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Stevens Square, the land luxury lofts forgot, faces new development

Stevens Square, one of the densest neighborhoods in Minneapolis, sees its first development in 20.

Stevens Square, one of the densest neighborhoods in Minneapolis, sees its first development in 20. Hannah Jones

As a scourge of luxury apartments ripped its way through Minneapolis, virtually no neighborhood was safe. Except Stevens Square, just south of downtown.

Stevens Square does not look like the rest of Minneapolis. The buildings there are tall old brownstones, with little terra cotta and tile details. They’ve been around since the 1910s and ‘20s, flanking a central greenspace. On sunny days, you can see residents young and old walking their dogs, lounging on the grass, even taking in a free movie in the square, surrounded on all sides by the old brick apartments.

About 85 percent of the residents are renters. A lot of them are young, or people of color, or working class. But the biggest distinction is the relative lack of luxury loft buildings. You can rent a studio for around $700 a month.

This has been the case for nearly a century. Stevens Square was one of the highest-density residential areas in the city. In 1919, it attracted young, single workers from rural Minnesota. But it was designated a historic district in 1993, leaving it untouched by developers for two decades.

Until now.

Two new plans are being pitched for the neighborhood. One is a revamp of the old Silver Building, which has been sitting virtually disused across the street from Electric Fetus for years. DJR Architecture has outlined a plan for rehabbing it into 26 market rate units and 16 parking spaces out back. The development may also include retail space.

The other is a major redevelopment at 18th and Nicollet Avenue. Yellow Tree Corp. is planning 8,000 square feet of retail space, with parking and apartments on the upper floors. Nothing high-end, Yellow Tree co-founder Robb Lubenow says. He calls the property “naturally affordable housing,” including studios that should be affordable on a $34,000 salary.

During a recent meeting when the plans were pitched, so many people showed up that they were forced to move to a larger space. But the neighbors have been much more open to the prospect than elsewhere. In fact, many are glad to see some interest in the unused spots. But there are… concerns.

Part of what has made Stevens Square accessible for low-income workers and single folks has been the lack of development. Without the boom of luxury apartments, few gentrifiers have arrived to jack up the cost of living.

“Rents are rising and stuff, but I think Stevens Square has a little bit of resistance to rising rents because the quality hasn’t necessarily gone up,” says former resident John Jones, who made his home here after graduating from college.

There’s a fear that if Stevens Square lets developers do what they want, the people who have been surviving and thriving for decades will be pushed out.

“I don’t think everyone makes $30,000, especially in this neighborhood,” Stevens Square board member Natasha Villanueva says.

Villanueva is always “leery” of development. She’s part of a renter’s rights organization who's seen so many neighborhood ecosystems “go south” after a few developers get their hands on them.
When Villanueva came to Stevens Square a little over five years ago, she found the “naturally affordable” housing Yellow Tree Corp. hopes to create. To her, that’s not a market-rate studio. It’s the old apartments that aren’t necessarily perfect, but could do the job for a little less than you might pay elsewhere.

Still, a lot of folks are excited for new development.

“I think what they’re doing is ultimately really great,” says resident Sam Jones. He just wishes the developers would be “more ambitious” with their plans to make the housing more affordable, suggesting paring down the parking on the Yellow Tree development to bring down the cost of rent.

(The Silver Building redevelopment is supposed to begin this November. The 18th and Nicollet development won’t get started until sometime next year.)

Villanueva doesn’t know what the next step is. But she does know this:

“I don’t think that developers can be expected or trusted to treat people with respect, because their bottom line is profit,” she says. If the neighborhood wants to stay affordable and equitable, it’ll be up to the people who live there to keep it that way.