MINNEAPOLIS - Apartment developers in the Twin Cities are accustomed to ginning up out-of-the-box amenities aimed at wooing renters and setting themselves apart in an increasingly competitive market. That includes decked-out dog spas, catering kitchens and refrigerated drop boxes for package delivery.
Twin Cities-based Newport Midwest hopes to offer something unique in this market with its plans for Agra, an income-restricted 171-unit rental building in Minneapolis that will include a 5,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse to be run by a third-party operator who will return 40% of its harvest to residents and the neighborhood.
Claire VanderEyk, senior development associate at Newport Midwest, an affiliate of California-based Newport Partners, said the idea was driven by a need to innovate and a desire to "create what we know how to do best, and take it a step forward."
Last year the company opened Hook & Ladder in northeast Minneapolis, which is being called the first apartment building in the state built to Passive House Institute U.S. standards for energy efficiency.
The company took control of the site in November. In January, VanderEyk and nearly a half-dozen associates, including a team of designers from Collage Architects, gathered in a conference room to discuss ways of reducing the limitations of the small site, which is now home to a shuttered Perkins restaurant.
Key questions were how to maximize the density of the planned seven-story building while including features that set the building apart and bolster the sense of community in Seward, a neighborhood that already has several community-minded businesses, including the Seward Community Co-op.
Pete Keely, president of Collage, initially suggested a garden.
"Then I built off that idea," VanderEyk said.
In income-restricted buildings, many residents are overscheduled and already struggling to make ends meet, so the group expressed concern about creating what could become just another obligation for residents.
"But we wanted to do it in a big way," she said. "The last thing I wanted to do was put more pressure on them to create gardens and maintain them."
And then there was the issue of the small site. A large garden would mean a smaller building footprint, so the group moved the garden to the roof. VanderEyk said she was inspired by Arbor House, an affordable project in the Bronx that also uses energy from the sun to grow vegetables in water rather than soil.
She started consulting with the team on that project to learn more about how it works. To avoid burdening residents and to make good on the promise to help supply residents and neighbors with produce, they decided the farm would be run by a third-party operator. They have been consulting with Matt Weed of Weed's Greens in Mendota Heights, who is also the preferred operator. That selection won't be made until later in the municipal approvals process, which has just begun. The group will present its plans to the Minneapolis Planning Commission's committee of the whole this week.
VanderEyk said that for income-restricted buildings that are in high demand, market differentiation isn't the top priority.
"It starts with the fact that we want to approach development in a different way," she said. "Leasing isn't necessarily a big challenge, but access to funding is an issue."
She said that with funding getting more competitive by the day, innovative features can help developers gain a competitive edge with the many organizations and agencies that help finance such projects.
She's submitting funding applications now and hopes to close on the site in early 2021.
Mary Bujold, president of Maxfield Research, a Twin Cities market-research company, said the rooftop farm concept is the first of its kind in the Twin Cities. But it's happening beyond the Midwest.
"This makes so much sense," Bujold said. "We definitely need to consider more sites for urban farming."