On April 29, Mayor R.T. Rybak and City Councilmember Natalie Johnson Lee tore a ribbon to mark the opening of 170-foot-long ground-level tunnel beneath the near-finished Tower Lofts at 700 Washington Ave. N.
North Loop Neighborhood Organization President Peter Brown, who lives in another Leer-developed building at 801 Washington Ave. N., called the stretch of Washington Avenue North "an impenetrable wall." Before the tunnel's opening, there was no access to North 2nd Street and the riverfront beyond between 5th and 10th avenues, five long city blocks.
Rybak and Johnson Lee touted the tunnel as an example of street life improvements in the North Loop neighborhood.
Rybak recalled visiting his uncle Harry's artificial limb and brace company in the "dark and scary" warehouse area as a boy. Rybak praised Tower Lofts developers Chuck and Mary Leer, calling the tunnel the work of "one entrepreneurial pioneer after another" that is revitalizing the North Loop neighborhood.
The brick and concrete tunnel, an extension of an existing loading dock in the 85-year-old building, descends slightly from 2nd Street to Washington Avenue. The tunnel is bare except for metal lights and stairs leading to security doors. It will be open 24 hours a day, according to Tower Lofts developer Chuck Leer. He said security cameras would be installed, and management would deal with graffiti when and if it is a problem.
Leer could not say how much the tunnel cost, but he noted that the passageway will be a benefit to Tower Lofts tenants, as well as the neighborhood.
Brown said the neighborhood association was "delighted" when Leer came to them with the idea. "It was an easy, logical and generous thing to do," he said.
Pedestrians could be forgiven if they miss the new connection, however. The tunnel's North 2nd Street end is barely visible across a large parking lot. Leer said that the project's Phase Two, to begin late this year will add landscaping and signage to highlight the tunnel. That phase will also add multiple private entrances to second-floor live/work units at the back of the building, near the tunnel opening.
Leer said that half of the 24 second-floor "live/work" units have been sold; future tenants include a design firm, a film producer and a sculptor, among others.
The tunnel's opening comes as phase one of the adaptive reuse project nears completion. According to Leer, 94 of 135 available units have been sold. Residents will begin to occupy the first 65 completed units in May, with full occupancy expected by the end of the year. Leer said he expects the project to generate $38 million in total sales proceeds.
The finished lofts feature 13-foot-high ceilings, in 675-1,650-square-foot units. The smallest studios, originally priced as low as $133,000, now cost $179,000. A two-bedroom-plus-den is available for $419,000.
A private rooftop deck offers views of the neighborhood and skyline. One of three ground-level retail spaces will house "Java J's," coffee shop, expected to open in June.
The former warehouse's 12-story tower, one of the avenue's most distinctive features, was retained in the renovation. The building was constructed in 1920.