Back to its roots: Fort Snelling's historic Upper Post to become housing once again

Media gather to hear about Fort Snelling housing
News media and others gathered outside the administration building at the Upper Post of Fort Snelling Wednesday to hear more about a partnership between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and developer Dominium to turn 26 historic buildings into affordable housing.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

The grounds of Fort Snelling's Upper Post look abandoned. Weathered brick buildings with boarded-up windows dot the grounds. Squat barracks are surrounded by weeds. And then there's The Dead House — the fort's former morgue.

Minneapolis architect John Stark looks at the decay and sees plenty of potential.

"It's like redoing a city," he said, "but it's a ghost town that you're redoing here, instead of starting from scratch."

Historic Fort Snelling clocktower building
The Upper Post's administration building, sometimes called the clocktower building, would be used for housing or other amenities under the proposal.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

The Upper Post — nearly 30 buildings that housed and served soldiers for decades — will become living quarters again, with help from Stark and a team of developers. A new proposal would transform part of the historic fort into affordable housing.

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Dominium, a Plymouth, Minn.-based development company, has renovated historic sites like St. Paul's Schmidt Brewery and the Pillsbury A-Mill in Minneapolis. The company has hired Stark's firm, BKV Group, to help them repurpose the grounds of the Upper Post.

The $100 million project would provide much-needed housing in the area, said Mark Moorhouse, senior vice president and partner at Dominium. Moorhouse said rents will run from $900 for a one-bedroom apartment to about $1,250 for apartments with three bedrooms or more.

Dominium estimates about $70 million of the project would come from public funds, such as grants and tax breaks on the county, state and federal levels. The renovation proposal was announced Wednesday by Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and other state officials, who praised the deal as a way to preserve the historic site.

Officers quarters at Fort Snelling Upper Post
Under Dominion's plans, former officers' quarters would be turned into housing.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

Fort Snelling was built in the early 1820s, before Minnesota was a state. The Upper Post's buildings — used to house and train soldiers during both World Wars — were built a few decades later. After World War II, the buildings were no longer needed as barracks for soldiers. They were turned over to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 1971.

Stephen Osman has seen the Upper Post's evolution firsthand over the years. He's a historian and former site manager at Historic Fort Snelling, the historical site run by the Minnesota Historical Society near the Upper Post. But he also trained there for eight years as a member of the U.S. Army Reserve.

Wednesday's announcement marks a full-circle return to the buildings' roots.

"It really is exciting," said Osman, who has seen the development proposal. "It's the most exciting thing I've heard since I started working at the fort four decades ago."

Former barracks at Fort Snelling Upper Post
Developer Dominium plans to convert the barracks at Fort Snelling's Upper Post into affordable housing.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

If the plan goes through, Dominium's housing development would not be the first to attempt to refurbish the Upper Post: The Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs and the nonprofit CommonBond Communities have nearly completed 58 housing units for homeless veterans in five buildings nearby.

There is no plan yet to add a grocery store or other retail to the grounds, but a Blue Line light rail station is nearby, and the property runs up against the northeast corner of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

"As part of the rehab, we'll preserve the look of the windows, but add some modern aspects to it, like triple-pane windows, add insulation, soundproof the floors and the exteriors and things like that," said Russell Condas, a development associate for Dominium.

Rendering of Fort Snelling Upper Post
A rendering of the new development planned for Fort Snelling's Upper Post, which once housed soldiers and officers.
Courtesy of BKV Group

Dominium has conditional approval for the project from a group that includes the National Park Service, the state of Minnesota and Hennepin County, but the company still needs to hammer out a development agreement and negotiate a long-term lease with the DNR.

The company hopes to begin construction in early 2017, with hopes of opening the apartments to tenants in three years.