Mall or Nothing

Why is Minneapolis rushing to put Block E on the entertainment-retail bandwagon? And what would it lose if it doesn't? We asked Margaret Crawford, a professor of urban studies at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles, how the proposed development fits in with national trends. Crawford has written extensively about malls and company towns (she'll be a speaker at an upcoming Weisman Art Museum conference on the Mall of America). Her conclusions on what to do with Block E were radical, philosophical, and in stunning contrast with the local consensus.

City Pages: Having reviewed some of the history and politics of Block E, what do you find most interesting about this saga?

Crawford:It seems like the City Council is concerned about getting something that's going to do well instantaneously, and it's supposed to be a major regional magnet. And they can do it--if they get a sexy development, like one that DDRM can [help to] deliver. A very jazzy, entertainment-focused design will bring people downtown.

CP:But for how long?

Crawford: That's the question. What we've seen in Los Angeles is that these incredible points of attraction developed very rapidly, particularly among young people. They tend to completely take over a place, and after a while they lose interest. So these kinds of developments have a limited life span. What the city really needs is to develop longer-term strategy for a strong urban center.

CP: The plan from Loon State Ventures went further than just the standard retail-office-multiplex combination. They were proposing more public space, along with housing and a big performance space...

Crawford: But even with all these positive public elements, it's still under the direction of a single developer. Almost all cities have a tendency to go for these mega-projects. And it changes the very nature of the city: Instead of being fine-grained and having surprises, it turns out to be a big chunk with virtually no surprises. If you look at upper Michigan Avenue in Chicago, it's basically a series of malls. And it's really changed the nature of the street.

CP: That's exactly what happened to Nicollet Mall, much of which has been given over to malls and big chain stores. Now Target's coming...

Crawford: I've only been to Minneapolis once, but the downtown was like the history of shopping-mall development. There's one of every generation there.

CP: Can you elaborate on that?

Crawford: Well, in the '50s, suburban malls were kind of boring and utilitarian. They just provided shopping with open-air promenades--another kind of "mall"--in between the shops. Southdale is really important because it introduced the concept of retail excitement by enclosing the mall. Then you kind of break all ties with reality.

CP: You can stay in there all day.

Crawford: You can also start to really create excitement inside. Diagonal escalators and all these other things created a very stimulating environment, so that finally there was something almost as exciting as the city, but it was in the suburbs. By the time suburban malls had drawn away all the customers as the center city was declining--a lot of other factors are involved here--the enclosed mall was reintroduced into the city. They were meant to produce an image of the city that was better than the actual city.

CP: That's when Minneapolis got City Center, the early '80s. And then came the historical developments--in Minneapolis we have Riverplace and St. Anthony Main across the Mississippi from downtown.

Crawford: Yes, the festival marketplace, which you find in every city. They usually depend on an existing historical building. There's limited shopping for totally unnecessary items. This was supposedly more authentic for those people who don't like malls. You get a little bit of history, so it's seen as being slightly educational. Festival malls were also linked to the quality of urban uniqueness, a sense of place. That's what struck me in reading about this Block E project: It's seen as being unique, too, but actually it's the same as what every other city has.

CP: And I think the developers know about that contradiction. They talk about the uniqueness on the one hand, while saying how other cities are doing these things and that's why Minneapolis has to do [the same things].

Crawford: This is the basic contradiction in mall development. Malls are supposed to be unique, but they can't be because they have to follow successful development formulas. There's always this desire to be enticing and new, but it's undermined by the necessity to be like every other mall of the same kind.

CP: To yield a certain dollar per square foot. Or on a personal level, to create something new and exciting that's also familiar and safe.

Crawford: And now people get bored very easily, so you have to provide more and more to attract people. That's what hyper-reality is about, when simulation is far more exciting than reality.

CP: A Brookfield Development representative referred to a multiplex with digital sound and stadium seating as being "state of the art and one of a kind. It will draw 2.5 million people a year."

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