One Vacancy at a Time, The Village at Mendota Heights Builds Its Presence in the SE Metro
The Village development is coming into its own despite the down economy.
The Village at Mendota Heights sits just off Highway 110 and Dodd Road, like the downtown Mendota Heights never had.
Unlike most suburban strip malls, this commercial center has streets with curbs and parking spaces directly in front of the stores and restaurants. The architecture of the development is Italian-inspired and designed for pedestrians, with broad sidewalks.
Winding streets lead to condominiums and high-end townhomes just a block away.
Ross Fefercorn, a developer since 1981, hadn’t planned on developing the current site, looking instead at an area near Pilot Knob Road. That land turned out to be what is now Pilot Knob Historic Site. But while exploring the area, Fefercorn chanced upon the site that is now The Village. All that was there was a mostly abandoned strip mall, a shuttered gas station and a vet clinic.
“I had no vision of what to do with the site. It wasn’t even for sale,” he said. “But the Mendota Heights City Council was trying to envision what to do with the site.” The city signed Fefercorn on as a development consultant and he began to put together a plan.
Old-Fashioned Ideas for New Concept
Fefercorn said that he envisioned a development where Euclidian zoning regulations (where different types of land use are separated) would not apply. That was part of the urban planning that typified many modern suburbs, and Fefercorn said he hoped to create something new by following a much older urban model.
“After World War II, city planners didn’t plan, they enforced. But Mendota Heights took a different approach,” he said.
Fefercorn traveled to Market Square, an early 20th Century planned shopping area in Lake Forest, IL designed by legendary architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, spending four days making notes and photographing the area.
“Market Square (in Illinois) has a level of attention to craft and detail. It’s solid and handsome. It’s something old that inspired something new,” he said.
He left with ideas for his new project, The Village. One was the Tuscan-style building design. Another was Market Square’s orientation, facing toward the main transportation line. For Market Square, that was Chicago’s heavy rail. For The Village, it was Highway 110.
The city stood behind Fefercorn’s ideas and The Village at Mendota Heights was built.
Retail at The Village Strengthens
The new development’s retail spaces soon began to fill with small, mostly independently run shops and restaurants. An Anytime Fitness location moved away—not a good fit, Fefercorn said. The fitness center has been replaced by three smaller businesses. Sage Market was replaced by Mendoberri Cafe and Wine Bar.
“The area is doing great,” he said. “The commercial package was designed to attract retail and office tenants. It’s not a shopping center; it’s a destination.”
There are currently 20 stores in the retail mix as well as locations for ice cream, pizza, and sandwiches. Office tenants on the second level include a travel agency, a dentist, an audiologist and several financial planners.
Owners of stores at The Village said they’re enthusiastic about the location. Cory Maple, from The Wine Market, said that their customers come from as far away as Eagan and South St. Paul. Business, he says, is good. The store will soon have a new tasting bar and the owners are trying to get more involved in Mendota Heights, sponsoring fundraisers for schools and for the Dodge Nature Center.
The Olive Grove, an olive oil and balsamic vinegar specialty shop, is also thriving. “We looked all over the east side of the Twin Cities for a location,” said owner Natalie Jaeger. “We’re super close to the airport, just over the Mendota Bridge from Bloomington and just off I-494, I-35E and Highway 110. You don’t get more centrally located than this.”
In order to make the development feel more like a small town, Fefercorn built a public square and fountain at the front of the shopping area, which is now public space.
Residential Units Fill—Slowly
But while the commercial development of The Village is starting to bustle, the residential development continues to make slow progress. Last fall, the remaining town homes and condominiums were pulled off the market for a few days, re-listed with prices considerably lowered. The lowest priced one-bedroom units were re-listed at $199,000 with large units selling at $400,000.
Most are sold partially finished, which allows buyers to chose the finishing touches they want, completed usually in two or three months. About a dozen of the small condos are still for sale, but only a handful of the townhomes remain.
“We’re continuing to sell units,” said Paul Dorn, who along with real estate agent Chris Ames sells the residential units. “The market is down and the economy has hurt housing in general, but we’ve done OK because we’ve got a unique, mixed-use development. People like that they can walk to the stores. It’s a big lifestyle change for some of them. It’s really the best of both worlds.”
While Fefercorn is proud of the residential part of his project, he said that he probably won’t be building condos and town homes again. The risk, he said, is too high.
At one time, 4,000 new condo units were planned for construction between 2005 and 2010 in the Twin Cities. When the over-saturated condo market began its meltdown, a number of projects like The Revue (a post-modern condo project near the Guthrie), The Portland (in the Minneapolis Mill District) and The Penfield (a proposed St. Paul high rise) were canceled. Other projects were foreclosed on or entered bankruptcy. Some newly built condos turned to renting units when they didn’t sell.
Although The Village is doing better than many other projects in the metro area, Fefercorn said his focus is now on housing in more urban areas like Uptown Minneapolis. The Village, he said wistfully, is a remnant of another world.