A new residential high-rise takes its spot in the downtown Minneapolis skyline with exceptional amenities and views. But its best feature may be its generous embrace of the street.

By John Reinan

You’d expect Minneapolis’ most important luxury apartment tower of the new millennium to grandly announce itself to the world. And at 26 stories, with a sleek exterior of glass and cast stone, the Nic on Fifth presents an elegant face. But this 253-unit building has loftier goals than attracting attention to itself. According to the architectural team that designed the project, the Nic on Fifth is most concerned with breathing new life into the city’s core.

“It’s not attempting to be iconic. It’s not trying too hard,” says David Graham, FAIA, principal-in-charge for Elness Swenson Graham (ESG) Architects. “It doesn’t attempt to stand out or shout. I would say the building is a straightforward, high-quality design that is part of a fabric of downtown building massing.”

The Nic on Fifth, says Graham, provides a lively connection to the street and to the transit line running down South Fifth Street. The building also intends to serve as an anchor for the northern end of Nicollet Mall, opening a path to future development linking downtown to the Mississippi River. The plan is already working; 4Marq, a new 30-story apartment tower, is under construction one block north.

“It’s a building that sits nicely within its context,” says Ed Gschneidner, AIA, president of Opus AE Group, the architect of record. “We tried very hard to make sure that the street is an active and engaged part of the project, to make it a comfortable building to walk by and through and around.

“The idea is that we want to have the things that go on at the street level be part of the city. We think that’s part of the attractiveness of living downtown; people want that connectivity.”

Transit was in the bones of the Nic on Fifth even before the first shovel of earth was turned. More than 65,000 people a day already passed through the transit station in front of the building—the single busiest station in the Twin Cities’ growing light-rail system.

The station was designed by ESG’s Trace Jacques, AIA, who also served as project designer for the Nic on Fifth. The station is physically incorporated into the sidewalk streetscape in front of the building—the only station on the light-rail line with a built-in connection to the sidewalk, says Graham.

“The Fifth Street station provided an opportunity to do truly integrated, high-density residential and transit,” says Graham. “You’ve got this billion-dollar investment in transit. Our goal was to connect physically to that.” The Nic on Fifth also features a public escalator connecting the skyway to the street, a rarity in the city’s extensive skyway system.

The generous use of glass, especially at street level, resulted in a building that sits very lightly. “We wanted it to not be an imposing structure at ground level,” says Gschneidner. At night, the lit building “becomes a little jewel on the street,” says Jacques.

Designers didn’t forget about the occupants, of course. Built with concrete floors and columns, the Nic on Fifth is a “100-year building” that provides solid, quiet comfort. Parking is on the third through fifth floors, creating a second “ground floor” on six. There, fitness spaces and a clubroom with an entertainment kitchen flow out onto an expansive pool deck and a green-roof area with a winding walking path—the latter helping earn the building LEED-Silver certification. Designed by Damon Farber Associates, the deck also boasts cabanas, fire pits, and an outdoor bar, but the top attraction is the jaw-dropping skyline environment.

“A lot of the investment was on the inside,” says Graham. “That’s part of the value proposition for people living downtown.”

The Nic on Fifth offers apartment sizes ranging from 560 (an alcove unit) to nearly 2,800 square feet (the largest of the 26 penthouse units, which rents for about $9,000 a month). The majority of the apartments enjoy a balcony, and three have a larger terrace or terraces. The target demographic is affluent empty nesters looking for a true urban living experience. Not bad for a building that rose on one of the empty surface parking lots that have blighted that part of downtown for decades.

“It sits right there at a critical point in downtown Minneapolis,” says Gschneidner. “It’s providing a level of density that starts to make sense for a city that’s encouraging urban living.”

The developer, Opus Development Company, isn’t done. It expects to start work within a year on another apartment tower a block away, on the site of the former Sheraton-Ritz Hotel, says Gschneidner.

“It isn’t the obligation of urban residential buildings to compete with iconic civic buildings like the Guthrie Theater or the Walker Art Center,” says Graham. “The architecture is important. But creating vibrancy in the city is most important.”

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Client: Opus Development Company, LLC
Design architect: Elness Swenson Graham (ESG) Architects, Inc.
Principal-in-charge: David Graham, FAIA
Project lead designer: Trace Jacques, AIA
Architect of record: Opus AE Group, LLC
Principal-in-charge: Edward Gschneidner, AIA
Energy modeling: AKF Group, LLC; The Weidt Group
Landscape architect: Damon Farber Associates
Design builder: Opus Design Build, LLC
Size: 422,595 square feet
Cost: $90 million
Completion: November 2014
Photographer: Brandon Stengel, Assoc. AIA, Farm Kid Studios