North loop artists, developer clash, negotiate

Share this:
April 12, 2004 // UPDATED 1:13 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

The latest condo conversion threatens the last of Downtown's artists; can development and art get along?

The same thing that drew painter Barbara Roche to an old warehouse at 700 Washington Ave. N. sparked an interest in condo developer Chuck Leer -- the abundance of light.

Roche's third-floor studio in the hulking warehouse is airy and spacious. Sun pours in from the massive windows, making it an ideal spot for her to work on her canvasses.

Soon, however, Roche and several other artists, part of a collective known as the Studios @ 700, will have to pack up their belongings to make way for new development.

Leer, a veteran Warehouse District developer, has eyed the building for more condos. It was built in 1920 and first occupied by the Northern Bag Company.

Plans call for construction to begin in July.

The project, known as the Tower Lofts, calls for 143 condos, priced from $140,000 to $390,000. Construction will take place in two phases, he said, with the first occupants moving into their lofts in 2005.

"The theme is light and air," Leer told the North Loop Neighborhood Association at a March 31 meeting.

"It is structurally very sound and in excellent condition. We think [the building] has great bones," he said, calling it a "palace" compared to other buildings he's rehabbed in the neighborhood, such as the Itasca Building at 702-708 1st St. N.

Leer has also developed lofts at 801 Washington Ave. N.

There will be six floors of lofts, a rooftop garden installed with help from the Green Institute in South Minneapolis, with space reserved for artist studios and commercial tenants at street level, he said.

Leer said he would like to see a Caribou Coffee or Starbucks go into the building.

The developer has also purchased a small building and property north of the warehouse. He told neighborhood leaders he envisioned a grocery store there, such as a Trader Joe's, the specialty chain based in Monrovia, Calif. The grocer is rumored to be looking at other Twin Cities and Downtown sites.

Talk of more street-level commercial activity pleased the neighborhood board. Some consider that stretch of Washington Avenue North too desolate.

Plans also call for open corridors at either end of the building to encourage traffic between Washington Avenue and 2nd Street.

Board Treasurer Matt Clark said he'd like to see some sort of 24-hour convenience store on the street -- a place to grab a soda that would encourage foot traffic at all hours of the day.

Leer also reflected on the rapidly growing housing in the North Loop, saying it felt likely a "lonely place" when he started rehabbing buildings in the late 1980s. He said there is more than $160 million in development projects still in the pipeline for the neighborhood.

The projects are moving forward without city subsidies, he said.

Artists displaced

Meanwhile, artists who work in the 30 studios that occupy the building's third and fourth floor aren't as quick to swoon about the project.

Some have grown tired of picking up and moving from Downtown studios to make way for more development. Artists have been displaced from nearly every warehouse on the North Loop's stretch of Washington Avenue, except the Traffic Zone, a yellow limestone warehouse at 250 3rd Ave. N.

Leer said he has offered the artists at 700 N. Washington space in a nearby building he owns. He said the group is still contemplating the offer but hadn't made a decision.

Roche said the space Leer offered is not as accommodating as their current studios. The building would have to be "gutted" to make way for new artist spaces, she said.

Rent would be higher, too, she said. Currently, she pays about $2,000 a year for the studio.

Despite a long line of Downtown condo conversions, Jane Powers, another artist in the collective, said Leer's plans caught many artists in the collective off-guard.

The building was previously managed by Flour City Brush Company, which is owned by Carlisle Sanitary Maintenance Products. She said the old building management never hinted at plans to sell.

"We assumed that as long as they wanted to stay a business we could be there. So we saw it as very long-term," she said. "Obviously, things change. It happened quite unexpectedly."

Roche said she would like to secure space in a similar building -- one owned and developed by artists. She'd like to see city officials take a more active role in helping artists secure workspace.

The artists point to Traffic Zone, which has 24 studios reserved for artists.

In partnership with the developer Artspace Projects Inc., 250 3rd Ave. N., a group of artists banded together in the mid-1990s to create a permanent spot for studios that would not be threatened by new development.

In the 20 years she's worked as an artist Downtown, Roche has been bumped out of studios three times.

"When the Metrodome came in, my studio turned into a baseball card shop. Then I had a studio in the North Butler building and then the Target Center came in and there wasn't any street parking anymore. And now there is this studio," Roche said.

She said she is seriously considering moving to New York City. She highlighted that state's Loft Law, which prevents developers from evicting artists who occupy spaces in buildings slated to go condo.

"I think that people talk about the fact that the Twin Cities is a great place for the arts. Being a great place as a showcase of the arts is different than a good place for artists to live," she said. "I just returned from a trip to New York, and in some ways it is discouraging to come back. There is just a greater concentration of artists there. You have conversations that just happen naturally everyday, and here you really have to seek it out."

She said Minneapolis is short on artist studios that meet "professional needs."

"You need loading docks; you need to be able to build crates," she said.

Given the nature of the booming real estate market Downtown, Roche admits that it has become unrealistic to expect to find a studio with stable long-term rents.

"I don't see any real viable spaces Downtown anymore," she said.

Roche, who has held teaching positions at Minneapolis Community and Technical College and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), said pursuing her art full-time in the city has been a challenge.

To make about $25,000 a year, she said she has to sell $100,000 worth of work. Half, or $50,000, goes to the gallery, and another $24,000 goes for studio costs, supplies and other needs.

Powers shared similar sentiments.

"A lot of artists in this last year are getting displaced -- a tremendous number," Powers said, who is currently working on a billboard project in Europe designed to expose the public to "richer visual" images than those on commercial billboards.

"There is the real drive for economic development in the cities and, with that, the city is favoring those businesses that can produce high income back," she said.

The artists' collective at 700 Washington N. has occupied the building since 1982.

It's unclear when the artists will move out of the building. Their leases don't expire until the end of 2004.

"We've held this area for 20 years. The artists are traditionally the anchors in edge real estate," she said. "Now we're out again because we're not valued for the aesthetics that we can bring in. They're not looking beyond the economic formula."

While the artist migration out of Downtown to other enclaves in Northeast, among other places, has been going on for years, Powers said she'd like to see more artists stay put.

She said she's troubled by the influx of condo developments going up in North Loop without other amenities, such as more green space, theaters, markets and other uses.

"Artists need to be back in there. We were the ones that held the space and allowed a tax base to happen, and now when the tax base goes up, we're chased out. Artists are part of an urban landscape," she said.

Kari Tweiten, who has worked at the Warehouse District coffee shop Moose & Sadie's, 213 3rd Ave. N. for more than five years, shared similar thoughts.

She said artists contribute to the neighborhood's eclectic and unique character, which sets it apart from other areas Downtown.

While she welcomes more residents and development, Tweiten said she hopes artists remain a part of the fabric of the neighborhood.

"They have a unique perspective," she said.

Meanwhile, Leer said the artists need to come to terms with market realities affecting all Downtown renters.

"It is part of the dynamic of any city. It's constantly changing," he said.