A transit-rich St. Paul apartment building filled with “micro” units taps into a 21st-century yearning for smaller footprints and simpler (but still plenty nice) living

By Joel Hoekstra

When construction began on the Green Line in 2010, developers took note. The light-rail line ran along the University Avenue corridor between downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis, promising an easy commute via train in an increasingly congested metro area. Industrial properties along the line were purchased, and blueprints for residential developments were drawn up, much of it traditional luxury housing.

But developer Brad Johnson saw an opportunity to fill a slightly different niche. Johnson, who built the Lyric at Carleton Place, a 171-unit complex on University Avenue designed by BKV Group, had been tracking a trend toward smaller living spaces, sometimes called micro-apartments. Millennials, empty nesters, people in transition, and college students were often looking for well-designed, well-located, transit-adjacent rentals, and they didn’t mind if the apartments were 500 square feet or less. In San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and other cities, new developments filled with small living units were a way to maximize space in crowded neighborhoods. “What we think of as small would be palatial in San Francisco,” says Johnson.

Johnson hired UrbanWorks Architecture to design a 79-unit building for a sloped, half-acre site his family had purchased near the Raymond Avenue light-rail stop. Most of the units would be 500 square feet or less.

But would Twin Cities renters be willing to pay market-rate prices for small spaces? Anyone watching the region’s rental market growing tighter in recent years knows the answer to that question. “The building was almost entirely pre-leased before construction even finished, which speaks to the demand,” says UrbanWorks principal David Miller, AIA. “Folks want to be in new construction. They want the amenities that are included in new buildings.”

The new building, Ray, opened in August 2017. The elegant lobby on the southwest corner of the four-story structure is visible through floor-to-ceiling glass. The vertical mullions in the windows are overlaid in two sections by wood-composite-clad aluminum slats arranged like a brise-soleil (sun-shading structure), adding color and a contrasting pattern to the facade. The three floors above are clad in concrete fiberboard painted in alternating blocks of black and white. Balconies ladder up the side of the building at irregular intervals. “There’s an industrial feel to the exterior that matches the surrounding environment,” says Miller.

Inside, the bright lobby doubles as Ray’s communal living room. Residents can kick back on a big sectional sofa in front of a gas fireplace and flat-screen TV, pour drinks for friends at the built-in wet bar, or curl up in a high-backed chair for some alone time or a quiet chat. In fact, when it comes to the common spaces, there’s plenty of room to spread out. “When you live in a small space, you need a big space to go to that isn’t far away,” Johnson explains. “It’s a way to compensate.”

High-quality finishes are used throughout the building, including porcelain flooring, bamboo sound paneling, and even terrazzo tile in the mail room. Colorful wall coverings designed by UrbanWorks energize the elevator lobbies, and in the stairwells, there isn’t a cinderblock in sight. To command market-rate prices for compact units, Johnson knew the overall experience couldn’t feel cheap.

The amenities, of course, extend beyond the modern lounge. Residents enjoy a large and well-appointed fitness facility that overlooks the street, while their pets have a spa room with a bath and a doggie treadmill. A rooftop deck with a grill serves as a perfect place to hang out on summer evenings, and serious cooks can sign up to use the building’s kitchen, which is fully stocked with cooking equipment and dinnerware—and a table big enough for a dinner party.

The apartments vary in size from micro (372 square feet) to two bedrooms (955). Even the smallest include a washer and dryer and walk-in closet. While the decor is spare, the designers looked at every opportunity for an elegant touch or solution. The wood-look, vinyl-tile flooring, for example, is set diagonally. The single-wall kitchens are faced with sleek Euro-box cabinets and include a concealed dishwasher. In some units, the designers omitted conventional ovens, an experiment of sorts to determine whether most renters need more than a range and microwave to cook. (Isn’t takeout from Amazon the future anyway?)

Furnishings were supplied in some units, with the idea that Murphy beds, storage systems, and fold-up tables would help renters flex their space. But beyond the initial installs, the idea hasn’t spread, despite options offered by the leasing office. For now, at least, most residents have found their own solutions for living in small spaces.

To some observers, the micro-apartment sounds a lot like a small studio apartment. For many of the people who rent these units, it’s just an apartment, plain and simple—a way of maintaining a smaller footprint on the planet and minimizing their collection of material possessions. “It’s about living smartly in the square footage that you have, in an efficient and high-quality way,” says Miller.

Location: St. Paul, Minnesota
Client: Ray Residential
Architect: UrbanWorks Architecture, LLC
Project lead designer: David Miller, AIA
Project team: David Haaland, AIA; Neil Reardon, Assoc. AIA; John Seppanen, AIA
Landscape architect: Damon Farber
General contractor: Weis Builders
Size: 64,279 gross square feet
Completion: August 2017
Photographer: Brandon Stengel, Assoc. AIA