Bill of Goods

Ten years ago Minneapolis officials turned the heart of downtown into a parking lot. Now they've got an even better idea

Upon first hearing it sounds like a grand plan. A city-block-sized three-level entertainment/retail complex crammed with theme restaurants, virtual-reality game centers, leisure stores, and a state-of-the-art cinema multiplex; a 250-room all-suite hotel tower soaring above, and a 600-space parking garage below; and all that on one of Minneapolis's hottest and most hotly debated pieces of real estate.

If you believe city officials and their favored developers, this vision will make the black hole between Hennepin and First avenues and Sixth and Seventh streets an urban wonderland, drawing visitors from Apple Valley to Sioux City. Millions in public dollars are expected to be spent on the project, and there's talk of expanding it to swallow two more blocks.

What no one seems to be talking about is whether this makeover will work--or whether, as some experts believe, Minneapolis is about to jump on yet another bandwagon just as it's getting ready to crash. "It seems to me that you're going for the quick fix," says Margaret Crawford, an expert on urban shopping centers who reviewed the project at CP's request (see accompanying interview). "It's very glamorous and appealing. But I think if you want to build a downtown that will work over a period of time for a lot of different groups of people, this is not the way to go... The likelihood of this being another dead mall in 10 to 15 years is very high."

That's not what city officials want to hear right now. From the beginning of the debate over Block E in 1988, City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes says, the plan has been to build some kind of entertainment complex on the site. The question has always been how to pay for it, and how big it should be. After 10 years of failed plans, the Council has given exclusive rights to the block to one of downtown's biggest retail developers, Brookfield Management Services, LLC. If everything goes according to plan--and if the city agrees to kick in upwards of $20 million--ground on Block E could be broken next summer.

Once a collection of adult-entertainment shops and downtown fixtures such as Shinder's Books, Sun's rock & roll memorabilia, and Moby Dick's, Block E began to make headlines in 1987. That year, city officials calculated that it was the site of 25 percent of all crime in downtown Minneapolis. The area was a come-as-you-are red-light district, what Judith Martin, director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Minnesota, calls a "profound civic embarrassment" to city officials.

The City Council decided to get rid of the problem in classic form--by razing the block. But relocating businesses and demolishing buildings took money, more than $9 million in all. And that, Martin says, decided the block's future: Whatever took the place of the old Block E would have to recoup the city's investment.

The first developer to come forward with a plan for the block was Calhoun Square creator Ray Harris. His plan, dubbed the Pageant on Hennepin, was well ahead of its time, calling for a hotel, megaplex, restaurants, nightclubs, and "fun-type" shops years before the term "entertainment-based retail" entered the developer's lexicon. But Harris missed his first financing deadline for a two-block project. A subsequent one-block plan also failed to pass muster, and in 1989, the city blacktopped the space to make a parking lot. Then came the recession of the early '90s, the slump in downtown property values, and competition from the Mall of America. It wasn't until 1995 that the city once again asked for developer proposals.

This time it got three distinct ideas. FORECAST Public Artworks, a nonprofit group, wanted to create a park-like public space that could host exhibits, outdoor walk-in movies, a skating rink in winter, street performers, and more. TOLD Development pitched a one-block "urban entertainment complex" much like the current Brookfield plan. And Loon State Ventures, a company created by Minneapolis architect John Cuningham and Valleyfair developer David Sherman, proposed a three-and-a-half-block "urban entertainment complex." Both the TOLD and the Loon State plans introduced virtual-reality amusement parks, motion-based simulator rides, and entertainment boutiques that have proved popular draws for other urban venues such as Boston's Faneuil Hall.

But if the two plans--variations of which remain the basis of debate over Block E--had certain similarities, they differed dramatically in scope. The one-block proposal amounts to a smaller version of the Mall of America, featuring a cinema multiplex, hotel, theme restaurants à la Rainforest Cafe, and virtual-reality venues on the order of the megamall's NASCAR Silicon Motor Speedway. The Brookfield version also could include Barnes & Noble-style bookstores and sporting-goods retailers like Oshman's Supersports USA with indoor basketball courts and tracks.

Like the megamall, this development would have a fortress look, its square lines broken only by a three-story glass rotunda opening onto the corner of Hennepin Avenue and Seventh Street. A skyway would cross Hennepin to connect the complex to City Center, which happens to be also owned by Brookfield. Jeff Essen, the company's vice president of development, says Brookfield would like to satisfy a city request to get people out of the skyways by creating storefronts accessible from the street.

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