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Developer Dominium drawn to Fort Snelling’s Upper Post

Plymouth-based Dominium is interested in rehabbing 26 buildings within the 141-acre Fort Snelling Upper Post, including these old barracks, for affordable housing.(Photo: Craig Lassig)

Plymouth-based Dominium is interested in rehabbing 26 buildings within the 141-acre Fort Snelling Upper Post, including these old barracks, for affordable housing.(Photo: Craig Lassig)

Fort Snelling’s historic Upper Post has a new suitor known widely for its preservation and redevelopment work.

Plymouth-based Dominium is considering a historic preservation and adaptive reuse project that would convert 26 buildings on the Upper Post to as many as 200 affordable housing units.

Russell Condas, development associate with Dominium, confirmed the plans Thursday, about three weeks before responses are due to a request for proposals to rehab and reuse the structures.

“We are looking at it,” Condas said. “We have visited the site and have spent the past couple of months thinking about how we could make a deal work there.”

Condas said the cost of the proposed development is “up in the air” for now. Historic and housing tax credits are potential funding sources, he said.

The request for proposals, released this week by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, focuses on more than two dozen Upper Post buildings built between 1879 and 1939.

They’re part of the Fort Snelling National Historic Landmark, “arguably the most important national historic landmark in Minnesota,” said Larry Peterson, Fort Snelling State Park manager and Upper Post project manager.

Asked about a possible Dominium development there, Peterson said he can’t comment on any potential responses while the RFP is still out.

“We are trying to find uses for as many buildings as possible,” he said Thursday.

The state has tried for years to reuse the 26 shuttered buildings in the 141-acre Upper Post. Ranging in size from 1,600 to 29,200 square feet, the buildings include old military barracks, officers’ quarters, a gymnasium, a hospital, a bakery and a morgue.

Development challenges abound. The historic nature of the long-vacant structures complicate rehab plans, the infrastructure needs work, and would-be developers have to deal with many government approvals.

But Dominium is no stranger to such time-intensive projects. Its list of conversions to affordable housing includes the A-Mill Artist Lofts at 301 Main St. SE in Minneapolis, the Buzza Lofts at 1006 W. Lake St. in Minneapolis, and the Schmidt Artist Lofts at 900 W. Seventh St. in St. Paul.

An RFP released in 2013 for the Upper Post yielded five responses, including a $50 million charter school proposal from Golden Valley-based Mortenson Development and the Upper Mississippi Academy.

The Minnesota DNR announced in May 2013 that it would negotiate with the Mortenson-Upper Mississippi Academy team to use nine of the Upper Post buildings for the charter school.

Peterson said the DNR had a good relationship with the selected development team. But in the end the parties couldn’t reach an agreement on a long-term lease, he said.

John Hehre, Upper Mississippi Academy’s chief operating officer and treasurer, said the charter school idea was popular. But the project’s costs started to go up and fundraising became a challenge, he said.

“For a charter school that hadn’t started yet, it was a little ambitious,” Hehre said Thursday.

But the school remains interested and is “taking a serious look” at making another run at the project, he said.

“It’s a perfect place for a school,” Hehre said. “We would love to be there.”

Dominium’s Condas said there’s a lot to like about the location, including its convenient access to the surrounding area.

“We also like the historic nature of the project. The history of Fort Snelling runs so deep and is so rooted in Minnesota history. That is an excellent draw to us,” he said.

The DNR and its four partners in a joint powers agreement — Hennepin County, the National Park Service, the Minnesota Historical Society and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board — will review the proposals, which are due May 27.

Interviews with selected respondents are scheduled for June 2 and 3, followed by a conditional selection in mid-June.

The joint powers group ultimately hopes to lease the properties to a selected developer. Plans are subject to review by a variety of state, federal and local entities.

Located just south of the golf course and the athletic fields in the Upper Post near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the buildings are part of an old military base that was active until 1946.

The buildings began to empty out in the 1940s and the last user pulled up stakes in the early 1990s.

Building conditions range from “poor to fair,” but all have experienced “varying degrees of deterioration,” according to the RFP. One of the structures — a quartermaster’s shop built in 1879 — collapsed in 2006 and was later torn down.

The DNR, Hennepin County and others have done some stabilization to prevent further deterioration, Peterson said. The buildings are structurally sound, but they still need some work inside and out, he added.

“The ones that were occupied into the 1980s and ’90s are in pretty good shape,” Peterson said. “The ones vacant since the 1940s are in a little tougher shape.”

Some infrastructure work, including updates to sidewalks, sewers, and roads, is also needed.

Eleven of the buildings — the 10 officers’ quarters and the bachelor officers’ quarters — could be expanded, but new construction will only be considered as part of a “comprehensive renovation,” the RFP stated.

Dominium is looking to potentially rehab all of the buildings, but has no plans for new construction at this time, Condas said.

Other buildings in the Upper Post area have been successfully rehabbed and reused.

One of the success stories is the former cavalry drill hall near Highways 5 and 55. The Northstar Council of the Boy Scouts of America acquired and converted the building into a “base camp” in 2010.

The Boy Scouts plan to add a 46,000-square-foot office building in the “near future” on the 6-acre site, according to the RFP.

St. Paul-based CommonBond Communities is also finishing up a $17.2 million project that’s turning five historic Upper Post structures into 58 housing units for veterans.

Two of the five buildings are completed and occupied, and the other three will be finished by the end of July, said Andrew Michaelson, senior project manager for CommonBond Communities.

Michaelson said he’s encouraged that the Minnesota DNR and others are paying attention to the other Upper Post buildings.

“The more we are engaging that whole campus … it’s a benefit to our project and our residents,” Michaelson said. “I would love to see something happen.”

Charlene Roise, president of Hess Roise and Co. in Minneapolis, said the area is gaining some momentum with the CommonBond and Boy Scouts projects, the extension of a water loop in the area, and mass transit connections. The sites are close to the Fort Snelling Station on the Blue Line light rail route.

She was pleased to hear that Dominium has expressed interest.

“The cosmic forces I think are finally lining up,” she said.

Go here for a look at the request for proposals document. 

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