If you look north from the corner of Malcolm Avenue SE and the University of Minnesota Transitway — the busway that runs between the U’s Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses — you can see one of Minneapolis’ largest industrial zones: the Southeast Minneapolis Industrial area, aka SEMI.
To the northeast is the Surly Brewing complex which — despite its hip beer hall and brewer’s table — is also a manufacturing facility. Semi-trucks frequently drive up and down Malcolm Avenue, servicing the warehouses and light industrial and supply companies in SEMI, businesses that have populated the railyard area north of Prospect Park for decades.
But if you turn just 90 degrees to the west, you can see what the area could become. Cranes and construction vehicles are visible at the site for “The Rise” — a mixed-use project that will hold 336 apartments and a grocery store on land that once held an ice cream factory, just the latest in a line of residential buildings that have been marching from the U of M campus toward Prospect Park.
In between the two vistas, though, is another site: a lonely group of buildings that might become the epicenter of a land-use evolution in Minneapolis. The onetime home of the Harris Machinery Co., the collection of brick and wooden structures is snuggled up against the landmark “United Crushers” grain elevator complex and is zoned for industrial use, meaning it’s been set aside by the city’s comprehensive plan for job creators.
Which poses something of a dilemma for Minneapolis: As residential development continues to boom, should the city allow the edges of its industrial areas to be turned over to housing, preserve them for uses that might provide jobs, or create something in between?
John Wall has been interested in this part of Minneapolis for 15 years. In the early 2000s, he began buying property in the SEMI area with a vision to develop a technology and research campus that would attract businesses who wanted proximity to the U of M’s own research functions. “The University seemed in favor of it and I was surprised no one had thought of it before,” Wall said last month.
What he termed the Minnesota Innovation Park would provide a home for startups trying to take university research and discoveries to market. But after more than a decade of trying, Wall found that no one was buying what he was selling. The university’s interest was tepid, even when the school built a series of life sciences research buildings north of the football stadium. “I can’t take it anymore,” Wall said. “I can’t keep beating my head against the wall. I have to do what other people are doing.”
So for the last year or more, Wall has been proposing something different, a project he calls Malcolm Yards, which would include the property that holds the remains of Harris Machinery. After talking to the Prospect Park Neighborhood Association and other groups with interests in the area, Wall has proposed saving the most prominent building, the Harris building, and turning it into a food hall: a place where small restaurant counters might mix with bakers, wine sellers and even produce markets would be the anchor of a residential tower upwards of 14 stories.
The Prospect Park association supports Malcolm Yards, both the reuse of the Harris Building and the apartment tower. A memorandum of understanding between Wall’s company, Wall Development Co., and the association calls for retention and adaptive reuse of both the Harris Machinery Building and the United Crushers, and calls for a requirement in land use rules for a “certain amount or percentage of industrial/maker space.”
City action needed
There’s a problem with Wall’s proposal, though: Under current Minneapolis zoning and policy, residential development is not permitted there. What’s more, the property is part of an industrial zone, known as an Industrial Employment District, that makes changes in zoning difficult. In fact, Minneapolis would have to amend its comprehensive plan to allow the full Malcolm Yards development.
Cam Gordon, who represents the area on the Minneapolis City Council, said he has met with the developer and the neighborhood group and says the proposal raises a “key policy point” that the city needs to reconcile. “We’ve really held firm in keeping that as a designated employment zone,” Gordon said of the SEMI area. And while he said it is worth having a discussion about whether the zoning lines should be moved, or whether a new employment-residential zone should be created, he said the best time for that discussion might be during the upcoming update of the city’s entire comprehensive plan.
“As that area is changing and growing and things are coming in, there’s a different balance we could strike,” said Gordon, who also said he could imagine a transition zone that features “makers-spaces” where a craftsperson could design and build and live; if successful, the business could eventually move to larger-scale manufacturing areas in the SEMI area.
But that’s not what Wall is proposing to do; he wants to build apartments on the same campus as the food hall and some commercial space. “I think it’s a tough spot we’re in,” Gordon said.
No formal proposal for a comprehensive plan amendment has been made, and Gordon said he can’t guess the result if they council should take ever take a vote on the issue. But last summer, the council approved a $300,000 grant to Wall from the state of Minnesota for a now-abandoned plan to put a craft distillery in the Harris building. At the time, a $5.4 million price tag was put on the food hall and office portion of the project.
And just last month the council approved another development grant for the Harris Building from Hennepin County. The $300,000 grant would help pay for utilities, site work, sidewalks, trail connections, stormwater and building stabilization. And yet, though the 12,200 square-foot food hall would likely accord with the area’s current zoning, Wall has said the project only works if is also allowed to build his residential project, which is not allowed under current zoning rules.
By approving the grants from the county and the state, did the council tip its hand that it will support the comprehensive plan change? “Not that I know of,” responded City Council Member and Community Development Committee Chair Lisa Goodman when asked about the issue.
Zoning for jobs
The Metropolitan Council oversees growth management and long-range planning for the seven-county metro region. One of its policy goals, outlined in the council’s Thrive MSP 2040 plan, is to establish and preserve space for industry. The region, it notes, is expected to add 550,000 new jobs between 2010 and 2040.
“Just as the region’s residents need housing, so do the region’s businesses and institutions need land to locate their enterprises and jobs,” says the plan, which also notes that half of the region’s jobs are located in what it terms “job concentrations” with access to transportation networks, materials, markets and talent. “Proximity to workers — particularly via attractive commute modes — increases employers’ desirability as places to work and minimizes the negative impact of travel time delays,” it states.
To respond to that need, the report tasked cities to preserve places for employment, including industry, distribution and manufacturing. Unlike other aspects of the 2040 plan that are required for Met Council approval, however, the employment zoning one is not mandatory.
Long process for neighborhood
Like Wall, a lot of neighborhood advocates have been wondering about the future of Prospect Park for awhile now. People like Richard Gilyard, an architect who has long been involved in planning for the Prospect Park neighborhood. If there’s been a committee or a workgroup or a new organization to put planning into practice, Gilyard has likely been a member.
While the approval of the Green Line LRT through the area provided an impetus for broader thinking about the area, Gilyard said there has long been a need to think strategically about development there, rather than simply reacting to each development proposal brought before the neighborhood association.
Described by Gilyard as progressive and “a far-left” kind of community (“the Paul Wellstone posters are still in the windows,” he says), Prospect Park was once known more for what it was against than what is was for.
“That was helpful for a lot of the proposals that were out there,” Gilyard said. But that has been changing. “We thought, development is going to happen here with us or without us.” It would either develop as a “stretch version of Stadium Village — more pizza, more beer, more maroon and gold — or it could be a different place.”
What’s emerged from the committees and studies and plans that Gilyard and many others have been involved in crafting over the years, then, is a vision for a decidedly urban community — one with commercial, office, residential, and work spaces that bring the sort of density that could draw the amenities and vitality the area had been lacking.
Under that vision, 4th Street, which had historically been an industrial area, would become a residential one, with up to 2,500 new units of varying affordability. While the area north of 4th, including Wall’s property, would be a job-creating space, with a mix of offices, studios, and incubator spaces.
“The real opportunity then becomes, how do you take this mix of uses, this mix of people and demonstrate how this can become a living laboratory demonstration of how we really have to do urban redevelopment,” Gilyard said.
The SEMI area poses one of the most complex, and interesting, challenges. Gilyard said that the city had hopes that it would redevelop into a research and innovation park. It didn’t. “Why they didn’t do more with it, I don’t know,” he said. “But in the end, it’s fortunate that they didn’t because you really have a blank canvas here in the middle of the city next to one of the largest research institutions in the country and on the Green Line.”
While the neighborhood once opposed student housing in the southern segment of the SEMI area, it is now more open to some residential there. “With 4th Street becoming a residential street and with the creation of a park running back to the elevator, Prospect Park is supportive of the notion that you should have eyes on the park,” Gilyard said.
But they also want employment. “Somehow we have to be able to guarantee that there’s still job creation,” he said. The promise of the Green Line, that it would spur the creation of both affordable housing and jobs, has delivered more on the housing side than the jobs side. “This area cannot become all apartments. We don’t want it to be that. We want it to be a place of jobs.”