When the sale of the Northrup King Building was made public in 2019, artists who occupied the building’s studio, gallery, and retail spaces took a wait-and-see attitude, said Loretta Bebeau. She has had a studio in the building for 19 years, served on the board of directors of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association and volunteered with the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District.
“Most of us knew the building was going to be sold some time ago, but we did not know until before the announcement that Artspace was buying the building. This was probably the best outcome we could have hoped for,” said Jack Pavlik, a sculptor and studio tenant since 1999.
Tenants were relieved to learn that the buyer was an arts-focused development nonprofit. They purchased the building with the help of a grant from the local arts organization Intermedia Arts. But questions remained. Artspace, which operates more than 50 art facilities across the country, specializes in constructing or restoring live/work spaces for artists. Would the studios and galleries in the building – which are not residential – be converted to living spaces? What changes would the acquisition bring?
Despite the change in ownership and management, the studios, galleries and retail spaces have remained intact the past two years. This fall, Artspace presented plans for further developing the 13-acre, ten-building Northrup King site, emphasizing that the occupied spaces will stay as they are. Two buildings will be converted into 84 units of live/work housing for artists earning 30% to 60% of the Area Median Income. Each building will have 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom units, gallery space and shared workspaces.
An adjacent building to one of the artist housing buildings will create 8,100 square feet of retail space. Improvements to the grounds will include community gathering spaces, redesigned parking surfaces, a play area with interactive water features and a “stormwater street” that will not only provide improved stormwater management but also will showcase and educate the public about water management strategies.
Artspace sought and received National Register of Historic Places designation for the site, which was originally a seed company. This makes available certain tax advantages and funding, but also comes with restrictions on how the property can be modified. “The goal is, of course, that you’re preserving these buildings. You have to maintain that character in a very stringent way,” said Becky Carlson St. Clair, director of property development for Artspace.
In addition to preserving certain exterior and interior building features, the grain silos on the site will remain, with plans to use them for projections of art and to create a plaza in front of them; an existing cistern (with added filtration and treatment) will supply the water for the play area water features. NKB Site Plan
Some local arts and community leaders give not only the plans, but also Artspace’s process, high marks. Bebeau was pleased that Pablo Lituma, an Artspace fellow, spent about a half-hour talking with her in her studio, asking for her input.
With respect to Artspace’s discussing space needs with artists, “It’s a very back-and-forth, flexible relationship,” said Mike Bishop, operations director of Public Functionary, an organization that works with underrepresented artists to create space that allows them to continue their practice. Public Functionary currently occupies multiple studios and exhibit space in the building and has evolving needs, Bishop said.
Artspace also has met with the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District board, said Josh Blanc, a Northeast artist, resident and Arts District board chair. “They gave us the opportunity to weigh in, and they embraced us. I have yet to see a negative concept … they’re doing ecological things, they’re doing thoughtful planning, and they’re including a lot of people that are marginalized, people who don’t always even get an opportunity.”
Blanc reflected on how artists who started out in the district have developed over the years into midcareer and full career artists with evolving space needs. Sometimes lack of space can lead experienced artists and valuable mentors to leave the community, he said. “So now they will be offering opportunities for those artists to move to the next level, and there’s space for them.”
Artspace’s specialization means that they know what artists’ needs are, such as good lighting, electrical power for equipment like kilns and welders, and flex workspace, something the Arts District advocated for, Blanc said. “They have an execution record that shows that they understand what they’re up against.”
The passage between the two buildings slated for the live/work spaces will be transformed into Stormwater Street, a system of roof drains, native plant beds, and trenches that collect and control the rate of flow of stormwater, essentially filtering and pretreating it before it reaches storm drains. Open runnels along the street will carry the water away from the site and to the drains. “It’s right there for people to see and enjoy and get that connection of … how stormwater is managed,” said Alicia Beattie, capital projects and stewardship specialist for the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, which awarded $750,000 for the project.
Signage explaining the stormwater features and the native plantings will be an educational aspect of the project and worked into the community spaces.
Beattie said the design is expected to remove about 80% of the phosphorus and 92% of the sediment from the runoff coming from about 11 acres of impervious surface at the site that currently flows to the river untreated. The work that is being funded is above and beyond the treatment required by city ordinance, she said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a project where stormwater has played such an important role,” said Greg Handberg, senior vice president for properties at Artspace. After rainfall the parking surfaces on the Northrup King campus become “Lake Van Buren” as Handberg calls it, referring to one of the streets that runs through the site.
Other improvements to the site, which is bounded by railroad tracks and accessed by turning a series of corners, will open the Northrup King space to the surrounding neighborhood. “We have very much turned our lens outward a little bit … We’ve been trying to spend a lot of time thinking about how this campus fits within the larger Northeast Arts District area,” said Handberg.
On the northwest corner of the property, opening an existing gate onto 18th Avenue Northeast near Monroe Street will make it easier to get to the nearby Solar Arts and Casket Arts buildings. Adding a bike lane and a pedestrian way along the railroad tracks will provide easy passage from Central Avenue to the various buildings on the campus and to the gate on 18th, Handberg explained.
The physical connections are not the only ways the community will benefit from providing space for artists, said Brenda Kayzar, of Urbane DrK Consulting. Kayzar is a Northeast resident and economic development consultant who specializes in the creative sector.
Kayzar, a former board member of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association, puts into context how the presence of artists in the Northrup King Building – and elsewhere in Northeast – connects to the local economy. When the building was converted into studio, gallery, and retail spaces, she said, “you have … 350 small businesses, all these entrepreneurs, that are producing something. They go out, and they shop, they go have lunch, they go buy coffee, they go buy supplies and then … they also think about living in the area. They become residents.”
Live/workspaces have the potential to be “a little bit scary” in terms of development, she said, because the upgrades that are required to convert the industrial spaces into residential spaces bring the places much closer to the possibility of condo conversion and pricing the artists out of the space. “But in this case, because it’s Artspace, and they’re a nonprofit developer, and they hold their buildings, and their mission is affordable live/work artist space, we couldn’t have a better situation.” Given that Artspace is committed to keeping the already-occupied portions of the site intact, while enhancing it with affordable living space, she said, “It’s really kind of a win-win.”
Waiting and seeing
“It’s very positive,” said Loretta Bebeau. “It seems like they’re making this a showcase project.” She said that she is not overly worried about the future of her studio, but nonetheless, “Everybody is just watching, listening.”
That’s true for Jack Pavlik. He has concerns that the residential space might result in “quiet hours” and affect his ability to work with metal and woodworking equipment during off-hours. He said that when he inquired about this when the plans were presented to Northrup King tenants, Artspace said that hasn’t been a problem at their other properties.
“Artspace gave a supportive response to my concern, and that was appreciated, but we won’t know until we have live-in tenants in the building,“ he said.
—By Karen Kraco, who co-manages a studio/gallery in the Northrup King Building. Article published December 1, 2021 in the Northeaster newspaper.