Metals factory or gold-plated housing?

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April 26, 2004 // UPDATED 1:22 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Superior Plating is an industrial oddity amid the East Bank's condo boom -- and an attractive target for developers

Longtime East Bank business Superior Plating is one of the booming neighborhood's last industrial holdouts.

The expansive factory, which produces two football fields' worth of zinc and nickel chrome parts daily, oddly juxtaposes with its surroundings -- high-end lofts and new upscale retail.

The metal-finishing shop, wedged between railroad tracks, University and 1st avenues northeast, has been a neighborhood fixture since the 1950s, when the business took over an old streetcar barn.

Now, the 75-year-old business contrasts with new trends in the neighborhood, which has become one of the city's more fashionable and faster growing areas. Several new condos have sprung up on nearby blocks in recent years.

Some envision a future for the neighborhood without Superior Plating, 315 1st Ave. NE. About a dozen developers have courted the business to sell its property for new housing and retail.

There is also talk of possibly putting a platform for the Northstar Corridor Commuter rail line at the site, with a mix of retail and housing.

Superior Plating president Michael McMonagle is willing to entertain the offers. However, he said he wants to keep the metal-finishing shop in business and its 100 union workers, who make about $17.50 an hour, employed.

"First of all, we were here first and we want to continue staying in business," McMonagle said. "We have actually helped encourage the changes in the community. We love this more vibrant community that we have around us. But if there is a vision that someone has to redevelop our property and move us off of here, [and] they can do it in a manner that we stay in business, we won't object."

What would that take?

For starters, tens of millions of dollars, McMonagle said.

The plant itself is assessed at $1.86 million, according to county tax records, though a sale price could certainly be higher. And Superior Plating wants the developer to pay for moving costs and the new piece of real estate.

The developer would also be faced with significant pollution issues.

Superior Plating is listed as an active Superfund site, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). The groundwater on-site is contaminated with metals, cyanide and solvents, according to the MPCA. Off-site groundwater is also contaminated with solvents.

The groundwater pollutant is Trichloroethylene -- a colorless liquid used to clean metal parts. Drinking or breathing large amounts of the liquid might cause damage to the nervous system, lungs, heart and liver.

McMonagle said the company has relied on sophisticated Canadian technology to blast the paint solvent when it's pumped into the air from the groundwater. Superior Plating would continue monitoring the remediation efforts in the event of a move, he said.

The cleanup effort happens off the Superior Plating site and isn't noticeable when walking past the 110,000-square-foot warehouse. In fact, it's hard to tell much of anything goes on inside Superior Plating when standing on the outside.

Inside, it's a much different story.

Metal parts are bathed in boiling vats of detergent and water to prime them for detail work. Workers wear goggles and other protective gear to ensure safety when working with the metals and toxic byproducts of the parts.

The metal parts that Superior Plating works on go into all kinds of things -- from school chairs to space shuttles. The plating and detail work on the parts guards against corrosion and rust.

The business does about $10 million in sales annually, McMonagle said.

While Superior Plating might be a messy operation in some respects, it maintains a largely quiet neighborhood presence.

Victor Grambsch, head of the Nicollet Island/East Bank Neighborhood Association, considers Superior Plating a good neighbor.

In other parts of the city, industry has clashed with new residents. For instance, in the Downtown's North Loop neighborhood across the Mississippi from Superior Plating, activists objected when Northern Auto wanted to expand its car-crushing operation.

It goes both ways, however. Some industrial leaders have objected to having new housing in their midst.

In the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood bordering the East Bank, a company called Metal-Matic sued the city when it rezoned the area for the new Stone Arch Apartments. Under terms of its settlement, the pipe manufacturer is allowed to continue operating its trucks 24 hours a day.

The Stone Arch Apartment complex, 601 SE Main St., meanwhile, has been outfitted with concrete floors and ceilings, as well as double-paned windows to drown out the industrial noise.

Grambsch points out that residents in the 1,000-unit Pillsbury "A" Mill project planned near St. Anthony Main would likely face the same issues given its proximity to Metal-Matic and the University of Minnesota steam plant, which often belts out an annoying high-pitched wail when it releases steam.

Grambsch welcomes new housing and believes industry and new housing can co-exist.

"This is kind of your old settlers-versus-the-newcomers argument," he said. "As long as the old business are in compliance, I have a hard time with the idea that they can't expand their business."

Gab Jabbour, owner of West Photo, 21 University Ave. NE, which is just east of Superior Plating, also offered praise for McMonagle and his willingness to be a part of the dialogue about the future of the Superior Plating site.

"[Superior Plating] has been a good corporate citizen," he said, adding that it has provided high-paying union jobs.

The company also pays about $75,000 in property taxes, according to the city's Web site. (In comparison, condo owners at the nearby 48-unit Village townhomes development, 221 1st Ave. NE, pay about $330,000 in total property taxes for a similar chunk of East Bank real estate.)

While he has been supportive of the business, Jabbour said the site is "perfect for development."

He'd like to see more commercial activity, preferably something "profitable" without a liquor license. He said the neighborhood is already saturated with liquor licenses and doesn't want the area to become another Warehouse District.

McMonagle said he's understanding of those who envision a future for the neighborhood without Superior Plating.

While plans remain far off in the future at this point, McMonagle said he won't stand in the way of those who present him with a feasible plan the neighborhood backs and that keeps him in business.

"We'll work gladly with anyone that would have that vision and pull it off," he said.