• Fronting the street near the northern edge of the site, these townhomes echo the traditional scale and massing of single-family homes nearby, but the architects used materials such as Hardiplank, stucco, corrugated metal, and steel to add a contemporary f

    Credit: Elness Swenson Graham

    Fronting the street near the northern edge of the site, these townhomes echo the traditional scale and massing of single-family homes nearby, but the architects used materials such as Hardiplank, stucco, corrugated metal, and steel to add a contemporary f

Urban infill is perhaps the most important housing typology an architect can pursue. Not only does it promote density, it repairs decaying communities, creates new neighborhoods, and utilizes existing infrastructure. The specialty is also fraught with time-consuming obstacles—strict zoning laws, height limits, resistant neighborhood groups—that can thwart the noblest of efforts.

Minneapolis-based Elness Swenson Graham knows this all too well. The firm had to negotiate its way through a morass of problems in its quest to gain approval for Midtown Lofts, a 72-unit project featuring 12 attached townhomes. The project is part of a larger effort to transform an industrial site near a vacated railroad corridor south of downtown Minneapolis. “The old railroad corridor is being converted into a bike and pedestrian trail system called the Minneapolis Greenway,” says principal David Graham, AIA. “This project is one of the first pieces in that urban design vision.”

Before the Midtown could be part of that vision, Graham had problems to resolve. The former industrial site required rezoning for residential use and it needed environmental remediation. Moreover, Graham had to convince homeowners that the new townhomes would be sensitive to the small single-family homes along the northern edge of the site.

Graham's first order of business was to hide the cars, so he designed an underground parking structure to decrease their impact on the neighborhood. “People still like their garages enclosed, so in this regard we can do high-density infill by building the [underground] box for parking.” The garage offers entry to central stairwells, to which two units share access.

Graham kept the project's townhomes at two-and-a-half stories to maintain the scale and context of the nearby houses, and he employed architectural subterfuge to give them individuality. He started with traditional elements—chimney, gable, streetscape front porch—and experimented with forms and materials. “Once you establish that [traditional] rhythm and tectonics, you can start to play with contemporary language,” he explains, referring to the use of steel and concrete. Stucco exteriors add color, and corrugated metal ties the houses to their industrial pedigree. Despite their urban location, the units have rooftop decks and gardens.

  • Credit: Elness Swenson Graham

Any project that breaks the mold of its surroundings is bound to encounter opposition, but neighborhood groups were welcoming once the architects explained how the townhomes would ultimately prove to be an asset to the community. Creative design helped, but so did a wise decision to push the south-facing buildings back to create breathing room along the greenway. This concession creates a city-owned and condo-maintained green space along the upper terrace to provide public access to the greenway, Graham explains.

Midtown Lofts is a welcome addition to its neighborhood and sets the bar high for future urban infill projects near the greenway. Decidedly different from the existing homes, the project also nestles comfortably among its neighbors. Graham explains it this way: “It is contemporary in design and spirit but with a traditional sense of rhythm and warmth.”

project: Midtown Lofts, Minneapolis
architect: Elness Swenson Graham, Minneapolis
general contractor: Kraus-Anderson Construction, Minneapolis
project size: 1,050 square feet to 1,633 square feet
total units: 72, including 12 townhomes
site size: 1.49 acres
construction cost: $256 to $285 per square foot
sales price: $419,000 to $459,000