Op-ed: Dominium's case for artist housing in the A Mill

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February 27, 2012 // UPDATED 11:04 am - February 29, 2012
By: Paul Sween
Paul Sween

Located on the banks of the Mississippi River, the Pillsbury A-Mill is a national historic treasure. Over the years, attempts have been made to renovate this treasure, but, until now, no proposal has been financially feasible.  Dominium proposes to renovate the Pillsbury A-Mill into affordable artists’ lofts, preserving and restoring this asset while providing a vibrant home to the region’s art community that will be of value to all residents, not just those that live within the building’s walls.

The A-Mill project is a mixed-used development with roughly 30,000 square feet of studio space, performance space, gallery space and a proposed public historic interpretive center. More than 30 percent of the site will be open, publicly accessible space that preserves the historic rail corridor and creates connections to Main Street at the historic 5th Avenue grid and where 4th Avenue used to exist. That’s why the A-Mill project has been endorsed by the Friends of the Mississippi River and the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association. 

The A-Mill project preserves our historic heritage, provides an accessible public amenity and housing for the arts community. The costs associated with producing these units is a direct result of the historic renovation and cost of addressing the neighborhood’s specific requests, such as underground parking and “public realm” improvements.  While some argue it is more cost effective to raze the site, or wait for another use, Dominium believes it is important to preserve one of the 11 most endangered historic resources in the United States. This is an historic asset at risk; the time to act is now. That’s why the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota have endorsed this project. 

The A-Mill will complement the artist developments already completed in St. Paul, as well as those being created in Minneapolis by Artspace, and provide a home to the more than 250 artists who have expressed interest in living in this creative environment.  That’s why the A-Mill project has the support of many local art organizations, including its neighbor the Soap Factory.

In order to keep this housing affordable to local artists, Dominium will use a combination of financing including State and Federal Historic Tax Credits, tax exempt bonds, and affordable housing tax credits. This financing makes preserving the A-Mill complex possible. Some have questioned the need for affordable housing and have suggested that the project should wait until condominiums would be a feasible use. The fact is that condominium development at the site is unlikely to be viable for many years. Historic tax credits cannot be used for a condominium project and units would need to cost in excess of $750,000 for the project to be financially feasible. If saving this critical piece of our city’s history is important, the proposed project is the only economically sound alternative. 

In addition to the tax credits, Dominium is requesting $2,980,000 in tax increment financing (TIF). The project meets the City’s stated objectives for use of TIF: creation of affordable housing, environmental remediation, public realm improvements, and historic preservation. Not only does the proposed use meet the City guidelines, it is a prudent investment. For every $1 in TIF financing, the project leverages nearly $40 of financial resources from private investors outside of the City of Minneapolis.

The A-Mill project, as proposed by Dominium, will preserve our history. The project will bring something unique and special to the historic St. Anthony Falls neighborhood while providing a place for some of the area’s most talented artists to live and work, starting an exciting new chapter in the history of these historic buildings.

Paul Sween is a managing partner at Dominium