BY: Calvin Littlejohn, CEO, TRI-Construction; Lester Royal, COO, TRI-Construction; Chris Webley, CEO, New Rules; and Patrick Troska President, The Jay & Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota
There’s a pretty universal understanding that North Minneapolis is on the precipice of a renaissance. After years – generations in fact – of disinvestment, forces are on the move to reinvigorate this hidden gem. From the new Thor Construction office building at Penn and Plymouth, to North Market at 44th and Humboldt, and from Upper Harbor Terminal where Dowling meets the Mississippi River, to the proposed Blue Line LRT extension along Wirth Parkway, changes are coming or already underway. We see new protected bike lanes, new rapid bus transit routes, new apartment buildings, and increased interest from City Hall. Northside Achievement Zone is making a difference for families and children on the Northside, while Appetite for Change is building a healthy food culture in what has been a food swamp. The Capri Theater is closing in on the capital needed for a major renovation and addition, while Farview Park heralds a first-in-class ball field and recreation area. Sanctuary Covenant Church recently completed construction of a new building on Bryant and West Broadway, the Episcopal Church set up its headquarters at 1101 West Broadway while creating a dynamic new space for Sammy’s Avenue Eatery, and Emerge completed renovations on the old North Branch Library, creating the Career and Technology Center and bringing this neglected jewel back to life.
There is much to be excited about. But amidst the enthusiasm and flurry of activity is a cry of concern: Will all this positive momentum lead to gentrification for residents who have afforded to live here for many years, while new wealthier residents move in and displace them? If trends from around the country follow, the answer is… quite likely. While it may feel impossible to reverse these trends, there are a few anti-displacement strategies worth exploring right now, one being: get more land and property into local ownership.
So perhaps it was foresightful or just dumb luck, but a little over a year ago, the four of us came together to form a new kind of partnership. While the Foundation was looking for a new home and a larger investment in the Northside, TRI Construction was looking for a permanent home for its growing business, and New Rules was looking to expand its model and forge its path as a real estate development company. Our coming together was not easy or immediate, but it was intentional, and at first glance may not make sense.
In early 2017, the Foundation was looking to relocate its offices to the Northside, but there was little available office space to lease. Further investigation uncovered several properties for sale, all of which required significant renovation. It was then that we came across the 927 West Broadway building, a more than 100-year old 3-story structure at the corner of West Broadway and Dupont owned by the City of Minneapolis. 927 has great bones and historic resonance but other than occasional retail on the street level, it has been neglected for several decades.
As we begun discussions with the City, we learned that a number of interested parties had looked at 927 over the years. Might any of these interested parties be local businesses for whom a partnership with the Foundation could lead to ownership? If the Foundation could facilitate local ownership by using its financial assets and connections, it could be a win-win for all of us. A reliable source told us to talk to Calvin at TRI-Construction because they, too, had a particular interest in the building. A phone call and several conversations later, we agreed to work together. A couple months later, another source told us that New Rules had been exploring the building as the next site in the expansion of their business model. Conversations now included Chris from New Rules, and soon a three way partnership was forged with a goal to respond to a city RFP to redevelop and expand the building’s footprint as a collective.
Our RFP response was submitted on March 23, 2018, and on July 10, 2018, the City awarded us exclusive development rights!
The redevelopment will cost around $5 million. That’s a lot of money for a building the City is selling to us for $1. But we have big plans for that intersection. Not only will we renovate the existing building, an addition to the south will nearly double its footprint. Our three entities will be the primary tenants, with offices on the second and third floors. The street level will be retail and cool, dynamic rental space for personal and community events, including flexible gallery/food pop-up space. A roof top deck will provide private and public event space with outstanding views of downtown Minneapolis and the Mississippi River. The basement will be built out and refinished to accommodate a small music venue and shared maker space. New Rules will curate artists and community members to create public art installations that rotate on a periodic basis, using the exterior of the building facing both Dupont and Broadway Avenues. The goal of these installations will be to foster dynamic, resilient, and inclusive communities through public art, community-engaged design, and transformative place-making.
But here’s the cool thing, and what makes this partnership unique. While our three organizations will be equal partners and owners in the project, the goal long-term is for TRI-Construction and New Rules to refinance the project’s debt and buy-out the Foundation’s interest, putting ownership completely in the hands of two black-owned Northside small businesses. This may take upwards of 7 years or longer, but it provides the time necessary to strengthen the financial position of both enterprises to assume this kind of capital investment – an outcome that without the Foundation’s investment may have been more difficulty or even unlikely.
But wait, there’s more.
The project includes the three city lots south of 927 West Broadway on Dupont Avenue and the 1001 West Broadway building (you know, the one wrapped in photographs). While a couple of the Dupont lots will be temporarily turned into surface parking for the 927 Building tenants, the long range plan is to redevelop the three lots into housing with parking and possible retail. 1001 West Broadway could be an office building with a street level restaurant or food hall, or a retail cooperative or something else. More work is needed to figure out the best use of these other parcels. And while this “figuring out” work will be done alongside the community and with stakeholder engagement, the ultimate goal is the same: more land and property into local ownership.
So as you can see, our vision is big and transformative. It revitalizes a blighted and neglected corner of one of the Northside’s busiest commercial corridors. More importantly, it provides ownership opportunities for Black Northside residents who own Northside businesses to stake a deeper claim in their community while gentrification encroaches.
This may be the riskiest thing we’ve ever done, but probably the most important. As a foundation, we think this is how philanthropy could operate in new and innovative ways. In the end, if the partnership works the way we believe it will, we could be pioneering a new way for community, small businesses and philanthropy to join hands and develop the kinds of local economies that benefit everyone.
Learn more about the Partners:
As one of the founders of TRI-Construction, Inc., Calvin Littlejohn’s vision to build and develop a community-based business has spanned 17 plus years. Providing strategic planning resulting in a successful commercial construction company. Calvin intentions for the next decade is for TRI-Construction, Inc. to advance as one of largest industry leaders as a certified minority general contractor.
Chris Webley studied Textile Technology with concentration in Medical Textiles at North Carolina State University. He has worked with Calvin Klein, Victoria’s Secret, and Target, accumulating over seven years’ experience in the retail fashion industry as a R&D Textile Engineer. Chris started his entrepreneurial career as a Real Estate Developer in 2013 and has extensive experience in real estate acquisition, development and management of commercial and residential buildings throughout the Midwest.
Patrick Troska has been with The Jay & Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota since October 2000, and was named Executive Director in January 2011. In 2018, he was promoted to President. In addition to providing leadership for the Foundation’s overall strategy, he also has primary responsibility for grantmaking and initiatives for the Foundation’s Small Business and Entrepreneurship Ecosystem in North Minneapolis focus area.
As one of the founders of TRI-Construction, Inc., Lester Royal’s experience in the construction field has spanned over 20 plus years. Serving in several capacities at TRI-Construction, Lester is the lead driving force behind the operations and safety of the work performed throughout the teams. Lester intentions for the next decade for TRI-Construction, Inc., is to become one of the largest minorities contractors in the metro supporting and employing minorities and women in the construction industry.