619-mills

A historical image of the Pillsbury Flour Mill in Minneapolis.

Minneapolis-based Dominium is cooking up a new use for the former Pillsbury flour mill complex on the east bank of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Four buildings on the 3.2-acre (1.3 ha) site are being transformed into the A-Mill Artist Lofts, a 251-unit affordable housing project that will serve working artists.

Completed in 1881, the Pillsbury A-Mill was recognized as the largest flour mill in the world for some 40 years. Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1966, the building remained a working Pillsbury operation until it was sold to a condominium developer in 2003. However, the plan to convert the property into luxury for-sale condos never came to fruition, and the property sat idle until Dominium stepped in to acquire it in 2010.

The property is situated in the historic St. Anthony Main neighborhood across the river from downtown Minneapolis. “The high demand for housing in that area, along with the opportunity to provide a unique product in such a historically important building, was really important to us,” says Patrick Ostrom, a development associate at Dominium. The milling district is one of the reasons that Minneapolis is what it is today, and Pillsbury had a large role in that, he adds.

An exterior view of the A-Mills building.

An exterior view of the modern-day A-Mill building.

The A-Mill Artist Lofts project consists of the original A-Mill building as well as smaller structures that served different functions for Pillsbury’s milling operations, such as warehousing and storage. For example, the Red Clay Tile Building includes 23 loft units that are being erected on the upper floors above the original red clay grain silos, now empty, which serve as the base of the building for the first seven stories. Dominium was also able to build a fitness center and some storage in the basement underneath the silos.

The project will include studios as well as one-, two-, three-, and four-bedroom lofts. Completed at the end of November, the 43-unit Warehouse 2 building was fully occupied within one month. Construction of the remaining units will have staggered completion dates beginning in July, with all units completed by the end of September. The A-Mill will house 115 units, and the South Mill and Cleaning House combined will contain 70 units.

“As a neighbor of the project, we are thrilled that the building has been saved for its historic value, and our community is looking forward to the increased vitality that the new residents will bring to our neighborhood,” says Elizabeth Ryan, vice president and chief executive officer of the Family Housing Fund in Minneapolis.

“The project is a great example of historic adaptive use providing workforce housing units in an urban, high-rent, amenity-rich area along the Minneapolis historic riverfront,” says Andrea Brennan, housing policy and development director, Community Planning and Economic Development, for the city of Minneapolis.

The project has involved some challenges. Foremost was dealing with the issues of structures that were 100-plus years old, not to mention the fact that the property had sat vacant for more than a decade. The main A-Mill building was in rough shape, and machinery and tools were scattered everywhere, says Ostrom.

ULI members tour the inside of the A-Mills property.

ULI members tour the inside of the A-Mill property.

Construction has involved a continual process of repairing and still matching the original construction, notes John Stark, managing architect at Minneapolis-based BKV Group, which served as the project architect. Due to the National Landmark status, all the plans and materials needed to be reviewed and to comply with the National Park Service Historic Preservation Certification Applications. Thus, everything from exterior masonry repairs to how the interior spaces were divided to create the living and common-area spaces was subject to approval by the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service.

Preserving as much of the existing structure as possible was one of the main goals of the project. Many of the units feature the original brick or limestone walls. Dominium also salvaged trailer loads of artifacts, and some of the different belts, gears, and flour bins that had to be removed are being incorporated into the decor. “So, a lot of the story of the original building is still in there,” Stark says.

Another aspect of the A-Mill’s history is its early use of hydropower. The early mills built on the east side of the river relied on a large tunnel system that brought water from the Mississippi that they used to power the mills. The inlet to the Pillsbury A-Mill, complete with gates and two turbine pits, is still in place. Dominium is working on a new plan to once again harness that power as a sustainable energy source for the property.

Dominium has submitted applications to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to get approval to install a hydroelectric system that would take advantage of some of the existing infrastructure, such as the below-ground tunnels, to generate electricity for the property.

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The view from the roof of the A-Mill building.

The addition of the hydropower component has pushed the total project cost to an estimated $170 million. Key to making the development financially feasible was securing historic tax credits, which included $31.5 million each from both the state and federal government. Dominium also secured federal low-income housing tax credits, which are estimated at $5.5 million per year for ten years.

The fact that Minnesota brought back its state historic tax credit in 2010 was an important catalyst for the project. “Without that, it would have been pretty difficult to put the financing together,” says Ostrom.

As affordable units, all units are restricted to renters who have income that is less than or equal to 60 percent of the area’s median income. Rents are calculated based on those income levels. For example, studios will be priced at about $900 per month; one-bedroom units at $960; two-bedrooms at $1,150; and three-bedrooms at approximately $1,330.

Such historic conversions to affordable housing are a small part of the business for Dominium, which owns and manages more than 21,000 apartment units in 18 states. However, the company has been actively pursuing more projects in the past few years. Currently, the developer is working on the conversion of the 18-story Arcade Building in St. Louis that will include 282 units of affordable and market-rate apartments. The company also purchased an 88-year-old industrial building on Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis that it is repurposing as affordable apartments. “We are always looking at adding projects to the pipeline,” says Ostrom.