Main Street towers too tall and glassy, city panel says

'A' Mill appeals filed after 7-hour hearing

MARCY-HOLMES—Despite concerted support from neighborhood groups, four of six residential towers proposed for Main Street SE failed to gain Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission approval last month.

Gambling on City Council votes to overrule the commission’s building height objections, Pillsbury ‘A’ Mill site developer Schafer Richardson appealed the HPC rulings Jan. 20 to the council’s Zoning and Planning Committee.

At the same time, the developer will redesign the new high-rise residential buildings in the project to overcome the objections, and will plan to submit the new design to the commission, according to David Frank, project director for the developer, Schafer Richardson.The towers are the most dominant elements of a three-block, 900-plus-unit residential and commercial development, whose centerpiece is the historic Pillsbury “A” Mill. The project, on seven acres between Main and Second streets SE, and from Third to Sixth avenues SE, is thought to be the city’s biggest since Cedar Square West (now Riverside Plaza) on the West Bank.

Commissioners said the height of the tallest towers and the modern glass design would overwhelm and diminish the historic nature of the blocks, which are part of the St. Anthony Falls Historic District on the Mississippi River. The tallest buildings proposed are 15, 20, 24, and 27 stories.

The commission did, however, recommend approval for two of the new residential buildings and for plans to rehabilitate four historic flour mill buildings for residential and commercial use. The two new buildings include a 12-story, 132-unit condominium project and a 10-story, 106-unit building. The commission attached numerous conditions and revisions to its recommendations, which normally proceed to the City Planning Commission.

In all, the commission recommended approval for 375 residential units. Of those, 137 are proposed in four historic structures and 238 units are in two new buildings. The recommendations for denial included 538 units in four new buildings.

HPC staff noted that guidelines for the historic district recommend new buildings be no higher than the existing silos and mills. The guidelines also recommend the use of brick, stone, and concrete for new construction.

In the meantime, Bluff Street Development LLC, developer of condominium buildings on two sites next to the A-Mill project, appealed three of the Heritage Commission’s recommendations of approval on the A-Mill development, according to Michael Norton, attorney for the developer.

Jeff Ellerd, Bluff Street project manager, said the appeals were made because the developer felt several of the commission’s favorable A-Mill project findings were inconsistent with the historic district guidelines and Secretary of the Interior historic standards.

Specifically, the appeals challenged recommendations approving demolition of a set of bridges between existing buildings and demolition of the white concrete grain elevators.

Schafer Richardson has been planning the project and meeting with neighborhood groups for almost four years, developer Kit Richardson told the commission. Frank said the company researched the history of the mill buildings, which he described as a “vitally important resource.” The Pillsbury “A” Mill was described by a historian as the single largest and most celebrated flour mill ever built. In 1966, it was named a national historic landmark.

Frank said the plan for the three-block site includes new pedestrian plazas, a grand staircase, connections to Main Street, and businesses such as a coffee shop and restaurant. Richardson said earlier it could take as long as 12 years to complete the project, costing a reported $400 million.

Project Architect David Graham said the objective was to save the historic “A” Mill complex through economic return on increased residential density in the new structures. Frank said the return from the extra height of the new structures would pay a cross subsidy for restoring the historic buildings, with no public subsidy.

Graham said the contemporary design of the new buildings would distinguish the old from the new, enhancing the value of the historic structures. Richardson said the new buildings should be different from the old ones. “Why use brick today?” he asked.

Commissioner Judith Neiswander agreed with city staff objections to the design of the proposed tall glass main entrance to the complex in the “A” Mill building. “It looks like the entrance to a bank,” she said.

Too tall, too massive

A number of people spoke for or against the project. Michael Norton, attorney representing Steve Minn, developer of the nearby Stone Arch Apartments and proposed two Flour Sack Flats condominium buildings adjacent to the A-Mill project, called the A-Mill plan “a disaster for historic resources.” The Schafer Richardson buildings are “too tall and massive along Main Street and out of character,” Norton said.

A spokesman for Minn pointed out that earlier architectural drawings considered for A-Mill redevelopment showed much lower residential density and emphasized the historic structures.

Norton said the development should be presented as a master plan, rather than as 11 parcels, and that a master plan would require meeting height restrictions. He noted the parcels could be sold to other developers, comparing it to a Schafer Richardson project in Eagan. There, the city chose the company as developer for a 700-acre site once considered downtown Eagan. The proposal calls for 974 condominiums and other housing types.

“Urban vandalism”

Marcy-Holmes resident Andrew Kolstad argued for preservation of the white grain elevators and labeled their proposed demolition “a type of urban vandalism.”

Scott McGinnis, a historian representing Minn, argued that even if the elevators were altered for housing, “they would still contribute more than a new building.” Opening streets and corridors between buildings “completely redefines this historic district [by melding] industrial with residential development. … It just doesn’t fit,” he said.

Arvonne Fraser, Marcy-Holmes association board and land use committee member, quipped, “I’m one of the historic residents of the neighborhood.” She told the commission, “We want access to the river, not a barrier. So, we strongly support this.”

A joint Marcy-Holmes and Nicollet Island/East Bank neighborhood association task force reached a consensus in favor of the plan, which includes opening and enhancing streets to connect Marcy-Holmes to the river. The task force said that while “there is no great or widespread enthusiasm for high-rises on the river, taller buildings are acceptable if they help achieve the neighborhood goals.” The boards for the groups also supported the project.

White concrete elevators

In the vote to approve demolishing the white elevators, Commission Chair Todd Grover said he wished there was a way to reuse them. “I’ll go with this approval, but with a sad heart,” he said.

Aaron Rubenstein, speaking for the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, said new buildings should be lower than the ‘A’ Mill. “The design has little to do with the historic context,” he added.

In a letter, Marcy-Holmes resident Alissa Kingsley commended the effort to restore the A Mill building, but said demolition of the grain elevators and construction of new buildings alter the rail corridor and “virtually eliminates the entire physical historic context of the Pillsbury “A” Mill.” She favored reusing the mill as retail or commercial space to maintain the building’s integrity.

Commissioner Grover called the contemporary design of the new buildings “evocative, but misplaced. … There is a compromise we can reach,” he said. While he agreed with staff recommendations to deny major portions of the project, he said he looked forward to seeing changes proposed in the project’s massing and height.

HPC Chair Koski said the focus was on preservation of the historic district and the impact on the neighborhood, and that while he was comfortable with proposed building heights and views, he doesn’t approve of the materials proposed. “Main Street is too glassy,” he said of the new building designs. Commissioner Neiswander agreed, “Our responsibility is preservation of historic buildings,” she said. “It is up to the [City] Council to weigh larger financial benefits.”

An alternative plan with lower high-rise buildings and acceptable exterior materials proposed in the project’s environmental impact study was one of the findings approved by the commission. The plan would include four residential towers of 14–18 stories, not taller than the Red Tile Elevator building. The historic district guidelines recommend that “new buildings be no higher than that of existing silo-mills in the area.”

The State Historic Preservation Office notes in the EIS that the alternative plan “could co-exist (with appropriate attention to design detailing) with the historic mill complex and the “A” mill without dominating the overall scene.”

However, Frank said that the alternative plan “is not economically feasible using our other cost assumptions.” Frank had told the commission that the revenue expected from sales in residential towers could finance redevelopment of historic buildings in the development, including the A Mill. z

last revised: August 9, 2006