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

By contrast, the three-block proposal--dubbed "Hennepin Crescent" in Loon State's original pitch--should not be compared to the Mall of America in any way, Cuningham says. Eschewing retail stores, he envisions an entertainment behemoth featuring one or two hotels, a 120,000-square-foot cinema megaplex, a Sony Virtual Reality theater, an IMAX 3D Motion Based Theater, and a live community theater, as well as dozens of theme restaurants, nightclubs, and the like. "I want to have 90 reasons for you to get out of your chair," he says. (As for the obvious question--why this should work any better than the failed riverfront complex Mississippi Live--Cuningham says his proposal has broader appeal, offering everything from dance venues to "family entertainment.")

Unlike the one-block project, the Crescent would feature about half a block of enclosed "community space" as well as some smaller pocket parks outdoors. The original proposal also envisioned restoring the Shubert Theater, downtown's oldest remaining playhouse. But the clock is running out on that idea, Cuningham says: The theater "is deteriorating as we sit here. By the time decisions are made which are beyond our control, it will be too far gone to save."

City Council members were clearly enamored with Cuningham's proposal, but expressed doubts about its financing. A drawn-out argument concluded last October with the city opting to give Brookfield exclusive development rights to build a one-block entertainment complex and office tower. The Council also granted Brookfield rights to part of Block F (the one that contains First Avenue) for a hotel.

But that wasn't the end of it. Last month the Council revoked Brookfield's rights to Block F and asked the company to join with Anaheim, California-based developer DDRM Entertainment to work out a three-block plan. Never mind that the city tried to arrange a similar two-developer marriage before, and failed; never mind that DDRM had originally been brought to the dance by Cuningham. The Council, insiders say, is set on Brookfield's money, but it wants Loon State's glitz. The deadline for a new proposal is December.

DDRM and Cuningham are just two of the many developers who have found entertainment real estate a lucrative business. In the post-Mall of America retail climate, experts say, malls designed mainly for shopping may be a thing of the past. The department stores developers used to count on as anchors are expanding slowly, if at all. And mall-marketing experts have found that the average amount of time people spend in shopping malls is just 45 minutes, down from three hours in 1980; reversing that trend is one of the industry's chief preoccupations.

One popular approach, says Cuningham, is to make malls more city-like. Where once you crisscrossed downtown to shop, bank, and see a show, the new malls offer all those things in one convenient package. And just like some cities, they've become tourist attractions: The Mall of America averages 42.5 million visitors per year, more than Disneyworld.

Other venues are emulating the megamall's "entertainment-based retail" concept. Southdale, the first mall in the nation, was recently sold; the new owners are formulating a "Southdale of the 21st century" game plan that could include a multiplex cinema and "family game center," according to marketing director Lisa Glenna.

Downtowns so far haven't seen much of this trend, perhaps because they had plenty of entertainment to begin with. Instead, urban malls have been convenience-shopping centers, serving people passing through on their lunch break or on the way home. "We seek to enhance the shopping experience, not elongate it," says Stacey Cunningham, a senior marketing manager for Brookfield.

But Block E, she adds, would be a different story, drawing a clientele far beyond downtown, or even the metro area. "We're not talking about attracting people from St. Cloud," Cunningham says. "We're talking about attracting people from Fargo, Des Moines, or Madison, or Winnipeg."

In other words, notes Judith Martin, whatever arises on Block E won't be designed for the people of Minneapolis. Ask residents what they'd like to see on the block, she notes, and they'll probably say "a park." The entertainment complex will be a playground for conventioneers and tourists, a landmark linking other themed segments (the theater district, the Warehouse District, Target Center, Nicollet Mall) and making the city easy to navigate for outsiders.

But if the development is designed for visitors, it's city taxpayers who will probably help build it. Brookfield's Jeff Essen says the company is negotiating with the city about financing for the project; preliminary figures for the city's contribution hover around $20 million. In addition, a plan Brookfield submitted to the Minneapolis Community Development Agency calls for the MCDA to buy the land and sell it to Brookfield at a discount price. The development's total cost has been put at $98.2 million for the one-block proposal and some $263 million for the three-block version as proposed by Loon State (by way of comparison, that's close to the proposed price of a new baseball stadium, sans retractable roof).

For now, Minneapolis politicians hold out hope for the bigger project. "I don't necessarily think the [one-block] plan is right for downtown," says City Council member Lisa McDonald. "It's just boring. It's like what you can get in the suburbs, so why would you go downtown?"

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