Collaboration at the Heart of Real Estate and Community Development

In 2013, Springboard for the Arts launched the Artist Organizers (AOs) pilot program as part of Irrigate’s artist-led community development. Supported by the Surdna Foundation, the pilot planted artists in community-invested organizations to contribute their creative skills to make change and strengthen vibrant places.This is a series of case studies of those AO partnerships. Get the Irrigate toolkit here.

Molly Van Avery, Artist Organizer with the Cornerstone Group, calls the real estate development company “a for-profit organization with the heart of a nonprofit.”

And Cornerstone, founded in 1993 by Colleen Carey and based in Richfield, Minnesota, just south of Minneapolis, makes no bones about the fact that it nurtures a set of beyond-the-bottom-line values, which include a commitment to affordable housing, sustainability, and the role of the arts in placemaking.

Cornerstone has not only put together major developments like the Great Northern Lofts, the conversion of a huge railway office building in downtown Saint Paul, and The Mist, a lakeside condo-and-retail community in suburban Minnetonka, Minnesota, but it’s also sparked smaller experiments on the cutting edge of eco-friendly urbanism, such as Cornerstone Rooftop Farms in Richfield.

So when the company tackled a big project in Richfield – the creation of an urban village on the expansive site of a former retail garden center – they wanted, in the words of Cornerstone’s director of development, Beth Pfeiffer, “to incorporate art and artists from the very beginning of the project.”

Lyndale Gardens, as the project was dubbed, is an ambitious redevelopment of the former Lyndale Garden Center site into a complex of market rate and affordable housing, retail, and amenities like a community center, a performance stage, and gardens. In 2014 a large retail tenant, Lakewinds Food Co-op, moved in. The rest of the site is still in development.

Van Avery, a widely experienced performance artist, poet, and activist, has a long track record of both artistic experimentation and community involvement. Her performance work has appeared on many Twin Cities stages and at the Walker Art Center, and she directs Naked Stages, a project of the Pillsbury House social service center that gives young performers, mainly men and women of color, a seven-month mentorship to develop new work for the stage.

She’s also on the faculty of HECUA (Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs), a Saint Paul-based organization of 17 affiliated colleges and universities around the world that create off-campus study programs addressing social justice issues. And she’s the creator of the Poetry Mobile Project, a writers’ studio on wheels in which Avery and her neighbors write poems on door hangers, then leave them on front door knobs around the community.

Start Working Together to Get Comfortable

“Cornerstone knew they wanted somebody to create community engagement so people could get to know what the vision was for Lyndale Gardens,” Van Avery says of her role. “They also knew that they wanted the arts moving around the property in small and large ways, so they wanted someone to coordinate those efforts.”

The company had no major experience working with artists before, says Van Avery, “but art and creativity are important values for them, particularly for the women I mainly worked with, Colleen and Beth. So I think they wanted this position to help them figure out what that could mean.”

Van Avery embedded herself on the daily work of Cornerstone for a full two months before she, Carey, and Pfeiffer had any conversations about what the AO position would involve. She attended many meetings along with the Cornerstone leaders, shadowing them as they discussed the big-picture aspect of their projects as well as the more nitty-gritty issues of architecture, engineering, and, Van Avery says, “something else we spend a lot of time on – funding.”

And funding, she adds, soon revealed itself to be one of the biggest challenges, and headaches, in real estate development.

“We’ve had a series of setbacks and challenges in finding funding to get the projects under construction – there are so many components in Cornerstone’s vision, including green space for the whole city of Richfield, a community room that would not just be for the residents, plus housing and retail. It’s an amazing vision, but people don’t want to take the risk of funding it.”

Adapt to the Audience You’re Trying to Reach

With funding for the whole project an issue, Van Avery found that she was spending most of her time as an event planner, organizing events in the former Lyndale Garden Center parking lot in order to animate the site and, as she puts it, “to stay connected to like-minded partners in the community and keep Cornerstone on people’s radar.”

Van Avery worked with Minneapolis-based choreographer and multidisciplinary theater artist Emily Johnson to create a solstice festival that included a “winter market” under a heated tent, plus food trucks, a “snow gun,” and an ice labyrinth. Johnson also led a meditative night walk around Richfield Lake, at whose edge the development is located.

Another event Van Avery put together was a community discussion about the future of Richfield, held in Cornerstone’s offices. And she reunited with Johnson to set up a “parking lot picnic” in which visitors lunched on blankets and Johnson’s dance company and choir previewed a performance they were getting ready to give at Northrop Auditorium, a large dance venue on the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

“That evolved into a beautiful movement-and-sound sequence, and the performers invited the audience to follow them to the shore for a lake cleanup, Van Avery says. “And we followed it with an even where we invited Richfield artists to set up interactive art stations where people could do weaving or make art out of junk, and so on.

‘If we’d held it in Minneapolis, we might have had a thousand people. But Richfield just doesn’t have the arts infrastructure, or the familiarity with arts, that Minneapolis does, and Emily’s work isn’t well known there – so we got about forty people. But I had a wonderful time, I think Emily enjoyed it, and we learned a lot about how much more education we need to do in Richfield around all the different ways that art can show up in a community.”

Instead of advertising it as “Emily Johnson,” she says, they might have done better to title it a “Free, Family-Friendly Art Festival.”

“Colleen and Beth also had a ‘wish list’ of people in the community who are doing exciting things they feel a kinship with, people they may have met once or twice and become very excited about, and it became my job to follow up on that list and get in touch with those people,” Van Avery says.

One such connection was with Kristy Allen of Beez Kneez, a local honey purveyor that’s also committed to sustainability, the promotion of backyard beekeeping, and educating people about the current decline of bee populations and bees’ role in the food system.

Beez Kneez took part in another event that Van Avery catalyzed. Cornerstone had purchased an old industrial site in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park neighborhood, adjacent to one of the stops in the city’s then-new new light-rail system. Faced with the by-now-familiar prospect of having to wait two to five years for funding to come through, Cornerstone’s leaders and Van Avery decided they wanted  to animate this site as well.

So, working with the community development nonprofit LISC, the Prospect Park Neighborhood Association, and other partners, they created a temporary community garden on the site – and Van Avery organized an arts-rich afternoon event to kick it off. Beez Kneez now keep some of their hives, and teach classes, in the new garden.

Find the Connections and Opportunities in Different Sectors

“The coolest thing about this position,” says Van Avery, “is that it’s been about connections: connections between growing food, eating food, art, creativity, and learning.”

That spirit of connection endeared Van Avery to her Cornerstone colleagues. “We were drawn to Molly for her amazing energy and spirit,” says Beth Pfeiffer, “and because her theater and community work showed that she had been a great collaborator in all stages of her career. But we were also grateful to her because she was always, cheerfully, reminding us of our values and helping us keep them foremost.”

In fact, in coming to terms with the “organizer” part of the AO mission, Van Avery found herself departing from the community-organizing paradigm, and redefining “organizing” as “organizing Cornerstone’s dreams about their mission. And I also felt that I was organizing connections between somewhat separated, siloed ideas: learning, access to nature, food, art. I believe I helped Cornerstone see those connections, and I was really gratified that I could be part of that.”

For her part, however, Van Avery found that the networking and project management element of the job so overshadowed the artistic that her artist side felt under-employed. “I loved working with Colleen and Beth, and I very much admire Cornerstone and its amazing vision,” she says. “At the same time, I found that I was mainly planning events and contacting other artists, and I ended up yearning to do more art myself.

“I found myself wishing, for example, that I could have explored what I learned about the real estate business artistically – I would love to write a spreadsheet poem! Or a real estate development play.

‘Nobody told me I couldn’t do those things. But in general, I feel like I would have liked to open up this real-estate world more for others to see, through art. Or follow the Cornerstone people around, and love them through art. Give them art therapy sessions! Because what they do is difficult.”