The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 2, 2013

Ojanpa: Front Street preps for the high life

By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer

— Kyle Smith isn’t a social engineer, but he could inadvertently become one if part of his plans for Front Street come to fruition.

The Mankato developer admits it’s a bit of dice roll to market upscale $1,200 apartments in the heart of the bar district, but says he’s not going to plunge in headlong. 

“We’re going to put our toes in the water and see what it feels like. Fourteen units is a lot different than jumping in with 102 because it mitigates your risk.”

Those 14 apartments in a four-story building are part of a planned $18.5 million commercial, residential and office space venture that would radically alter the look and perhaps the social dynamic of a downtown block that has largely remained in retro mode.

Put it this way: You can go buy tires at Miller Motors, a pizza at Pagliai’s, and pie for dessert at Wagon Wheel Cafe down the street and you still haven’t left the 1960s.

And on end-of-the-week nights that area becomes a different animal — college-student party variety — the concentration of bars there so intense  the area has come to be called the Barmuda Triangle.

Can the sensibilities of those gentrified apartment dwellers, with views overlooking Front Street, coexist with the not-infrequent hordes of young revelers?

“It’s a question to be answered,” Smith says. “We’re going to find out.”

There’s a method to Smith’s boldness. First off, he thinks there’s a demand for higher-end housing downtown. As evidence he points to the success of the upscale rental dwellings in the new U.S. Bank building at the corner of Hickory and Second streets (though that location is buffered from the bar zone).

He thinks the downtown area also stands poised for a modernization, and if his development venture becomes the bell cow for that, all the better.

He also has an “out,” if you will. If the apartment gambit isn’t successful, those spaces can become absorbed into the mixed-use matrix of office and commercial development he hopes to implement.

Smith, who has developed and redeveloped strip malls in the Madison Avenue and Minnesota State University areas, also has been heavily involved in student housing ventures.

Perhaps that’s why the thought of college students enjoying themselves en masse outside his buildings doesn’t faze him. In fact, he suggests that Mankato’s zeitgeist is the better for it.

“Without the college, Mankato is another Worthington,” he says.

That’s not a knock on either community. That’s just a project developer offering a little candid sociology.

 

Brian Ojanpa is a Free Press staff writer. Call him at 344-6316 or email bojanpa@mankatofreepress.com.