Battle brewing over fate of A Mill

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February 27, 2012
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie
A plan for artist apartments at the historic flour mill complex has rankled some neighbors of the site

A plan for affordable housing for artists at the Pillsbury A Mill site has riled up some neighbors of the historic flour mill complex on the river’s east bank.

Plymouth-based Dominium Development has proposed building roughly 250 apartments in the historic A Mill building and a warehouse. It plans to do an extensive renovation of the A Mill, which was listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of 11 most endangered historic places in the country last year.

Dominium is seeking $2.9 million in tax-incrementing financing (TIF) and asking the city to issue about $65 million in housing revenue bonds for the project, said Wes Butler, manager of the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development department’s multifamily housing division.

A preliminary analysis of the TIF application will likely go before the City Council in March, Butler said.

Some residents at the Phoenix on the River, an upscale loft development next to the A Mill, are lobbying city officials to oppose the project, arguing it’s not a good use of tax dollars and is a lackluster project for such a key historic site.

“[The A Mill] is such a crown jewel,” said Robert Stanek, one of the project opponents. “It’s the anchor of the east bank.”

Owen Metz, a senior development associate for Dominium, declined to comment on the financing plan for the project or address concerns raised by neighbors, noting it’s at a preliminary stage. “It’s a very complex process,” he said, adding the developer needs to secure approvals from local, state and federal officials to move forward.

The development plan has received support from the Marcy Holmes Neighborhood Association.

Doran Companies is also planning to build new apartments on the A Mill site. The developer recently unveiled plans for Mill Main — high-end apartments that would be built east of the A Mill near the Stone Arch Bridge. The first phase of the project would include 180 units.

An earlier development vision for the site called East Bank Mills — an ambitious proposal from local developer Schafer Richardson — went into foreclosure in 2010. At one point, that plan envisioned 1,000 units of new housing on the A Mill site.

Opponents of the Dominium plan said they want to see the A Mill redeveloped, but don’t think a subsidized housing development is the best use for the historic site.

“I simply don’t believe this renovation project is justified when you consider what taxpayers at the federal, state and city of Minneapolis level receive in return,” Stanek said.

Chelle Stoner, Stanek’s neighbor at the Phoenix on the River, agrees with him and is also involved in efforts to mobilize opposition to the project.

“The current proposal is almost entirely publicly subsidized with no assurance or any concrete plans for public access or benefit, let alone much skin at all from the developer,” she said. “… The A Mill was relevant 100 years ago — it should be our challenge to repurpose it for it to be relevant and sustainable today.”

When the Pillsbury A Mill complex was completed in 1881, it was a state-of-the-art milling facility. It closed in 2003 and was then its buildings and surrounding land were acquired by Schafer Richardson.

Victor Grambsch, president of the Nicollet Island East Bank Neighborhood Association (NIEBNA), said the neighborhood group has not taken a formal position on the Dominium proposal. He has concerns about the plan, however.

“Saving the A Mill at the public costs — via tax credits, TIF, outright subsidy, etc. of $60 million and almost certainly more — is to me an insane idea financially,” Grambsch said. “It is a long term financial disaster for the city since it eliminates the possibility of a nice addition to the tax base, which we need very much. I predict the A Mill will join Target Center, Block E and other famous sites on the list of expensive failed real estate projects financing by the city.”

City Council Member Diane Hofstede (3rd Ward) represents the area home to the A Mill said it’s important for people to get engaged in the review process for the Dominium project.

“It’s a critically important area of the city,” she said. “[The development] really needs to exemplify the importance of the area. It’s a vital resource.”

Dominium has plans for a similar project at the Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul. It recently secured $1.5 million in loans from the city of St. Paul for a proposal to rehabilitate the brewery and build 261 affordable apartments for artists and new studios on the site.  

Reach Sarah McKenzie at smckenzie@mnpubs.com.