Whittier Alliance and Alliance Housing want to turn the long-vacant lot at 2116 Nicollet Ave. into a mixed-use development with 53 units of deeply affordable housing, a community meeting and event space, and shared offices for the two organizations.

Plans call for 24 single room occupancy units, with efficiency and one-bedroom floor plans in the other 29 units, Alliance Housing Executive Director Jessie Handel said.

“The hope is that some residents in the SRO units are able to move up to the efficiency or one-bedroom units,” Handel said.

It is not typical for neighborhood organizations to be directly involved in housing development, but multiple Southwest neighborhood organizations including Lowry Hill East and Lyndale are getting more involved in affordable housing projects for their neighbors.

Funding and construction timeline

Significant financing for the housing component, which accounts for the bulk of the total project cost, will come from public sources, Handel said. Whittier Alliance and Alliance Housing have already submitted an application to the Hennepin County Affordable Housing Incentive Fund and expect to apply for funding from the City of Minneapolis and Minnesota Housing this summer, she added.

Funding for the ground-floor offices and community space “will be more challenging” to finance since it’s not eligible for affordable housing funds, Handel said. Whittier Alliance and Alliance Housing are eyeing about $500,000 in philanthropic support for the estimated $2 million ground-floor component, but public sources like the Metropolitan Council’s Livable Communities Demonstration Account are possibilities too.

The ground-floor commercial space ensures Whittier Alliance and Alliance Housing will  continue to have a presence in the neighborhood. Both organizations already have a longstanding presence in Whittier, but the building is being designed in a way that is “thoughtful about [its] lifespan,” Handel said.The building allows for flexibility if one or both organizations outgrow the space.

The organizations have had some logistical help from the City and project architect Paul Gates, who’s based about a block north of the site and has designed several south Minneapolis multifamily buildings, including 3301 Nicollet and 5320 Lyndale Ave. S.

Handel said that Gates has been helpful in engaging with City planners to address design questions around trash pickup and sewer hookup on the small lot.  

The City has also engaged directly with Whittier Alliance and Alliance Housing to improve the competitiveness of the project as it seeks State and County funding, according to Handel. For example, City staff introduced them to a Minneapolis rental assistance program that ties rent subsidies to housing units rather than tenant income, which would benefit the highly mobile individuals likely to occupy the single-room units.

Funding decisions for the development should come by early 2025, followed by a year-long planning and design process. Groundbreaking could then happen as early as 2026, with occupancy to follow in 2027.

“Once we get funded, we can really start digging in,” Handel said.

A “really intentional” community engagement process

The organizations’ vision for 2116 Nicollet grew out of an extensive community engagement process, said Whittier Alliance Program Manager Jared Simonsen,. That process began soon after Whittier Alliance bought the property in spring 2021, before Simonsen joined the neighborhood organization.

“I was aware of the [proposal] before I became staff [at Whittier Alliance],” Simonsen said. The neighborhood organization “is clearly following through on its commitment” to gather community input, he added.
As part of the engagement process, Whittier Alliance and Alliance Housing sought feedback from potential future occupants of the single-room occupancy  units, through organizations like Simpson Housing Services, Handel said. Based on that feedback, the partners tweaked the single-room occupancy  plans, for example by swapping out double beds for singles. .

The community engagement process also surfaced a local need for a free or low-cost gathering place that wasn’t membership-only or restricted in other ways. Feedback consistently pointed to demand for an “activating space [that] people and organizations can use for private or community meetings and events,” Simonsen said.

Though recent community engagement processes for nearby affordable, mixed-use developments have called for ground-floor storefronts, such as the four BIPOC-owned commercial condos at Project for Pride in Living’s Opportunity Crossing project near the Lake Street Kmart site, retail wasn’t as high on 2116 Nicollet neighbors’ shared priority list.

Above all, Whittier Alliance and Alliance Housing found neighbors concerned about housing availability, affordability, and the risk of gentrification, Handel said.

“These are concerns brought up in any development now in Whittier,” Simonsen added. “Any new project needs to be mindful of that.”