Sears Tower Soars Over Minneapolis Skyline

Low Voltage Contractors secures once and future landmark:

The scene is a run down area of Minneapolis; After years of struggle and several failed attempts at development, The Ryan Companies decided to rehabilitate the Sears Tower and its surrounding property.

Opened in 1928, the 11-acre facility, with its 16-story Art Deco tower and attached warehouses, began as one of nine regional operations in the United States for Sears, Roebuck and Co. Not only was it a showplace of period architecture, it boasted being the largest retail facility west of the Mississippi.

For 30 years, it functioned as the foundation of an active retail trade on Lake Street, the major east-west artery on the south side of the city. Public transportation and the lure of great selection brought people from all over the Twin Cities area to the Sears Tower.

Downturn and turnaround
By the 1950s, however, south Minneapolis had suffered economically, with the streetcar line torn up and shoppers—no longer having the convenience of public transportation—heading elsewhere for many of their goods. The building hung on for another couple of decades, but it finally closed in 1994. It wasn’t until late 2003 that the Ryan Companies shouldered the redevelopment project for the property, since listed on the National Register for the Historic Trust, as a new mixed-use business location.

By this time, however, the conditions of abandonment were in full effect. “The condition when we first started the project was rough,” recalled Dave Burrill, property manager for Ryan Companies U.S.A. Inc. In terms of complexity, the $180 million Midtown/Sears project ranked either first or second for Ryan Companies, Burrill estimated.

Named the Midtown Exchange project, the job was actually seven portions: the main building, the parking ramp, condominiums, apartments, headquarters for the Allina Hospital group, the Global Marketplace and the Hennepin County Service Center.

“With this many customers, requirements, systems and structure challenges, the project could have been very difficult,” said Pat Griffith, integrated systems manager for Low Voltage Contractors (LVC) of Minneapolis, lead installer. Griffith added that Ryan Companies and Hunt Electric Corp. excelled at project coordination, which made the magnitude of it manageable.

Security for the Hennepin County Service Center, the smallest tenant in the building, was supplied by their own contractor, although LVC supplied the fire alarm system.

The facility is composed of high-rise residential condominiums and rental units with retail and business occupancies. Each occupant had different requirements for fire alarm detection and control.

“The building was built in 1928,” Griffith said. “It was built substantially, and it’s quite large. This posed challenges in the routing of cabling, maintaining signal strength and the installation of current technology equipment. For instance, all the exterior doors had to be custom-made because the rough openings were smaller than today’s standards.”

Historic designation complication
The tower’s historical designation also added to the parameters of the installation. “Ryan Construction and the architects took care of the historical issues and guided the project through these challenges,” Griffith said. “The effect on our projects related to the aesthetic impact of security devices mounted on the exterior of the building, for example. Together with Ryan we tried to balance the needed functionality of exterior cameras and their impact on the silhouette of the building.”

Once the warehouse where refrigerators were stored for distribution, or the towering marketplace where the appliances were sold to retail customers, the building celebrated its grand reopening in June 2006. The repurposed building houses offices for Allina Health Systems, owner/operator of the huge Abbott Northwestern hospital complex north of the site; 223 apartments, 53 townhomes and 88 condominium units (including several penthouses); and a 150-room Sheraton Hotel. There’s also an 80,000-square-foot retail area called the Global Marketplace, where shoppers can find everything from clothing to food, and a transfer center for the city’s public transportation system, which links travelers to the city’s recently completed light rail system and the airport.

Approximately 30 LVC employees were involved in the project for some nine months. LVC provided access control with integrated digital recording, intercoms and emergency phones, and visitor management, proximity card readers, and optical turnstiles. Stand-alone video and traditional phone entry systems were installed. Each tenant has PC control of his or her own access control and cameras.

“On new construction projects, we are usually a subcontractor to the electrical contractor,” Griffith pointed out. “On renovations or system replacements, we usually contract directly with the building owner or the property manager. We are totally responsible for the installation, testing and commissioning of our systems. Our crews and their training are essential for successful installations. These successes establish and maintain our reputation as a quality and dependable contractor.”

LVC employs members of both Local 292 Minneapolis and Local 310 St. Paul. The Midtown Exchange job was staffed with Minnesota Statewide Limited Energy and high-voltage licensed electricians.

Equipment list
The Midtown project included a Notifier fire alarm network, four ONYX intelligent fire alarm panels, and one smoke control graphic annunciator. The system was based on high-rise codes in accordance with the International Fire Code and International Building Code 2000 edition as amended by the state of Minnesota’s 2003 fire and building codes.

A fire alarm voice evacuation system broadcasts alarm and emergency messages automatically on the floor of the fire and the one above and below. The system includes a microphone for specific floor paging or all-call paging. A firefighters’ telephone system was installed with phone jacks in every stairwell, elevator lobby and machine room. All initiating devices are displayed on a network annunciator at the security office in full English text, so first responders can more accurately pinpoint the fire emergency location.

LVC installed more than 200 Pelco fixed and pan-tilt-zoom cameras, more than 120 card readers and more than 90 Zenitel intercom stations. The pan-tilt-zoom cameras are day-night models that switch from color to black-and-white when ambient light levels are too low for color imaging. The Lenel digital video recorders are networked and feature video analysis of recorded video images.

The security system is centered around the Lenel OnGuard product, which integrates security, access control, badging, visitor management and digital video recording and analysis. The OnGuard product is an open architecture system that readily integrates many other brands of equipment, allowing LVC and the owners the ability to select the products to meet their security needs and budget.

All video viewing, intercom response and alarm monitoring is done through the fiber optic-based computer network installed as part of the contract. When a call is initiated on an intercom station, it appears on a graphic map and is answered through the PC, while video of the area automatically appears on the same screen.

The CCTV system consists of a matrix switcher, cameras, surge protection, digital video recorders and video transmission equipment. Optical turnstiles were also part of the project, as well as intercoms and telephone entry products.

According to Nick Bartemio, project manager for the Veit Co., which handled the extensive demolition, excavation for a new parking facility, and other site preparation projects for the Ryan Companies, there were a variety of challenges presented during the project. The abandoned building was boarded up and had fallen into disrepair. Some feared that the structure, although a landmark, would have to be torn down and were concerned about the loss of a building worthy of a spot on the National Register for the Historic Trust. Veit removed all of the “innards” of the non-operating heating and water systems—the mechanical and HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) equipment, sprinklers, tanks and boilers, piping and conduit. The next step was to create openings for new elevators, stairways and a wonderfully airy 13-story atrium.

Not only was the historic Sears Tower saved, it was brought back to life as a community asset providing office space for a major hospital system, living quarters for many and retail space in keeping with the diversity of the neighborhood.

STEVENS is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who covers various fields including construction, retailing, and marketing. He can be reached at 612.871.3698. HARLER, a frequent contributor to SECURITY + LIFE SAFETY SYSTEMS, is based in Strongsville, Ohio. He can be reached at 440.238.4556 or

Low Voltage Contractors—Lead security and integrated systems installer
The Ryan Companies U.S.—Master developer
Sherman Associates—Tower housing developer
Ryan/Wischermann Partners—Sheraton Hotel developers
Collaborative Design Group—Coordinating architect
Elness Swenson Graham—Hotel architect
The Cunningham Group—Townhome architect
The Neighborhood Development Center—Global Marketplace developer
Close Landscape Architecture—Landscape architect
Shea Architects—Interior designer
The Green Institute—Neighborhood facilitation
Welsh Co.—Leasing and brokerage
Hess Rose—Historic preservation
Veit Co.—Demolition and site preparation

Designed Security Inc.—Optical turnstiles
Ditek—Surge suppression
Lenel—Digital video recorders
Nitek—Video transmission equipment
Notifier and Cooper Wheelock—Fire alarm system and devices
Pelco—Fixed and pan-tilt-zoom cameras and matrix switcher
Select Engineering—Telephone entry systems
Sterling Cable—Cabling
Zenitel—Intercom stations







About the Author

Curt Harler

Freelance Writer
Curt Harler, a frequent contributor to SECURITY + LIFE SAFETY SYSTEMS, is based in Strongsville, Ohio. He also can be reached at 440.238.4556.

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