The Luxury Apartment Boom
Mariah Carey’s former concierge stands in the lobby of the Walkway Apartments wearing a purple velvet blazer and large, clear-framed glasses, waiting to be of service. Jean Pierre Dechateau—JP for short—also has worked for the Waldorf Astoria hotel and as Elton John’s butler. And now he works here, in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis, at the most luxurious of the Twin Cities’ new luxury apartment complexes. When he shakes my hand, he grins like a bemused genie, his eyebrows arched solicitously with the self-assurance of one who has dealt with divas. Try me, the look suggests.
You have no idea what I can conjure.
Jean Pierre Dechateau. Photo by TJ Turner
JP seems restless. It’s late March, construction is still wrapping up. My wife and I are here for a tour, perchance to rent, and though we’re told that more than half of the 92 units are spoken for, not all are occupied. Some were leased sight-unseen by professional athletes, young executives lining up jobs at Fortune 500 companies, and other large-living types, many from out of town. The only tenants my wife and I encounter are two tanned and muscly men high-fiving each other, presumably over their good fortune.
Soon, we’re assured, the place will be swinging with the kind of amenities largely foreign to the Midwest: mail forked over at the front desk, complimentary newspaper and breakfast, a private restaurant and bar, and a Jacuzzi cantilevered over Lake Street like a watery playpen. “This is how it feels,” the Walkway’s website declares, “to float above it all.”
There’s even an app for residents to request the services of JP or the bell cap, as the lobby clerk is known. Hungry? They can rustle something up from Coup d’État, the ground-floor restaurant. Heading home with a date? They can have champagne chilling in your living room, Rihanna on the sound system, and fresh sheets—if not Rihanna herself—on the bed. “Not everyone knows how to use a concierge,” JP explains in an interview with the Walkway’s in-house digital newsletter, Abode. “I provide a service that is so much more than finding a table at a restaurant or a ticket to the show. I design pleasure.”
Our tour guide, a cordial young man with slicked-back hair and the understated pride of the overdog, shows us a three-bedroom corner unit with leather door handles, plush carpeting, and a view of the Carlson Towers, 10 miles away. “It’s a whole different world right now,” he says. In the foreground are some of the four new luxury apartment buildings hugging the nearby Midtown Greenway. “It’s crazy what’s going on around here,” he says. “Building, building, building. But we built this place smaller, built it nicer.” He smiles. “You’ll see.”
Before we move on, though, he can’t resist. “All these buildings, as you look down, they all have to cap out at six floors, but the city let us build the first floor to 23 feet.” He waits a beat then beams: “So we’re a full floor higher than any other building.” This place goes up to 11.
The Walkway Apartments. Photo by Alex Steinberg
Money is never mentioned. Not on the Walkway website. Not on our tour. Money is not the point. Money is freedom. The first lease signed at the Walkway was by a couple who moved out of their home on Lake of the Isles—they combined, our guide tells us, two sixth-floor units. At the end, we have to be the kind of people who ask: $3,600 for the three-bedroom, though prices range from $1,385 for a studio to $3,950 for a large two-level unit.
But a lot, it turns out, is negotiable. We see that incredible two-level apartment—it’s being held for a guy who also requested another unit with the idea of breaking down the wall between them. But he’s never in town and hasn’t done anything with either one. “They’re both technically taken,” our guide tells us. So if we wanted this unit, he would tell the guy to take the other one. Or perhaps the guy would up the ante. “It’s like Monopoly money,” we’re told. The guy already has a decorating idea for the cathedral-height living room that probably few renters in any city—New York, Shanghai, Dubai—have proposed: a floor-to-ceiling waterfall.
In the 2000s, the Twin Cities were treading water. Minneapolis lost 40 people, St. Paul lost 1,900. Then something changed. Last year, more than 3,000 new apartment units were slated to be built in Minneapolis; more than 5,000 are planned this year. “Minneapolis and St. Paul have turned a corner,” says Thomas Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design. “We’re now like San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Boston—places with a pretty healthy economy.” Not Cleveland, Buffalo, St. Louis, or Detroit.
This development means more people, more money, more eyes on the street, more stable neighborhoods. But at more than $2 a square foot, or about $2,000 for a two-bedroom, most of the new apartments being built in the Twin Cities are considered luxurious. It’s about the only kind of apartment that gets built anymore. None of the new apartments in the core of Minneapolis are considered affordable, and average monthly rent has risen 9.1 percent as a result. The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority reported last year that more than 10,000 people were on their waiting list for Section 8 subsidized housing—it hasn’t budged since 2009. And while the vacancy rate for the overall Twin Cities is tight at about 2.5 percent, it’s almost non-existent for affordable housing.
“A lot of forces are driving us toward the luxury end of things,” says Fisher. Land values, for one. They’ve increased to the point that developers can only make a profit if they aim for the higher end. Height and construction restrictions haven’t helped. Most projects outside of downtown end up being capped at six stories, not allowing developers to increase profit margins by building further skyward. So they pack as many amenities as they can into those six stories—and charge accordingly.
Lime Apartments at Lyn-Lake. Photo by Carbon Creative
The result is a monoculture of affluence. “The Manhattanization of Uptown,” says Larry Millett, the St. Paul architecture critic and author of Once There Were Castles: Lost Mansions and Estates of the Twin Cities. It’s not Park Avenue—“Architecturally, I don’t think anyone’s drooling over the stuff.” All the value is inside, in the amenities, but the effect is the same. Taken far enough, it’s Europe: wealth in the city center, everyone else on the outskirts, a city out of balance.
“We don’t build cities the way we used to,” Fisher says, “one lot at a time, some large homes, some small, so you could move down the street to a bigger house when you got a family, move into a smaller one down the street when the house emptied out.” There weren’t big banks giving big loans to big developers to develop massive numbers of units. Everything was smaller and more local, and few were priced out. “What this led to was diversity,” says Fisher. “You could stay in your neighborhood as you aged. You didn’t have to leave your community.”
Other cities have enforced some balance, allowing developers to build more densely if they include affordable housing units as part of a project or agree to build some elsewhere. But density discussions here tend to get bogged down in debates over height and historicity. Two years ago, the Minneapolis City Council approved a moratorium on “large-scale” projects in Linden Hills. In Dinkytown, a developer recently backed off plans to develop a hotel after the City Council voted to explore whether a one-story brick building in the way was somehow historic. “People remember how Minneapolis and St. Paul were 50 years ago,” says Fisher. “But we’re headed toward being a very different city: bigger and much more thriving. And I don’t think we’ve come to grips with that.” Millett wonders if nostalgia hasn’t given way to fantasy: “I sometimes get the impression that people dream that the city will get developed with little two-story houses with a violin shop on the bottom run by a little German guy, but it doesn’t happen that way.”
In 2008, one of the first ultra-luxe developments in the Twin Cities opened in the Lyn-Lake area of Uptown: Blue, a 242-apartment complex for people who, according to its developer, “work hard and play hard.” That the country had just fallen off the financial cliff didn’t matter one simoleon—Blue filled up. There’s a pool and sauna, a pub with a pool table, a private dog park, and a “Zen courtyard.” A few years later, the same developer—Greco—built Flux several blocks away on the Midtown Greenway, billed as “resort living.” The Walkway and other new Uptown developments now use the same resort metaphor in their marketing, as though life in the coldest large city in America can be—with the right amenities—a beach.
That so many of these ultra-luxe complexes are in Uptown makes some historical sense. In the 1870s, weekenders would train out from Minneapolis to lounge in sprawling resorts on Lake Calhoun, camp along the shores, or picnic in Lakewood Cemetery. When the tracks were extended west, resorters moved on to Lake Minnetonka, and though the hotels disappeared there, too, the moneyed clientele stayed.
By the time I moved to Uptown in 1995, shortly after graduating from college, the neighborhood had been a funky bohemia for decades. I landed a studio apartment in a three-story brick walkup, built circa 1920, on leafy Girard Avenue, a block from Calhoun Square: $495 a month. It had a ceiling fan, hardwood floors, and a hallway window where the Uptown-based Johnson Milk Company—well before my time—used to put fresh milk. The two glass cabinets at the kitchen entrance contained, in lieu of fancy tableware, my Kerouac and Joyce.
It was, in other words, the classic Uptown apartment. Nights were spent in the Uptown Bar, where we were too late for the Replacements but just in time for their solo components. Or in the Rainbow Bar, where some nights the Long Island Iced Teas were $2.50 and the company even cheaper, aging queens and raging alkies who would slide into our booth uninvited. Slacker panhandlers with mohawks and leather lined the sidewalk in front of McDonald’s—the McPunks. “I love springtime in Uptown,” my wife recalls her brother rhapsodizing back then, “when the punks bring out their rats.”
In spring, the garage doors would roll up at Two Pesos, a Mexican joint where we’d thaw out with dollar margaritas in plastic cups that tasted like something from a Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine. But it was better than throwing ourselves to the cougars at Figlio. When my parents visited for the first time, Two Pesos was the only place I could think to take them for dinner.
A few years later, I moved to another Girard apartment: $420 for a vast garden-level one-bedroom with a few quirks, like a bathroom door with notches so it could slide past the toilet. One night, I spotted what I thought was a squirrel in my kitchen, until I saw its long, thin tail. When the rent jumped to $700, I wound up on a WCCO-TV report about rising Minneapolis rents. As the camera rolled, I made soup from a can on my Dickensian stove, like a hobo. When the spot aired, a former coworker called to check on me.
Soon after, in 2000, the Rainbow Bar became Chino Latino. In 2008, the Uptown Bar became an Apple Store. And now, Two Pesos, having morphed into Campiello and then Cowboy Slim’s, has become the southwest corner of the Walkway Apartments. “The thing about bohemias is that they’re hard to maintain,” says Millett, “because bohemias don’t tend to have a lot of money. Neighborhoods either get upscaled or continue down the hill, and both have problems. But the die is pretty well cast for Uptown now. It’s becoming Minneapolis’s second downtown, but with a different vibe.” Lake Minnetonka has returned to Uptown.
"Private means ‘privileged,’" is one of the Walkway’s tag lines, an amenity not everyone appreciates—especially those on the outside. “I am a bro,” admits Jim Walsh, a columnist for the Southwest Journal and host of the Mad Ripple Hootenanny songwriter series at Minneapolis bars and coffee shops. “But I can’t think of a more stultifying way to spend my 20s and 30s than inside these kinds of places. These guys have been sold a message of metro manliness based on flashy bullshit, not the joy of belonging to a funky neighborhood.&rdquo
To Andy Sturdevant, MinnPost’s chronicler of Twin Cities culture, it suggests a lack of curiosity if not belonging. The newcomers, he told me, should be reminded that they “are part of a historical narrative, whether they like it or not.” Why live in a city, he asks, with its presumptions of diversity and rubbing shoulders with strangers, if you don’t want to be in it?
But is there a connection between money and isolation? No marketing, after all, is going to tout the virtues, as Sturdevant notes, of tenants “freezing their asses off waiting for the No. 6 bus and getting hollered at by a busker outside Calhoun Square.”
Lime Apartments, Greco’s Lyn-Lake successor to Blue, has been marketed with something like the opposite of seclusion, a kind of cheeky promiscuity: “Tarts welcome,” and “Don’t get hitched until you enjoy your year at Lime.” (The nearby Elan Uptown is responsible for a billboard reading, “I don’t remember her name, but her apartment…”) Looking for truth in advertising, I tour the place alone. “Would it just be you living here, or…?” asks my tour guide, a friendly young woman. Yep, I say, expecting a wink, a smile—some suggestion that although I’d be single I wouldn’t be alone.
But she surprises me. “Well, that’s nice,” she says innocently. “Lots of room for you, huh?”
When I tour the second-floor “splash deck,” where a hot tub and pool are sunk beside a grassy lawn, I expect to hear that suits are optional. Instead: the grass is for “bags, bocce ball, hopefully yoga in the summer.” I see no tarts, no one who might open her door to a man with ego-induced short-term memory loss. Only an unnoticing young woman with a Target corporate ID badge.
When my guide points out a TV monitor near the mailboxes announcing weekly resident gatherings, some in the lounge, some for happy hour at Herkimer down the block, the marketing merges with reality. It’s not Melrose Place. It’s a dorm for grownups.
“We believe in thriving societies where residents make strong connections that can last a lifetime,” Lime’s website declares, “from business to friendships to (b)romance.” And although I don’t know any guy who would admit to looking for bromance, it sounds like community, whatever that means today. A real-life LinkedIn. From the live/work spaces on the first floor, commercially zoned with separate entrances to the sidewalk, you could run your boutique business with little more than a laptop and a UPS account, then meet the neighbors for movie night. Efficiency is the new decadence.
In one preeminent apartment, on the second floor, the glass patio door opens directly onto the “splash deck,” the hot tub right there, all day, all night. In 1995, the only view out of most Uptown apartments was onto the narrow grass yard between buildings, a blanket of shadows hung between bedrooms, through which passed all of our muffled intimacies. We were bound by space or lack of it, not income or interest, together yet alone. In the new, more segregated city, you are bound by shared condition, and there is, as the marketing implies, an intimacy in this. As in a hot tub full of strangers, alone yet together.