Apartments could replace the UTEC building — and its many small businesses — in Dinkytown by 2014.
The University Technology Enterprise Center currently houses 95 businesses and nonprofit organizations at Fifth Street and 14th Avenue Southeast, including the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, The Wake student magazine and Computer Mega Mall.
The new mixed-use building would feature 336 residential units and three ground-floor commercial spaces, one of which would be a grocery store, said Kimberly Holien, a Minneapolis city planner.
David Jasper, owner of the nearly 90-year-old building, said it now requires repairs and updates he cannot afford, and he signed a purchase agreement in March that will be finalized if the project gets city approval.
The original plan included remodeling the building, which once housed Marshall-University High School, but after much discussion, project architects decided it was not economically feasible, Jasper said.
GEM Realty Capital Inc., the developer of the property, discussed plans for the potential project at a Minneapolis Committee of the Whole meeting June 28.
The Committee of the Whole is a meeting of the Minneapolis City Planning Commission, where developers bring their projects before preparing an official land use application, Holien said.
After revising plans based on the committee’s comments, GEM Realty will submit the application and go before the Planning Commission for a public hearing in August, Holien said.
Ground could be broken on the project by early 2013, and it could be finished by July 2014, Gretchen Camp, a project architect with BKV Group, said in an email.
The committee discussed a pedestrian walkway through or around the site, window placement, signage, entrances and traffic circulation, Holien said, but concern for current UTEC tenants was not part of the conversation.
Skott Johnson, president of the Dinkytown Business Association, said his biggest concern is the type of retail that would move to the ground level spaces.
“I wish when a developer comes in that they would do a little more research into what is already here,” he said.
House of Hanson, a small grocery store that will celebrate its 80-year anniversary this October, sits across the street from the UTEC building.
Owner Laurel Bauer said she feels threatened by the project proposal. In addition to losing about 300 customers from the UTEC building, she said she’s worried about the possibility of a grocery store being built next to her business.
“We are not opposed to change,” Bauer said. “But don’t come in and do the same thing.”
Bauer said when CVS pharmacy opened two blocks away on 15th Avenue Southeast, her sales decreased by a third. She said she’s since been able to bounce back.
“If you’re going to stay alive you have to try to be unique and have something different than the competition,” she said.
A unique space close to campus
Tenants were first notified of a tentative sale agreement in March in a memo from Jasper that explained the building would most likely be closed in December.
Josh Winters, executive director of MPIRG, said paying “reasonable rent” near the University of Minnesota campus is important.
“My major issue is really just losing a great location for the work we do as a nonprofit and wanting to stay here,” he said.
Winters said the nonprofit will likely move to Stadium Village but will have to pay more for rent there.
Maggie Foucault, the previous editor-in-chief of The Wake, said although their first office was located in UTEC, and they are sad to leave, finding a new space has not been a problem.
The magazine is looking at spaces others don’t normally consider, Foucault said, like offices on the West Bank. Students will still be able to easily access their new location, she said.
A few tenants have expanded their business or services while at UTEC and their success no longer relies on proximity to campus.
Karen Houle, founder and president of University Language Center, said early on being close to campus was an asset to her business.
Houle said now many of her services, such as translation services and business language training, require employees to go to the clients, rather than the clients coming to their office.
Computer Mega Mall has created a substantial online presence and many customers find it remotely, owner Syed Mia said.
Relocation hasn’t been an issue for Mia, who said he was surprised by how many empty retail spaces are available near campus.
Mia said having a storefront would allow him to put up a sign for his business that would increase visibility, something he couldn’t do at UTEC.
Mia said he liked the way Jasper managed the building. He was willing to work with different businesses if they were late on rent, Mia said.
“The management are nice people … they understood us,” Mia said. “Each one of the businesses was unique — I will miss that part of it.”
Jasper said there aren’t many business centers like UTEC in Minneapolis, and he hopes someone will be able to take on the role of the “small business incubator” it has been for the last 27 years.
The building offers a receptionist, mailing services and offices as small as 80 square feet that enable very small businesses to have their own space, Jasper said.
“I like the idea that big old brick beauties and old high schools can be repurposed for other things. I understand time marches on,” Houle said.
“Owners need to do what owners need to do.”
A positive aspect for businesses, Johnson said, is that more people will be living in the Dinkytown area.
Moving more students closer to campus and out of the surrounding area would have a good impact on the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood, Jasper said.
“I do think that it’s going to be an uplift for Dinkytown,” Jasper said. “This is going to start a movement, I think, to bring it up a little more current.”