Urban farm, affordable housing planned for Hermes site

A “healthy-living campus” will sprout on the former Hermes property in Falcon Heights in the months and years ahead.

The novel initiative will link affordable housing, an urban farm and an organic food distribution center on the 3.4-acre parcel on Larpenteur Avenue between Snelling Avenue and Cleveland Avenue.

The property has been subdivided, with the affordable housing element to be managed by St. Paul-based CommonBond Communities, the Midwest’s largest nonprofit provider of its kind. The urban farm will operate under the auspices of the Pohlad Family Foundation of Minneapolis.

“We’re very excited and delighted about this project. . . . There are so few spots available like this in the city,” said Terry Egge, senior program officer with the Pohlad Family Foundation. She added that the two organizations have worked together extensively in the past.

The property, once home to a wholesale and retail floral business, greenhouse and garden center, has been vacant since the Hermes retail operation moved across Larpenteur to the Cox Insurance building last year.

Falcon Heights city administrator Bart Fischer said he hasn’t heard any objections to the development and none were raised at either Planning Commission or City Council meetings on the subject.

Endorsing the project at the council session was Will Allen, who heads Growing Power Inc., a Milwaukee, Wis.-based nonprofit that promotes the healthful and self-reliant aspects of urban agriculture across the country.

There is still much planning to do, Egge said, and more specifics about the urban farm operation will be announced in the months ahead. But if all goes as planned, it will open in May 2014.

Existing buildings on the northwest and southeast sections of the L-shaped site will be renovated to accommodate a warehouse, distribution center, training facility and small deli and grocery store selling produce. Organic food will be grown both indoors and out and also will be supplied by outside vendors.

By reducing the costs associated with the production of healthy food, it will be possible to make it affordable and accessible for more consumers, Egge said. The produce is expected to appeal to restaurant, food co-op and institutional buyers.

Meanwhile, the former Hermes retail store and greenhouse will be demolished to make way for a new 47-unit affordable housing apartment building developed by CommonBond Communities.

The building will be a mix of affordable and market-rate apartments, targeted to individuals and families working in the surrounding community and with the urban farm operation. Along with shelter, CommonBond offers a variety of programs designed to help its clients. In this case, those are likely to include offerings in healthy food and nutrition education and agricultural business practices, in addition to employment opportunities right next door.

Falcon Heights officials understandably are elated that a site with a deserted air about it is coming back to life.

“This project tackles head-on some of our region’s greatest challenges—affordable housing, workforce development and healthy living—and combines them on one campus,” noted Mayor Peter Lindstrom. “And the fact that it is adjacent to the University of Minnesota with a wealth of students and faculty interested in these issues is a significant advantage, as well.

“On a personal level,” he added, “I’m looking forward to visiting the retail operation to pick up organically grown food any time of the year.”

Roger Bergerson writes from his home in Como Park and is a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.

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