A developer with unconventional plans

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May 26, 2003 // UPDATED 10:50 am - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Will future North Loop condo owners share cars? Kit Richardson thinks they might - if they can buy into the neighborhood for less.

By fall 2004, there could be another condominium development in Downtown\'s North Loop neighborhood - surprise, surprise. However, unlike some of its neighbors, this development will not have a view of the river, three parking spaces per unit, or a $1.5 million price tag.

The development, known as the 710 Lofts, sits south of Washington Avenue at North 4th Street and 7th Avenue North. While North Loop has become almost synonymous with high-priced, in this part of the neighborhood a vista of loading docks and trucks is more common than manicured lawns and BMWs. It is gritty, industrial and not at all residential - but that could soon change.

This slice of North Loop could also be called Schafer Richardson Land; at least six warehouse-like buildings bear large signs with the real estate development firm\'s name and phone number. Most house office or industrial tenants, but at 710 N. 4th St., Brad Schafer and Kit Richardson hope to put residents.

Richardson isn\'t just selling unconventionally located housing - he\'s selling unconventional housing. He hopes to build up to five stories and 70 units of new lofts, perhaps priced under $300,000, where residents may be able to share cars.

A vision of Portland

Asked about his condo plans, Richardson pulled out sketches on lined notebook paper he had drawn on a plane ride home from Portland, Ore.

Richardson feels strongly about parking, transportation and urban planning. He\'s the rare developer who would rather talk about the smart urban planning he saw in Portland\'s Pearl District (which he says is similar to North Loop), instead of touting his own local project.

\"In Portland, they require that all street fronts be active. They have streets that are so much more pedestrian-friendly,\" he said. \"Portland also has a true streetcar system as well as light rail. When we landed in Portland, we didn\'t have to rent a car. It\'s frustrating to come back after seeing such a logical system.\"

Richardson wants to impart some of Portland\'s logic in the 710 project by reducing parking spaces per unit and initiating a shared car program. Richardson envisions having two cars that any building residents could use, slicing parking to perhaps one stall per unit.

Fewer parking spaces would allow him to do what many developers are doing in a sluggish economy: reduce condo prices. According to Richardson, building a single underground parking stall can cost $15,000-$20,000.

He acknowledges that less parking is a novel and even radical tactic. \"The math is simple,\" he said. \"But the shared-car idea is new to our area. I\'m not sure if people would be willing to buy these condos with only one stall. I don\'t know if the market is ready for this.\"

(One stall per unit is the city\'s minimum standard, but parking is such a selling point that most developers build more.)

Another reason for fewer cars: the 710 has less space to put them. \"This building doesn\'t have a basement. So there is no opportunity to put parking underground. I believe in hiding parking,\" Richardson said.

Burying parking is one reason Richardson may abandon his original plan - rehabbed lofts - and demolish the warehouse to build new. He acknowledges the irony of tearing down a building to accommodate the cars he disdains.

\"One of the dilemmas, of course, is as a developer I\'ve got to build enough parking stalls, so the people who are buying get what they want - otherwise they\'re not going to buy,\" Richardson said. \"If I don\'t build enough parking stalls what\'s the point? They won\'t sell. On the other hand, I would like to somehow promote the idea that there is an alternative to having three cars.\"

Under 300K?

Richardson has long adapted to change. Schafer Richardson, which has owned the Ford Center, 420 N. 5th St, since 1998, originally snapped up nearby property to convert to office space.

\"We thought our tenants in the Ford Center would need some space to expand,\" Richardson said. \"We originally thought 710 would be office space. Then the economy tanked.\"

Schafer Richardson decided 710 should be residential.

With its proximity to the central business district, Richardson wants the 710 Lofts to attract Downtown employees who can\'t afford expensive riverfront condos but want to live near their workplace.

\"We want to build Downtown housing that goes to a lower price level. I think there\'s a huge need for reasonably priced, well-designed, well-built Downtown condos,\" he said. \"Not all people can afford $1.5 million condos. The market is broadest under $300,000 - and maybe lower.\"

Despite lower prices, Schafer Richardson will not ask for city subsidy.

Richardson said renovating the existing low-rise, nondescript brick building into condominiums would force unit prices up. \"We\'re really trying to hit a price point that is lower than most of the other projects in the market right now,\" he said.

Richardson (who holds a University of Minnesota architecture degree) would prefer to save the building but admits economics trumps desire.

\"It\'s a very simple, plain, industrial building. It\'s not important historically or architecturally, but it would be a fun old building to save and renovate,\" Richardson said. \"We would love to save this building, but the costs are too high.\"

So, Richardson is 99 percent sure his firm will elect to take a less expensive route and build new. Though it won\'t be a true warehouse, Richardson wants the new building to resemble one.

\"We want an industrial, simple design with high ceilings, concrete floors and glass,\" Richardson said. \"We\'re hoping to make the units funky and industrial to the extent that we can still bring them in at a reasonable price.\"

The building will most likely stand four or five stories tall with 60-70 units. Richardson said the units would be both two-level and single-level condominiums as well as live/work space on the ground floor.

The ground floor units will open directly onto the street, which Richardson believes will create an exciting street front. \"Just having those units open onto the street with lots of nice landscaping will make it lively and active [because] there will be people living and working there on the street level,\" he said.

Behind the building, Richardson said, \"the plan is that we will ask the city to vacate the alley and make it a green space. Then it becomes a walking surface with landscaping and greenery, but it would have emergency vehicle access on maybe a cobblestone street.\"

The 710 Lofts are actually just the first step in Schafer Richardson\'s foray into North Loop residential housing. The 710 Lofts are part of a three-part project that includes 720 and 740 N. 4th St. In total, Richardson said, his firm would eventually add about 282 units of housing to the area.