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How a Controversial Developer Helps and Hurts Artists in the Twin Cities

Fans say Peter Remes attracts artists by illuminating the beauty of historic buildings — but critics call him a gentrifier and accuse him of jacking up the rent in buildings already used by artists.

A promotional photograph of the inside of Vandalia Tower in Minneapolis (courtesy First & First)

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota real estate developer Peter Remes has carved out a profitable niche for himself: transforming run-down sites into spaces that attract a hip, creative crowd. “What I’d like to see more in this community is just more risk taking with architecture, more risk taking with environment,” he told Hyperallergic.

Peter Remes (photo by Chad Holder, courtesy First & First)

Fans say Remes illuminates the beauty of historic buildings, creates vibrant layouts with lots of common space, and attracts creative and artistic businesses. But critics call him a gentrifier, accusing him of finding elaborate ways to jack up the rent in buildings already used by artists. Either way, his approach has transformed parts of the Twin Cities.

Remes is CEO of the development group First & First, as well as an art collector and board member for several local arts organizations. He never studied art formally, though he enjoyed art from a young age. In college, he started a billboard business and was drawn to the idea of finding a platform for large-scale images.

Remes got into the real estate business a little over 10 years ago, but gained particular visibility when he bought the former Theatre de la Jeune Lune building in 2010. Remes had been on the board of the internationally acclaimed theater, and after it closed, he turned it into the event space Aria. Mostly used for rentals, the building has also played host to a sale of Andy Warhol works, as well as the 2012 performance “Playing the Building,” in which David Byrne turned the building into a giant musical instrument.

“The psychic dividends are amazing,” Remes said of David Byrne’s project. “I really enjoyed being a part of something that was helping shape and build the cultural landscape of the community.” Many First & First projects focus is on creating a unique environment, “one that is very stimulating and one that really captures the imagination of the participant, of the person that comes into the building,” Remes said.

Take, for example, Icehouse Plaza, located in the Minneapolis neighborhood of Whittier. Often used for concerts and events, the outdoor plaza contains a large sculpture by Zoran Mojsilov and is filled with stones from the Great Metropolitan Building, a historic site that was torn down in the 1960s to the horror of many preservationists.

The plaza includes seating areas and a fountain, and the re-used stones bring a sense of history to the location. In recent years, the area has become a destination, with hot musical acts at Icehouse, hipsterati drinking fancy cocktails at Eat Street Social, and an urban adventure scene growing at the climbing venue Vertical Endeavors.

A 2014 performance at the Icehouse by Jack Woolsey, Frankie Teardrop, and Jordan Bleau (courtesy of the author)

The stones from the Great Metropolitan Building were also used at another First & First development called the Broadway, in Northeast Minneapolis. That open space, once a warehouse, opens right into a brewery, and is used for poetry readings and musical performances. “I remember a couple of my colleagues saying, ‘What in the world are you thinking? This place is a disaster.’”

On the other hand, some artists claim that Remes creates projects where creative types already are, spiffs them up, and increases the rents so that it’s no longer sustainable for them to be there.

At Vandalia Tower, in St. Paul, a collection of buildings in an industrial area provided a home for a number of wood and metal workers and other “makers” who had need for inexpensive space in a building with a loading dock and an industrial elevator. Jason Holtz, a furniture designer, said the arts community at Vandalia Tower was thriving when he first moved in about eight years ago. He believes First & First did not dramatically improve the property after buying it in 2012.

“I like to call it turd polishing,” Holtz said. “There was a lot of painting and repainting and painting again and hanging kitschy art in the hallways. That was about it. That didn’t warrant a 9 dollar per square foot rent increase.”

The exterior of Vandalia Tower (photo by the author)

Another artist who used to share a studio space at Vandalia Tower, Torey Erin, moved out when First & First took over the building. “The way that I see it, Remes has gentrified spaces where artists were already working,” she said. Erin isn’t impressed with Remes’s aesthetics, either. “The First & First spaces have an allocated look with vintage letters and Andy Warhol prints, branding each building to represent a nod to the commodification of the art world,” she said.

First & First redesigned the Broadway by gutting the building and started from scratch, with Remes taking a rather improvisational approach. “What was interesting was once we got into it, the property started telling us what it wanted to be,” Remes said. “We go with that flow.” The building is now home to a sleek, millennial-friendly coffee shop called Spyhouse, a yoga studio, retail shops, a hair salon, office space for Buzzfeed, plus 612 Brew.

According to Minneapolis City Council member Kevin Reich, Remes creates communities within communities in his developments. “He’s very generous with his non-revenue generating open community space,” Reich said. “It kind of creates an identity for the building.”

A promotional photograph of the coffee shop at 95 Broadway (courtesy First & First)

Peter Hansen, the Artistic Director of Gremlin Theater, which recently moved into Vandalia Tower, described a sense of community with two film and video nonprofits that share the building, as well as a woman that runs an event space. “We really like the different kinds of businesses here,” he said. Brenda Kyle, from the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce, calls Remes “a unique animal” among developers. “In my mind, he capitalizes on the cool without over investing in it. He celebrates the rough.”

Some say that Remes has had a positive impact on safety and economic stability in the area. “The number of job holders in this neighborhood has increased because of properties like Vandalia Tower,” said Catherine Reid Day, a board member at Creative Enterprise Zone. “It’s the classic question of this kind of development: Can the original makers stay in the building? The answer to that is yes and no.”

Remes seems uninterested in maintaining a presence in the community he has helped to shape. In December, the Broadway and Icehouse Plaza were sold to another developer, after a string of properties in the company’s portfolio went up for sale. Remes said he’s more interested in transforming a space and leaving his mark. “Then it gets really boring,” he said. “Then I move on, or move forward to another project.”

A promotional photograph of the inside of 95 Broadway (courtesy First & First)

Lynn Barnhouse, an interior designer and another former tenant of Vandalia Tower, believes that Remes has left the space worse off. “He has such a reputation for being creative,” she said of Remes. “The work doesn’t live up to the reputation.” According to Barnhouse, the Vandalia Tower campus used to have an interesting space between the two main buildings, where railroad tracks once ran. “It had a magical sunken courtyard kind of feeling,” she said. “Now it’s just a paved sidewalk and he stuck some signs up there.”

Remes said that in each project, he’s ultimately trying “to create something that has its own pulse.” For him, changing the neighborhood is part of the point. “What’s important to me is try to disrupt the status quo,” he said.

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