60-70-stall surface parking lot. The new development would have a first-floor, 11,000-plus-square-foot pharmacy and two upper floors of housing.

Local engineer Swami Palanisami and business partner Amri Elsafi bought the two-story brick building at 1229 Harmon Pl. and the 60-70-stall surface parking lot behind it from BGEA in December, Palanisami said. He has several ideas for the property, but on top of the list is a grocery store, potentially fulfilling an elusive goal of many Downtown residents.

Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) bought several Billy Graham buildings on the 1300 blocks of Hennepin Avenue South and Harmon Place in December, said Dan Kirk, facilities manager for MCTC and Metro State. It paid $11.2 million for approximately 200,000 square feet.

The deal will allow Metro State University to co-locate on the MCTC campus, but college leaders have also talked about adding a neighborhood amenity to the development, such as a coffee shop or bookstore.

BGEA recently relocated to Charlotte, N.C. Its Minneapolis property is located in the Harmon Place Historic District, part of the city's old automobile row. BGEA fought the historic designation in the courts and lost.

City Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), who lives on the same block as the proposed CVS development, called the emerging plans "a dream come true."

She said the Harmon Historic District designation created an environment that helped reuse the buildings instead of having a large developer come in, tear them down and do the latest version of "urban renewal."

"It couldn't have gone any better," Goodman said.

CVS: The first of many

Bear Creek is discussing the CVS project with the city Planning Department and Goodman, Baird said. "We are anxious to start as soon as we can," he said. "We could be open in '04, depending on how long the approval process takes."

CVS stores have a pharmacy and sell health and beauty items, cosmetics, home health care items, photo processing, gift items, candy and snacks, its Web site said. CVS started in Lowell, Mass. in 1963 and has grown to 4,100 stores in 29 states and Washington, D.C.

CVS currently has no Minnesota stores but told shareholders at a May meeting that it would expand into the Minneapolis area, Baird said. Bear Creek is working on more than 20 stores locally; Baird declined to discuss other locations.

Many questions remain unanswered. Planners have not decided how many housing units the project would have, nor whether they would be for-sale or rental units.

Goodman said the building has been for sale for quite awhile. "I am happy to see something moving forward and something that is retail-focused," she said.

Baird has preliminary architectural drawings but would not release them to the media until Bear Creek formally submitted plans.

Goodman said she had seen the design and is "ecstatic," saying the look is consistent with the historic district.

"What I saw showed all of the brick on the first floor removed and replaced with glass, as well as what looked to me like a restoration of the original faade on the second floor," she said. "Their sign package does not look obtrusive."

Goodman said her office has asked Bear Creek to show its proposal to immediate neighbors and talk to the neighborhood group, Citizens for a Loring Park Community, as part of the public participation process.

Lady Slipper: Scratching out ideas

Goodman refers to Palanisami's project as "the Lady Slipper building," because the Minnesota state flower, the Lady Slipper, is carved in its cornices.

Palanisami said his first love is engineering, not developing.

His firm, Crystal-based Palanisami & Associates, Inc., specializes in parking ramps, he said. It engineered the massive new ramps at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Other projects have included the Metro Apartments at South 9th Street and Marquette Avenue, a Ramsey County Public Works building and a $35 million Willmar hospital.

Palanisami is a Block E investor, he said. He was also the engineer -- and 25 percent owner -- of Eagan's 300,000-square-foot Spectrum Commerce Center, made with recycled concrete from rental-car buildings once at the airport.

His business partner, Elsafi, is a mechanical engineer turned developer, he said. Palanisami and Elsafi plan to redevelop the Lady Slipper's surface lot, possibly adding more parking to support a grocery store with housing or retail on an upper floor. Plans are in flux.

Palanisami said redeveloping the parking lot is necessary to make the grocery store happen.

"For the kind of price we paid for the land, the numbers don't work if you don't do anything [with the parking lot]," he said. "We would love to do a grocery store. There is no reason to keep talking about it and talking about it. That means augmenting it with parking and whatever else will support it."

Sitting in a local coffee shop, Palanisami took a blank piece of paper and began sketching different options for the site. The building has a 12,000-square-foot footprint and a basement, he said.

"Should the grocery store be one level or a two-level store?" Palanisami asked. "Would there be a combination of grocery store, liquor store and restaurant? That is a potential."

He drew up a two-level parking deck to get 100 spaces and added a "lifestyle center" on top, with such things as a beauty shop, barbershop and video store. As an alternative to the lifestyle center, he made a sketch to show how housing units might fit into the new building.

"I would like to meet the needs of the people in the neighborhood," he said.

Palanisami sketched the elevation change -- his property drops 10 feet along 13th from Harmon to Yale Place. It adds a challenge if he wants to build a building on the parking lot and tie it into the Lady Slipper building.

Then he talked about his "wild idea" -- raising the Lady Slipper building's first floor several feet, converting the 8-foot-tall basement into an 11-foot-tall room. Then -- because of the elevation change -- the basement could connect to the first floor of the new building, built on the surface parking lot.

He talked of returning the Lady Slipper building to its original automobile showroom look by replacing the lighter colored brick with glass. He talked about adding a level to it and having a glassed-in restaurant -- "you could see the entire Downtown," he said.

(Zoning allows a 56-foot-tall building, and the Lady Slipper is less than 30 feet tall, he said. Adding a story would have to pass muster with the City Council and the historical preservationists.)

Goodman said she wouldn't rule out anything -- other than exceeding the district's height limitations -- but would wait to see a site plan.

She praised Palanisami's approach. "Because he is an engineer, he looks at things differently," she said.

"He is delightful to work with. He is open to discuss what the immediate neighbors want to see. He is interested in doing something good for the city," Goodman said.

Goodman was cautious on the prospects of adding a grocery store to the neighborhood. She has tried to get a grocery store Downtown for six years, she said. She and Steve Cramer, former Minneapolis Community Development Agency head, even spoke to Billy Graham staff several years ago and "begged" them to release the Lady Slipper building for a Lunds grocery, to no avail.

"I will never underestimate the power of a determined person to see their vision through," she said of Palanisami's plans. "If it was easy, it would be done already."

At one story, a Lady Slipper grocery store would have approximately as much space as the Wedge Community Coop, 2105 Lyndale Ave. S., which as 11,000 square feet of retail. At two stories, the store would be less than half the size of a Byerly's, which is typically 50,000 to 90,000 square feet, according to a company Web site. Also, previous grocers' interest has been on Hennepin Avenue, which has more visibility and passing cars than Lady Slipper's Harmon Place frontage.

Palanisami said he and his partner have sent out letters to people in the grocery industry and "have met with some people.

"I want to do something in a year or so," he said. "If I hear a positive response, I would like to move quick."

He has also already been contacted by businesses that would like to rent the entire space -- one a medical business, the other art-related, he said.

MCTC: A bigger campus

Metro State University's Minneapolis campus will move to the MCTC campus in December, Kirk said. It now rents space at 8th Street and Hennepin Avenue.

The plan optimizes classroom space, school officials said. The MCTC students have mostly day classes, and Metro State students have mostly night classes. Both schools could use the new Whitney library.

MCTC promised Goodman and Mayor R.T. Rybak it would explore private development opportunities on the site -- both to add neighborhood amenities and generate tax revenue. (MCTC, like Graham, does not pay property taxes.)

People have floated any number of ideas for a neighborhood amenity -- a bookstore, coffee shop, restaurant or grocery store -- but any decision is months away, Kirk said.

The two schools first need to plan for the educational demands, he said. They also need to watch what private developments evolve at the World Wide Pictures and Lady Slipper buildings before making decisions on leasing space for private ventures, Kirk added.