As Rochester moves into the next phase of the Destination Medical Center (DMC) journey, it’s fortunate to have a wealth of experience and expertise in handling rapid growth practically on its doorstep: The Twin Cities metropolitan area is an acknowledged national leader in mounting the challenges of bringing new kinds of affordable housing into reality.
And not coincidentally, that’s also a key aspect of the DMC effort to transform Rochester into a world-class magnet for healthcare and an economic driver for the entire Minnesota economy. One of its aims is to create a vibrant, walkable downtown core with a variety of housing options, including workforce and affordable housing.
Although that goal is by no means easy to attain, it can indeed be accomplished with determined efforts, “community buy-in” and a healthy dose of collaboration among all the various civic stakeholders, according to some of the most important movers and shakers behind the recent evolution of Twin Cities’ affordable sector. These front-line veterans gave their advice and analyses to a group of Rochester leaders during a June 4 DMC site visit to the Twin Cities.
For example, former Deputy St. Paul Mayor and current DMC Corporation board member Paul Williams teamed with Gretchen Nicholls, a program director for the Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC), to describe how affordable housing was integrated early into the “big picture” of the Green Line light rail transit corridor. The venue for this discussion was Hamline Station, a two-building development that opened along the corridor in 2015 with more than 100 efficiency, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments affordable to residents earning 50 to 60 percent of the median area income.
Nicholls told of how the Twin Cities office of LISC, a nonprofit dedicated to providing financing for nearly every aspect of affordable housing, took the point position on “The Big Picture Project,” which began in 2012 as a cross-sector partnership aimed at a more coordinated approach to affordable housing development along the 11-mile line connecting the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Through the effort, some 4,820 affordable housing units were newly constructed or preserved, surpassing a goal of securing 4,500 affordable units by 2020.
The Rochester contingent also visited the Lowertown neighborhood, where they heard of how artist-specific affordable housing can act as a catalyst for broader development and tax-base growth. At the Northern Warehouse Artist Lofts, leaders of developer Artspace conducted tours of the historic building’s attractive home/studio units and described how a cluster of similar affordable artists’ residences helped transform a once-desolate section of downtown St. Paul into a magnet for nightlife and private-sector multifamily housing investments. Lessons from the Twin Cities’ experience in developing affordable housing around a new transit project came in both big and small perspectives and was a valuable learning opportunity for the Rochester contingent.