All the Right Elements

A commercial real estate pro ditches the blue blazer to blaze trails

By Brian Martucci

An undersized “Edina Realty” marquee adorns the otherwise nondescript Pacific Flats building, a three-story red-brick slab in Minneapolis’s trendy North Loop district. From Washington Avenue, Pacific Flats is just another 19th-century warehouse — one of dozens within walking distance. Sure, it’s one of the North Loop’s oldest standing buildings, but that’s not particularly compelling to the average commuter.

Inside, it’s another story. The ground floor is home to Filson and Shinola, arguably the two hottest retailers in the area. (Sorry, MartinPatrick3.) Following a wall-to-wall renovation, floor three boasts 10,000 square feet of “light and airy” creative office space with “stunning downtown views,” according to the building brochure.

Pacific Flats tenants owe their industrial-chic surroundings to Element Commercial Real Estate, a boutique commercial real estate advisory firm based just across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis’s St. Anthony Main neighborhood.  

“We create spaces where people can connect in vibrant, walkable neighborhoods,” says Element co-founder JoAnna Hicks —one of the few woman principals in a notoriously male-dominated field. Beyond the North Loop, Hicks and Element co-founder Kevin Kuppe work in urban neighborhoods such as Northeast Minneapolis and St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill, and built-up pockets of older suburbs, such as Hopkins and Edina.

Where others won’t bother
Tales of the North Loop’s resurgence typically focus on new construction: single-tenant office buildings like Be the Match’s stunning new headquarters, innovative office-retail developments like T3, and the upscale apartment blocks sprouting like weeds between Hennepin and Plymouth Avenues. 

But it’s buildings like Pacific Flats that supply the district’s distinctive character. Next door, Element recently turned over the Northwestern Building. They’re presently at work on the nearby Lowry-Morrison Building, the North Loop’s third-oldest.  It has 10,000 square feet of space on the second floor and downtown views from the third. When complete, it, like Pacific Flats, will also include retail.

Unlike bigger developers, Hicks and Kuppe present themselves as partners to curious property owners willing to poke at convention and expand the universe of possibilities in any given site. 

“We work with property owners open to exploring ‘what if’ questions,” says Hicks. Those owners tend to be smaller, family-led enterprises, like Element’s North Loop clients. The agency does consult with larger firms chasing new perspectives, says Hicks; she declines to name names. 

Kuppe and Hicks work as active leasing agents for landlords and tenants pursuing longer-term lease arrangements, typically five to 10 years. They’re willing to take the time to bridge the landlord-tenant gap and “get everyone to yes,” says Hicks. And they’re not intimidated by unexpected design hurdles, like concealed wall bolts from some long-forgotten use. 

No matter the client or project, Element hews to a simple mantra: Avoid boring, uninspiring results.  

“The answer isn’t always ‘retail on the ground floor and housing on top,’” says Hicks. “That’s not how you create a dynamic neighborhood.”

Ditching the blue blazer
Hicks and Kuppe work well together; both bring clear strengths to Element. Kuppe has a detail-oriented “engineering mindset,” says Hicks, and fantastic project management acumen. Hicks, a naturally outgoing big-picture person, masterfully handles business development and other client-facing work. They’re bound by devotion to collaboration — between themselves, and among the landlords and tenants they represent. 
“Solo practice never spoke to me,” says Hicks. 

Hicks and Kuppe founded Element in December 2015. By then, they’d collaborated for five solid years at Ackerberg, where Hicks ran a four-person team responsible for some $200 million in completed projects, including MoZaic West, a 240,000-square-foot Class A office building in the heart of Minneapolis’s Uptown neighborhood.

For Hicks, the MoZaic West triumph capped a successful decade in corporate real estate. Before Ackerberg, she held positions of escalating responsibility at United Properties and Ryan Companies, where she ran point on Two MarketPointe, a major Bloomington office development. 
It wasn’t always comfortable. If solo practice never spoke to Hicks, neither did the conformity of big-time development offices.

“I didn’t play golf, and I didn’t own many blue blazers,” she recalls. “There was no blueprint for me to follow.” In other words: Hicks was not one of the guys. And she followed a pretty lonely path. The relatively few women commercial real estate veterans she encountered over the years expressed disappointment, she says, with the industry’s static gender ratio.

“The commercial real estate industry has struggled to diversify,” says Hicks.

She admits that she probably wouldn’t be where she is today were she not raised to “believe I could do anything.” She encourages aspiring women developers to find the same belief, to focus on honing skills and building networks, and to have faith that “talent always wins out.”
And if it doesn’t, at least not in corporate commercial real estate? Then do as Hicks did and strike out on your own.

“Entrepreneurship has given me the opportunity to distill what I’m passionate about and the space to spend time on what’s important
to me,” she says.

Sounds much better than golf and blue blazers.