A key chapter in Minneapolis’s recent history is coming to a close now that Brighton Development, the local firm that helped launch the city’s riverfront revival, is winding down its activities.
Recently, Peggy Lucas, one of Brighton’s founding members, told the Star Tribune’s Jim Buchta that her firm intends to sell off its current land holdings and will not be taking on new projects.
Lucas, along with her partners, Dick Brustad and Linda Donaldson, established Brighton in the early 1980s to do small in-fill residential projects that other, more established developers were ignoring.
“Our niche was those neighborhood projects that had buy-in from the community groups. We saw community involvement as a plus. Some other developers didn’t see it that way,” noted Brustad, who had previously served as head of the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority.
Brighton’s focus on neighborhood development differed sharply from the approach of one of the Twin Cities’ most prominent large-scale developers, Bob Boisclair, who had built the massive Riverplace project overlooking Nicollet Island on the river’s east bank.
Lourdes Square, then East Hennepin block
When Boisclair’s real-estate empire collapsed in the 1980s, Brighton was able to pick up the development rights to a piece of property next to Riverplace called the Coke site (after the soft drink bottling plant that had once been located there). Brighton built the low-rise, upscale townhouse development known as Lourdes Square on the site. The brick-clad townhouses had a contemporary look but were able to evoke an earlier era. Unlike the massive Riverplace, which turned its back on the adjacent St. Anthony neighborhood, the Brighton development seemed like a natural extension of the neighborhood.
Brighton went on to develop the adjacent Marquette block on East Hennepin, which included a collection of historic but dilapidated commercial buildings. “Our goal was to save the buildings but many of the nearby businesses wanted to tear them down,” recalled Peggy Lucas. “I remember going through the building thinking that they were going to fall down around us.”
Eventually, Brighton was able to save the Marquette block buildings, renovate them and create some affordable apartments over their commercial storefronts. The firm’s experience with the Marquette block gave it the confidence it needed to take on an even more substantial renovation challenge when it began working across the river on the west bank in the mid-1990s, at the urging of Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton.
Soon, Brighton was eyeing the abandoned North Star Woolen Mill as its initial west bank project.
“Northstar was in bad shape, like the Marquette block had been,” said Lucas. “But, by now, we knew something about adaptive reuse and we decided that we could apply the lessons we learned on East Hennepin at the Northstar.”
Looked to Chicago
Lucas and her partners had known about the loft movement under way in Chicago, so they decided to go there and take a look for themselves. The Brighton trio came back home, having decided that the Chicago loft style, with its exposed brick walls, high ceilings and open floor plans, would be a good fit for the North Star.
When they started putting the project together, the three developers found that local banks were not lining up ready to provide the financing they needed.
“Back then the lenders hated condos,” Lucas recalls. “But we had a track record with U.S. Bank from earlier projects. Eventually, we were able to put a financing package together with them.” To help make the numbers work, Brighton was able to secure tax increment financing from the city, which helped jump-start the project.
Even with a financing commitment in hand, Brighton needed to market the loft units to prospective buyers. Unsure about the nature of their market, Lucas and her partners took a leap of faith that the buyer would be there for new style of housing in an unfamiliar setting.
“The area looked terrible. It felt like a wasteland. The Sheehy gravel pit was still there. There was a lot of broken glass and dead pigeons and graffiti,” recalled Lucas. But Brighton soon found that it was able to attract a steady stream of buyers, who were able to look through the rubble to imagine what the riverfront could become. Renamed the North Star Lofts, the condominium building opened in 1999 and was an immediate success.
Anchors for a larger revitalization
Lucas and her partners were lucky enough to launch their landmark projects prior to the real-estate crash of the 2006-07. Today, those projects, which include the Stone Arch and Humboldt Lofts, continue to anchor a revitalized riverfront that has attracted the Federal Reserve Bank, the Mill City Museum, Guthrie Theatre and more than a billion dollars in private investments.
Linda Mack, who writes about architecture and historic preservation, says that Brighton has contributed in an important way to the revitalization of the downtown districts on both sides of the river.
“Very few people who visit East Hennepin today know that it was Brighton that saved those blocks from the bulldozer,” Mack notes. “It is a wonderful , lively place today, so well rooted in its past, and that is because of that pioneering work done by a development group that saw the untapped potential for a section of our city that had been ignored for too long.”