News Column

Developer working to restore treasured Pillsbury A Mill

May 31, 2014

By Jim Buchta, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)



May 31--Owen Metz, a developer with Dominium Inc., recently completed a $125 million redevelopment of the once-neglected Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul into apartments for artists to live and work. He's now leading a $156 million conversion of the fabled Pillsbury A Mill complex of buildings into the 251-unit A Mill Artist Lofts. The jewel in that complex is an 1881 limestone mill building that's perched above St. Anthony Falls, just across the Mississippi River from downtown Minneapolis.

Because the mill helped Minneapolis become the flour milling capital of the world, it's one of the state's most historic buildings. But after decades of neglect, it was in terrible shape, leading the National Trust for Historic Preservation to list it in 2011 as one of the nation's 11 most endangered buildings.

Here's an update on the project.

Q: Right now it looks as if you're deconstructing the building. You can see light through the roof, the exterior is covered with scaffolding and excavation is happening all around the building. Is the project still on schedule?

A: We are just over six months into the nearly two-year construction process. We are on schedule, which includes the completion of most exterior demolition and nearly all interior demolition. We are also mostly completed with the required environmental abatement.

Q: The project involves a complex of buildings that were built over several decades, and some of the buildings were imperfect to begin with. For example, the original mill building is constructed of soft limestone, and its structural walls started bowing not long after it was built, creating the need for structural reinforcement. What's been the most challenging part of the renovation to this point?

A: Working through structural deficiencies and exterior facade restoration of the limestone A Mill. The structural repairs include new steel support columns, unforeseen floor decking and joist repairs, and floor leveling.

Q: What's been the biggest surprise?

A: The amount of contaminated soil that was required to be exported.

Q: Once you started doing demo work, did you have to modify your plans in any way?

A: No major modifications. We were able to rework the plans to enlarge several apartments, including adding some mezzanines, bedrooms and bathrooms to some select apartments.

Q: Is this project still on budget?

A: So far, so good. We budgeted a 10 percent construction contingency, which we are not projecting to fully utilize. We are actually in the process of getting lender and investor approval to move forward with several upgrades to the lofts, common spaces and site.

Q: Are you still taking names for apartments?

A: Yes, interested tenants can still sign up for our interest list at www.amillartistlofts.com. We will kick off formal lease-up activities, including the launch of an updated and revamped website, sometime in June or July. At that point, prospective residents will be able to view floor plans online, select an apartment, and put a deposit down to reserve their desired apartment -- all on a first-come, first-served basis.

Q: When will you start notifying prospective residents?

A: A firm date has not been set, but it will be sometime in June or July.

Q: Have you discovered any treasures worth saving?

A: The 1881-built limestone A Mill is the main treasure.

Q: When the building was an operating mill, river water was diverted into the basement of the building to power the mill; that tail race is still flowing through the building. At last check, you'd hoped to make that a feature of the building. Any progress on that front?

A: Yes, as you know the mill was built here in Minneapolis to utilize the power of St. Anthony Falls by directing some flow from the ­Mississippi River through the building to mechanically power the flour mill. We are planning a hydrothermal heating and cooling system utilizing the river water as a heat sink. We are also exploring renewable-energy ­production. We are looking into the possibility of producing a small amount of hydroelectricity to reduce our carbon footprint and help offset our electricity consumption. We will never be able to be "off the grid," but every little bit would help.

Jim Buchta -- 612-673-7376

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Source: Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)