New life (and a new name?) for the Pirtek Building

Like many of the CEZ’s industrial buildings, the one at the northeast corner of University and Vandalia Avenues has a modest brick façade. But inside, it’s a hive of activity, reinventing itself after years of minimal use. Dozens of new tenants—nonprofits, small businesses, arts groups, studios, professional offices—are filling the versatile three-building complex, with some spaces still available for lease. One constant in its recent history is the corner tenant, the Pirtek hydraulic hose company. So by default it's often called the Pirtek Building, although that may soon change as the building’s character evolves.

Setting the tone are new owners Tory and Carrie Christensen of Landbridge Ecological, a fast-growing company that serves metro-area clients with eco-friendly landscape design, installation, and management. “When we bought the building and moved the company last year, we had 20 employees,” Tory said recently. “Now we’re up to 29,” and all those jobs are year-round. On the second floor of 670 Vandalia—the west section of the complex—workers are removing walls and creating an open office space with afternoon light.  Down by the parking lot, eight garage bays are busy as Landbridge crews and vehicles come and go.

“The building’s good for them, and they are good for it,” said Renee Spillum, who helped the Christensens find their new space last year (she now serves on the CEZ board). “It felt like matchmaking.” The company, then known as Wetland Habitat Restorations, had outgrown its original building in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. So Carrie and Tory turned to Renee, a senior project manager for Seward Redesign, a nonprofit community development corporation.

They searched the Seward area first, but nothing matched their needs. The Christensens wanted to stay in a lively city neighborhood; they found the suburban options disenchanting. Fortunately, Renee had her finger on the pulse of the CEZ-Midway area, where she lives herself. At the time, the Pirtek building was held by the Twin Cities Community Land Bank, pending possible development as senior housing by the Aeon Company. As those plans changed, the way opened for the Christensens. As Renee put it, the fit was perfect for the CEZ: they’re “owner-occupants with the values and skills to bring in a symbiotic group of tenants, many of them creatively and environmentally oriented.” 

Ranging from 100 to 3,000 square feet, some of the spaces are still customizable for new tenants. The Christensens even arranged for a sound-dampening studio for TaikoArts Midwest, which offers classes in traditional Japanese drumming. That's a good match, too: most classes and sessions are evenings and weekends, helping balance parking lot use. Other tenants include nonprofits such as Elpis Enterprises and Project Fresh Start; law and health-related offices; a Chinese shipping company; St. Paul Pipeworks, a locally owned and operated plumbing contractor; and a church congregation that meets in the lower level. All found what they needed at this flexible site.

The music and arts collective Electric Machete is finding a niche here too. Featuring Latinx and Xichanx artists, they're expanding from their West St. Paul location. In the garagelike space by the animal mural outside Retro at Pete's, Electric Machete is creating a performance venue (pictured here, in progress) open to the street, with linked studios adjacent to it. Look for music and multi-media events there this summer.   

“What's my wish list for the building?" said Carrie. "I hope it can help develop the CEZ workforce. We need more opportunities for diverse workers and local enterprises. We’d like to help create synergies among them, and attract environmentally and socially conscious tenants." Another priority is to improve the building’s façade and engagement with the street, and to use the site to its greatest environmental potential, including stormwater management. 

They're working on that already. At the 670 Vandalia entrance (opposite Planned Parenthood), Carrie and Tory envision an inviting public area to replace the current bare triangular patch of asphalt: see the artist rendering at the top of this newsletter. Such areas are known as POPS, or privately owned public spaces, and this one will include the "stacked functions" Carrie and Tory look for. In addition to trees, pollinator habitat, public art, and seating, the area will be contoured for water inflitration, as will the pedestrian walkway skirting the back of the building. They hope for a grant from the Capitol Region Watershed District to help with the stormwater component of the design. The entrance itself is being redesigned, with help from local Alchemy Architects. Materials for that facade will include blackened ash timbers reclaimed from a Landbridge job site and weatherproofed with the Japanese burning method known as shou shugiban.  

On the other side, the 2161 building (a former car dealership) has a lobbylike area with a broad spiral staircase and other mid-20th-century features. It's underused right now, but the potential is great. 

It's a new era at the Pirtek Building. When will it get a new name? "We'll see," said Carrie. She and Tory have been wondering about that, but their hands are more than full with practical matters right now. As the complex starts to hum with creative enterprises, maybe a new name will surface, she said. "Or should we have a design contest for it?"  

   The future west facade of the Pirtek Builiding, now anchored by Landbridge Ecological at University & Vandalia.

 The future west facade of the Pirtek Builiding, now anchored by Landbridge Ecological at University & Vandalia.

Julie James