One of the North Loop’s oldest buildings is on the market, and its sale could doom downtown Minneapolis’ sole surviving artists’ cooperative.
The historic six-story building at 250 N. Third Ave. has been home to the 23-member Traffic Zone Center for Visual Arts cooperative since the early '90s. But the high-ceilinged, limestone-clad building could soon be transformed into a hotel or an apartment, if an eventual buyer is wooed by concept plans accompanying the listing. Neither scenario includes artist workspaces, which puts the for-profit cooperative’s future in doubt, despite its 50-50 ownership split with Minneapolis-based arts nonprofit Artspace.
“We may disband and go our various ways,” said Harriet Bart, a conceptual artist and founding member of Traffic Zone, who maintains studio space in the building. Two retail tenants, Bev’s Wine Bar and Jeremeo in the Loop, already closed or relocated, leaving just one retail tenant on the ground floor, James and Mary Laurie Booksellers.
The cooperative’s dissolution would mean the end of a more than 30-year-old Twin Cities hub for artists and patrons. It would also further the North Loop’s evolution from gritty industrial district to upscale urban playground — and possibly foreshadow what’s to come for the still-transitioning Warehouse District across I-394.
How did the Traffic Zone Center for Visual Arts get started?
The idea for the Traffic Zone Center began with an earlier threat of displacement.
Back in the late '80s, a group of mid-career artists working out of 700 N. Washington Ave. learned that the building was for sale and the new owner would likely force them out. Those artists, including Bart and fellow Traffic Zone co-founder Perci Chester, teamed up with Artspace – then in its infancy – to find a nearby building suitable for artist-owned workspaces.
The idea was simple enough: If they owned the building that housed their studios, they’d be protected from landlords who might not have their tenants' best interests at heart.
Each founding artist contributed $5,000 for an equity stake in the project.
An array of Twin Cities nonprofits, including the Dayton Hudson Foundation and the General Mills Foundation, contributed funds toward the effort as well. A grant from the McKnight Foundation paved the way for the artists' purchase of 250 N. Third Ave., then known as the Appliance Parts Building, in late 1992.
Hennepin Country property records indicate that the Traffic Zone Center for Visual Arts cooperative and Artspace paid $405,000 for the building. The low price reflected the decades-long decline of the neighborhood, where abandoned or underutilized industrial buildings dotted the surrounding blocks.
“The North Loop was not the North Loop when we got here,” Chester said.
The building itself also was in rough shape. Bart described its deteriorating original-wood floors and floor-to-ceiling windows pocked with broken panes.
It took three years and more than $4 million to restore the building and customize spaces for artists.
Artists did much of the fixing themselves, raising awareness for the effort with benefit dances and open houses showcasing the still-rough studio spaces. The first benefit featured performances by the Minnesota Opera and Ballet of the Dolls, the dance company that Robert Skafte was involved in.
The Traffic Zone Center officially opened in 1995.
Artists with the cooperative filled the first three floors and shared the ground level with a public art gallery and a mix of retail and restaurant tenants. Artspace and several rent-paying commercial tenants occupied floors four through six.
Most commercial tenants were “creatives … that were simpatico with the artists’ presence in the building,” Chester said in an email.
Over the past few decades, the Traffic Zone building has become a fixture in the Twin Cities arts community.
The cooperative’s 23 members include photographers, painters, bookmakers, weavers, and installation artists, among others. Many joined at the beginning of the cooperative's formation, or soon after, and they still regularly host individual exhibitions in their studios.
The cooperative’s semi-annual open studio events consistently drew more than 1,000 attendees before the pandemic.
The new-member selection process limits eligibility to established, mid-career artists (“in honor of the mission of the McKnight Foundation,” Bart said) and includes an exacting body-of-work review.
Why is the Traffic Zone building for sale?
From the artist-owners’ perspective, the Traffic Zone Center is a victim of its own success.
With help from Artspace, McKnight, and other backers, the Traffic Zone artists found a safe home in a community they loved and kept it for nearly 30 years. They didn't have to worry about involuntary displacement, and they enjoyed some measure of financial stability as landlords themselves, collecting rent from the building's commercial tenants.
But owning a 135-year-old building isn’t exactly cheap. Problems cropped up after the initial renovation, including a subsurface tunnel on the property that the City demanded be filled. Everyday maintenance added up too, forcing the cooperative to make tough choices.
“We did what was absolutely necessary to keep the building going,” Chester said.
A recent inventory of “what it would take to make the building wonderfully functional” produced an “impressive” sum, Chester said. Without enough cash to pay out of pocket, cooperative members considered a bank loan. But that would have meant raising rents on building tenants, including artists.
Meanwhile, the property’s value — and tax burden — kept rising. A 2023 assessment valued it at $7.61 million, up from $6.62 million in 2022. The partnership paid $236,711.56 in property taxes last year, according to Hennepin County property records.
County tax court records reveal several disputes between the partnership and Hennepin County over property tax assessments. These date from 2003 to 2013, when the North Loop was beginning to gentrify.
What’s next for the Traffic Zone Center for Visual Arts?
With property values elevated across the North Loop and relatively few disused warehouses remaining anywhere in town, the cooperative is unlikely to find an affordable space big enough for all or most of its remaining members.
So, if and when the building sells, it could be the end of the road for the Traffic Zone Center for Visual Arts and its cooperative. Individual artists would need to rent studio space elsewhere, likely in buildings they don’t own – a return to the pre-cooperative order of things.
Some cooperative members hold out hope that an eventual buyer will keep the building largely as-is and allow artists to remain if they wish.
“Some of us hope for a guardian angel,” Chester said. “It wasn’t clear what was at stake [when the cooperative voted to sell] and things have evolved over the past year.”
The building's historic status could add complexity and cost to a hotel or residential conversion, but it likely wouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
In 2016, developers transformed a similar building nearby into the four-star Hewing Hotel, despite its location within the 30-block Minneapolis Warehouse Historic District.
Still, at least in the short term, the building’s condition and a cooling commercial real estate market could work in holdouts’ favor. The property has been on the market for months with a “negotiable” price tag.
Assembly, the real estate brokerage marketing the building, referred inquiries about the sale process to Artspace. Multiple attempts to reach Artspace went unanswered.
What about the building’s other tenants?
The Traffic Zone Center’s non-artist tenants are already moving out.
Bev’s Wine Bar, an original Traffic Zone building tenant, closed for good last March. Jeromeo in the Loop recently moved to a new location on North Second Street.
The remaining ground-floor tenant, James and Mary Laurie Booksellers, may soon vacate as well.
Co-owner James Laurie referred questions about his shop’s status to Artspace. But he cautioned, “I don’t think they know what’s going on either.”
Jeromeo’s move was a long time coming, co-owner Scott Johnson said.
The out-of-the-way location was never great for business, but Jeremeo stuck with it, in part because the suite is unusually spacious for the neighborhood. Then, this year, a major street reconstruction project on North Third Avenue limited vehicle and pedestrian access for months, just as things were getting back to normal after the pandemic.
“We made it through COVID, but this summer was really bad,” Johnson said.