From the hottest rooftop in town to a taxpayer-subsidized sale, 900 Hennepin changes direction.
The three-story building at the southwestern corner of Hennepin Avenue and Ninth Street in downtown Minneapolis was once a vibrant place, home to one of the city’s first rooftop entertainment venues and two of its hottest restaurants (the short-lived Backstage at Bravo, then Solera). But the Solera rooftop was eclipsed by many others downtown and in Uptown. Now things are so challenging for the restaurant/multi-level event space that the city is financing the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s purchase of the property from retired advertising executive Lee Lynch.
The nonprofit trust, which operates the city-owned State, Orpheum and Pantages theaters, bought the building in August (it had been empty since 2015), setting the stage for its next act. The trust will move from City Center to its new offices in the building.
Lynch first acquired the fire-ravaged 900 Hennepin in 1993 as a defensive move to keep seedier businesses out of the theater district; “One of the possible buyers was a pornography company,” he recalls. Lynch then acquired the adjacent 906 Hennepin parcel and substantially rebuilt the building on the combined site in 1996. He was a co-founder of the Historic Theater Group, a predecessor of the trust. Lynch had the property under contract to a restaurant group in 2015, but the deal did not go through.
The new $3.3 million project—$2.3 million for acquisition, $1 million for planning and renovation—is almost entirely financed by the City of Minneapolis, providing a $2.8 million loan and a $250,000 grant to the trust. The City Council unanimously approved the deal, although it’s rare for the city to finance such a transaction.
“The city’s public purpose, if you will, is the success of the downtown theater area,” says Charles Curtis, a senior economic development specialist. The city has a history here. For Lynch’s project 20 years ago, it provided $940,000 in loans and has spent $42 million to acquire and renovate the Orpheum, State and Pantages theaters.
Tom Hoch, president and CEO of the trust, says it will launch a $5 million capital campaign to pay off the city and raise additional capital. Hoch envisions creating a potential “immersive experience” in the building for donors, arts education and performance: “We want something that is supportive of our mission.” —Burl Gilyard