Aeon: Preserving Heritage and Sustainability in Elliot Park, Minneapolis

Walking through Elliot Park, the intricate details carved into red-brick row houses are clearly visible in the early spring, before the thick ivy and leafy foliage cover the buildings. If you ignore the modern-day cars and the backdrop of the Minneapolis skyline, you could be stepping into a scene from the turn of the twentieth century. These historic buildings are managed by Aeon, a nonprofit developer in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. The company manages affordable housing in Elliot Park, from recent constructions to some of the oldest buildings in Minneapolis.

According to Alan Arthur, Aeon’s president and CEO, Aeon has two main values: preserving heritage, and sustainability. Aeon embodies these two values by transforming the neighborhood’s historic buildings into housing, preserving the character of the urban neighborhood and creating affordable homes.

The company got its start in Elliot Park, a neighborhood located immediately adjacent to downtown Minneapolis. One of the oldest neighborhood communities in the city, Elliot Park dates back to the 1850s as one of the settlements that emerged near the Falls of St. Anthony on the Mississippi River. Between 1900 and 1920, the rapid growth of the city brought brick and stone three-story apartments to the area. Today, Elliot Park retains its historic buildings, newer developments, and a few lingering vacant lots from an earlier phase of “renewal.”

The Roselle Apartments
The Roselle Apartments

Aeon was founded in 1986, when the construction of the Minneapolis Convention Center threatened affordable housing and several historic buildings in Elliot Park. According to Alan Arthur, the historic Roselle and Melrose apartment buildings on Portland Avenue were one month away from being torn down – destined to become another surface parking lot. Led by Arthur, the company stepped into help, negotiating with the seller to save the buildings from the wrecking ball. The historic apartments (now both called the Roselle) were renovated into affordable housing homes that serve the community.

The preservation of these historic buildings creates sustainability in the neighborhood. Arthur explains, “When you tear down historic properties, the materials end up in the trash heap.” The brick and mortar used to construct the buildings are wasted, along with the intangible elements of the construction, including time and labor. By continuing to use buildings that already exist – rather than tearing down and discarding the materials – the organization is environmentally responsible.

Since its start in the 1980s, Aeon has continued to create sustainable and affordable housing in the neighborhood. In 2016, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota awarded Aeon with the Impact Award for the company’s Minneapolis Portfolio Project (MP3). Launched in 2015, the MP3 project includes the renovation of ten affordable housing projects using low income tax credits and federal and state historic tax credits. Nine of the properties are located in Elliot Park and one in nearby Loring Park. The goal of the project is to update the buildings for modern use while maintaining the character of the historic architecture.

Alan Arthur explains that when it comes to preservation, it is not just about aesthetics. He stresses the importance of the historic context of the buildings. Between 1965 and 1985, many buildings at the edge of downtown were being torn down, spurred by the creation of Interstate, 35W. Unless organizations like Aeon stepped in to preserve and protect these historic properties, Minneapolis would lose historic context that shaped the history of the city.

The Continental Hotel
The Continental Hotel

Arthur cites the example of the Continental Hotel, located in the Downtown West neighborhood of Minneapolis. Formerly the Ogden Apartment Hotel, the building was designed as convenient lodgings for middle class workers in the 1920s. The last remaining “apartment hotel” in Minneapolis, the Continental is now a lodging for the formerly homeless.

Arthur explains, “It is important to the communities to have a connection to the past, and to know where we came from.” This area has been central for years to communities of people getting their start in Minneapolis. In the 1850s, the area attracted Swedish immigrants who were drawn to the neighborhood because of its proximity to the industries that were built around the St. Anthony Falls. Today, the area is home to many recent immigrants from East Africa. The affordability and stability of Elliot Park makes the community a starting place for the city’s most recent residents.

Aeon has had a positive impact on the future of the community in Elliot Park. Lynn Regnier, the Executive Director of Elliot Park Neighborhood, Inc. (EPNI), credits Aeon for stabilizing the neighborhood. Aeon provided better housing in Elliot Park while maintaining its historic fabric. Aeon’s sustainable and affordable projects in Elliot Park have brought vitality to the neighborhood. Arthur explains that the renovations stabilize the area, both visually and perpetually. Recently condos and townhouses have their eye on the area. Aeon’s work in Elliot Park has planted seeds for growth, while creating affordable and sustainable properties.