Donjek Building Update


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Donjek, Inc.
There’s an evolution underway in cities today. Job location, transportation, housing development, are all happening according to patterns that diverge from the recent past. Creating great projects and prosperous places in the future demands a new approach, and use of public and private strategies that align with a new marketplace. In three areas, Donjek helps private and public clients build places that work. Here’s a sample: 

  • Public and Project Finance: Project value still revolves around location, but the nature of location is changing. I’ve assisted investors in structuring and closing loans for real estate, advised developers of affordable multifamily housing, and given counsel regarding historic building reuse in this new context. This week, I’ve introduced a new service that unlocks the value of urban location in new ways.
  • Project Management: Over ten months, I have led development of a public and private funding strategy for RiverFirst, an ambitious initiative to reconnect people to the Mississippi River undertaken by the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and the City of Minneapolis. When implemented, the RiverFirst projects will leverage the value of river-oriented parks as economic engines, transportation assets, and water quality infrastructure as well as places for physical activity and leisure.
  • Policy: For nearly fifteen years, I’ve provided advice to cities and other consultants on how to align finance tools and market dynamics for successful urban places. A current example is work with the Marcy Holmes Neighborhood Association and Cuningham Group, developing an updated master plan for one of the oldest, most dynamic parts of the Minneapolis St. Paul region. I’ve recently created a three-minute video narrative of another redevelopment policy project, that unlocked underutilized land around a light rail station area in Minneapolis:

You’re in the business of creating successful places, and Donjek is in business of making it possible with finance, project management and policy strategies. Contact me to talk about moving your project forward.

Jon Commers

Founder and Principal

One-Minute Donjek Update


Donjek, Inc.
Dear Colleague,

As founder and principal of Donjek, I continue to manage custom teams formed to solve land use, public finance and policy issues for private, public and philanthropic clients. In three areas, Donjek develops valued ways to help clients create prosperous places:

  • Public and Project Finance: I have continued to advise Wellington Management on financing of the City Limits apartments, and Fine Associates on Currie Park Lofts, transit-oriented developments in St. Paul and Minneapolis. This month, I have started work for the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, creating a capital roadmap to finance public and private investments along the Upper Mississippi River.
  • Project Management: Over ten months, I coordinated a redevelopment and tax impact analysis of a prospective linear Gateway Park downtown Minneapolis, for the Trust for Public Land. Based on analytics of property and sales tax data, as well as developer and stakeholder interviews, our team produced a return on investment study that is shaping next steps.
  • Policy: Earlier this summer, I completed the final report on a year-long feasibility study of commercial land trust models. Creating opportunities for experienced entrepreneurs to occupy stable-priced  commercial space is one policy strategy to leverage the rising importance of commercial corridors in U.S. cities. Next, policy work shifts to a citywide public work initiative in the first-ring St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights.

I’ve also been engaged since early 2011 representing St. Paul on the Metropolitan Council, the metro planning organization, the state’s largest provider of affordable housing, and operator of the Minneapolis St. Paul region’s transit and wastewater systems.

You’re in the business of creating successful places, and Donjek is in business of making it possible with finance, policy and project management strategies. Contact me to talk about moving your project forward.

Jon Commers

Founder and Principal

Urban Economies: Going with the Flow

River1j Reading Ed Glaeser's Triumph of the City (which I mentioned in this post on transfer of ideas in cities), I learned that in the year 1816, transporting goods across land in early America cost an equivalent amount to shipping it from Boston to London. The comparative relationship tilted settlement and trade distinctly toward our waterways; construction of the Erie Canal and the Illinois and Michigan Canal completed a loop that connected four corners of the developing country. Between 1850 and 1970, at least five of the ten largest U.S. cities were located on this trade circuit.

Waterways remained critical as arteries to transport commodities and other inputs for trade and commerce; they also provided the doorway through which most entered frontier towns like my place, St. Paul. Over time, comparative pricing and relationships to rivers changed – railroads, then cars and trucks, airplanes, and digital thoroughfares provided radically cheaper modes of overland movement. 

Ports facilitate accumulation of value through transfer of material from one transportation mode to another. In the past, the fact that river ports fronted riverways was only significant in that barge transportation was cost-effective. As freight rail (for long runs) and trucks (for shorter runs) compete with river navigation, many river ports have declined. Minneapolis' Upper Harbor Terminal, for example, has managed falling volumes in recent years, the region's barge traffic dominated by the St. Paul (downriver) harbor.

Today, the relationships of "prices" continue to shift. In particular, the pressure to attract and retain talent is familiar to American mayors and business operators across the country.  In addition to creating recreation amenities, urban riverfronts also create collective open space that draws the eye through the city landscape. When perceived as safe and clean, access to river frontages creates substantial property value and economic potential. In addition to moving things in and out, the role of some riverfronts has expanded to focus on use as open space magnets that  make places more distinct and attractive. 

Our river, the Mississippi, formed and shapes both Minneapolis and St. Paul in important ways. Earlier this year, a team to which I served as regional advisor won the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition, now evolved into the Minneapolis Riverfront Development Initiative. I've been engaged for several months managing a project focused on strengthening the connection of downtown Minneapolis to the Mississippi via the Gateway. Comparable efforts have been underway in St. Paul over the last twenty years, including the Great River Park master plan developed in the last year. This subject, conveniently, presents an opportunity for field work: I'm looking forward to August visits to Roman river towns Maastricht, Ghent, and London.

Open space and riverfronts cannot by themselves replace key economic functions such as port activities. Still, as larger forces transform cities, the prominence and role of rivers continue to be key in distinguishing prosperous regions.

Photo courtesy of pmarkham/Flickr.

Donjek Projects: Victory in the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition!

One of multiple reasons for my extended silence on the Cents of Place blog has been my involvement in the intense exercise of the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition. I posted in early November that my team, led by Kennedy and Violich Architecture (KVA) of Boston and the Tom Leader Studio of Berkeley, had been among four teams selected from over fifty to engage in a second round of competition.

FP12 This morning, the competition's supporters and sponsors (including the Walker Art Center, the University of Minnesota's College of Design, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, and others) gathered on Nicollet Island to announce that our team is the winner of the competition!

The process, inside our team, unfolded like a charette, only on a broader and deeper scale than I’ve seen before. Since early November, this team pulled together volumes to inform a thorough approach to a complicated river corridor. There are many meeting points in the project area that each represent opportunities: Where North meets Northeast, river meets shores, trails meet bridge heads, industrial meets other land uses, central business district meets neighborhoods. Hydrology, bridge design, area culture and history (indigenous, pioneer and more recent), land use economics, institutions, equity of access to parks – these topics and many others received focused, research-driven attention. Led by Tom Leader, and Sheila Kennedy and Frano Violich of KVA, this team produced an innovative approach to tie these issues all together in physical space.

FP13 It's a privelege to be a member of this team. I've also marveled at the compelling mix of collaborators who made this possible, from the sponsors to standout project manager Mary DeLaittre. That we will together have the opportunity to continue working, focused on a particular site to be determined on the Upper River in Minneapolis, promises to be a professional highlight.

See the final proposal here.

Donjek Projects: Part of Finalist Team in Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition


I am very pleased to announce that I will be participating in a final round of competition in the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition as part of a team led by the Tom Leader Studio and Kennedy and Violich Architecture. The competition is facilitated by a collaborative of arts, design and open space organizations, and will culminate in public presentations by the four teams selected as finalists. Other firms on the team are ConsultEcon and Sherwood Engineers.

The collaborative of sponsors is a unique and creative one, including the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Minneapolis Parks Foundation, University of Minnesota College of Design, and the Walker Art Center. The competition's project manager is the inventive Mary deLaittre of Groundwork City Building

I joined the team with enthusiasm and I'm pleased to report that Donjek and its collaborators have been selected as one of four finalist teams, chosen from 55 applicants. According to Bill Morrish, a jury member for the competition and Dean of the School of Constructed Environments at Parsons the New School of Design (and founding director of the University of Minnesota's Metropolitan Design Center), the competition drew interest of teams hailing from fourteen countries across five continents. 

Teams will converge on Minneapolis late this month, and submission and public presentation of ideas will be presented in late January. The role of Donjek is to provide public finance and economic expertise, as well as local, regional and historic context to inform the ambitious goals of the team. Stay tuned for more details about our proposal!