The design power behind Downtown's tallest condo tower

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April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Meet the Warehouse District duo who've come up with a 48-story design even skeptics applaud

Downtown architects Janis LaDouceur and John Barbour talk with their pens.

The architects are the visionaries behind the new 48-story condo tower proposed for South 10th Street & Nicollet Mall -- a high-profile high-rise that would dramatically transform Nicollet.

While LaDouceur has a whimsical and animated way with words and Barbour an understated, dry sense of humor, the duo speaks one language when sketching designs for new buildings.

"We literally will roll out a piece of paper and draw on the same piece of paper," Barbour explained in their Warehouse District studio, 129 N. 2nd St.

"With two pens," LaDouceur quickly chimed in. "Two pens are really important because if you start grabbing pens out of each other's hands, it gets to be a territory war."

The proposed 243-unit tower, a glassy high-rise with a giant curve cutting through the center, reflects two features of Downtown's personality, LaDouceur explained.

The tower's north side facing the business district, "wears a suit," she said. The other side, meanwhile, dominated by the arc pointing south toward Peavey Plaza and Orchestra Halls, "wears play clothes."

Said LaDouceur, "Peavey Plaza has a more playful atmosphere. But as you walk down Nicollet Mall, it becomes sterner and sterner. It becomes very business-like."

The architects approach their work like journalists. Before designing a project, they spend hours talking to people in the community, researching historical records and walking around the site. Then they let ideas float around in their heads for a few days before they sit down to sketch.

Said LaDouceur, "There's a very important element of design that John and I call 'brewing time.' You hear about a project, visit a site, you talk to people and you start to understand the stories," she said. "Those things sort of dance around in your head, and we let them dance around for a week or two. Then we'll starting talking. We aren't capable of talking without a pen in our hand."

Jeff McDonell, 38, a landscape architect at the firm who led the effort to secure the 10th & Nicollet property for the project, lauded LaDouceur's and Barbour's design approach.

"All of their architecture tells a story, and it's that story that gets interpreted in the architecture that brings meaning and separates their architecture out from everybody else's," he said.

McDonell, Ron Johnson, 38, and Henry Lazniarz, 54, are the investors in the $75 million project. The developers would not disclose how much they've contributed.

Typically, developers need to come up with a down payment, roughly 15 percent of the total construction costs, and presell half the units before they can secure financing for the project.

In this case, the developers need to sell about 66 units and come up with a roughly $11 million down payment. Several city agencies must also sign off.

Lazniarz and Johnson are partners in Minnetonka-based Premier Design and Development, LLC, which has focused on upper-income-bracket single-family suburban housing. The group has recently started to branch out into multifamily housing.

The 48-story condo tower would be by far their largest project, Lazniarz said, who lives near Orchestra Hall in the Oakwood, 1117 Marquette Ave. He formerly worked as a civil engineer for the state's Pollution Control Agency before switching to residential development work.

"It's very unique and such a desirable location," Lazniarz said, adding that the tower's spot on the Nicollet Mall "promenade" would make it the most desirable new residential development Downtown. "We're very excited about the design."

The condo tower would be as tall as its neighbor to the west, Target's 32-story corporate headquarters. (Because an office story requires more height than a condo story, the condo project can fit more floors in the same vertical space.) The Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant, 1010 Nicollet Mall, is also across the street.

When the architects brainstormed ideas for the building this summer, LaDouceur sketched the arc down the tower's center to reflect the neighborhood's musical vibe. "It feels like a bow of a musical instrument, and it feels like a harp," she said.

Barbour said the tower's design has a fresh energy.

"It's really easy to design a tall, cold building. We wanted to create a lively building -- something that would be interesting to look at," he said. "We don't want this building to be a

traditional, old-fashioned building. We want this to be upbeat and modern."

The architects' sketch on a small notepad won over the development team; recently, the design earned applause at a Loring Park neighborhood meeting -- something that doesn't happen often among skeptical residents.

"I think the rhythm of Downtown is embedded in our understanding of this project," LaDouceur said.

The architects can draw on their own experiences. They've worked in the Warehouse District for eight years. The drawing exercises take place in casual settings, such as restaurants or coffee shops. Frequently, Moose & Sadie's, a Warehouse District coffee shop in the Colonial Warehouse Building, 212 N. 3rd St., is their destination. The popular hangout is just a couple of blocks from the architects' loft.

"We use rolls of trace [paper] and then you sketch and then you just roll another piece out. A lot of our buildings have been designed on napkins. We'll go somewhere -- a coffee shop -- and we'll sit and sketch, and we'll just keep pulling out the napkins until we have it all figured out," LaDouceur said.

She lives across the street from her office and previously lived at 110 Grant, a luxury apartment building on the Loring Greenway in Loring Park.

If the proposal moves forward, the tower would be the most ambitious residential project to date for the Barbour/LaDouceur firm.

The architects met while working at Windsor/Faricy Architects in St. Paul. They decided to start their own firm after discovering their compatibility and shared vision for design.

Since joining forces, the architects have designed two LRT stations, including the Government Plaza station at City Hall and the Franklin Avenue platform. They've also done private homes; a boutique hotel in downtown Fargo, N.D.; a condo conversion in Aberdeen, S.D.; and several interpretative centers, including the Richard I. Bong WWII Heritage Museum in Superior, Wis.

The museum has a sentimental value for LaDouceur, whose father served as paratrooper in the war. He became paralyzed after his second jump and met LaDouceur's mother while recovering in the hospital.

LaDouceur, a California native who attended architecture school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, spent years working in Chicago firms before moving to the Twin Cities. She received the 2004 National Young Architects Award from the American Institutes of Architects -- an honor given to just four other architects in the country.

Barbour, meanwhile, has more than 30 years of experience designing buildings. He was involved in the design of Loring Park's Laurel Village, a three-block apartment complex on Hennepin Avenue South between 11th and 13th streets.

LaDouceur said their combined experiences make them well suited to tackle a condo tower.

"I have worked long enough in Chicago to be comfortable with the parameters of tall buildings, and John has practiced for over 30 years in an amazing array of building types," she said.

Margot Seigel, head of Seigel Properties, has agreed to sell the 10th & Nicollet block to the developers pending the outcome of the city-approval process.

"It's a great improvement over the current buildings. Their useful years have come and gone," Seigel said.

Steve Durrant, who served as the coordinator of the LRT design team, heaped praise on the architects.

"I found John and Janis to be very creative and responsive architects. We had a really demanding schedule for the Hiawatha Stations with lots of interaction with other parties," he said. "We met the schedules, though, and the products are as promised -- individual civic landmarks for each neighborhood."

Thomas Melchior, a multifamily-real-estate analyst for Downtown's Larson, Allen Weishair & Co., said the tower proposal should be successful if priced right. The Downtown condo market has become saturated with pricey options, such as condos in the $400,000 to $1 million range.

Although he hasn't reviewed the details of the project, he offered kudos and called it an "exciting proposal."