Blockbusted

By the end of the month, the City Council could order the demolition of the Shubert, Minneapolis's oldest theater.

SOMEHOW, MINNEAPOLIS has always found a use for the Shubert Theater. Built in 1910, the city's oldest theater evolved from a stage-show playhouse to a vaudeville and burlesque venue called the Alvin to a movie house known as the Academy. But the Shubert's most recent role is as one of the biggest headaches for a City Council committee: On Monday, the committee had to choose between ignoring a study by its own Minneapolis Community Development Agency and bucking the development plans--and facing a potential lawsuit--from Brookfield Management Services, the firm currently under contract to develop downtown's Block E.

Not surprisingly, the committee sided with Brookfield, the developer it had previously chosen to resolve the ongoing quandary about what to do with Block E. On Monday it extended Brookfield's right to develop the site until October 1998, added the right to develop the two blocks adjacent to Block E, and signed off on the company's financial plan. Among the elements of that plan are the construction of a three-story, themed restaurant and retail complex with a hotel and subterranean garage; along the way, the Shubert would be razed. As Harold Brandt, president of Brookfield's Midwest group told a Star Tribune reporter last week, keeping the theater is not possible because "it just takes away so much rentable area and interferes with the location of the multi-screen complex, the hotel, and the parking."

But a study done by Maxfield Research Inc. for MCDA, ironically released just three days before the committee made its decision, makes a strong case for renovating the Shubert, located across from the First Avenue nightclub on Seventh Street and First Avenue. It says the intimacy and acoustics of the Shubert make the theater a perfect venue for mid-sized local dance and theater productions and a strong performance space for bands ready to move up to "soft seat" concerts. The study also notes that numerous local dance and theater companies expressed substantial interest in producing shows specifically for the Shubert. The theater's 33-foot stage depth was also found to be perfect for bringing in mid-sized touring dance and theater troupes--production groups that usually pass the Twin Cities by because of lack of a performance space.

Developers concede that the area near Block E needs another theater and Brookfield's response is to plan for the restoration of the Mann Theater just down the street. But the MCDA study offered numerous reasons why the Shubert space was superior. The City Council's apparent willingness to let Brookfield raze the theater doesn't make sense, according to Charles Leer, president of Public Space Inc., an organization interested in redeveloping, programming, and managing the Shubert.

"Why is this project given so little public scrutiny? Theater is the strongest infrastructure we have downtown right now, why destroy our best bet?" Leer asks. "If this were a sports stadium and the developer wanted the kind of public subsidy we heard about for this project--more than $20 million--Minneapolis could not go forward without a referendum." Leer believes that "what Brookfield is doing is getting the city a little bit pregnant" by setting up a time line with particular benchmarks the company must reach. As those goals are met and the process moves further along, it becomes increasingly dangerous for the city to pull out. Leer refers to the fiasco that occurred more than a decade ago when Minneapolis pulled out of its deal with LSGI, a French developer who wanted to build a domed retail center at the south end of Nicollet Mall. The company sued the city for breach of contract and won $34 million, later reduced to $17 million. The case dragged on as recently as last month, when property owners from the area received a settlement from the city for just more than $500,000.

Although the Shubert is listed on both the National Register of Historic Places and the local register of historic buildings, a full investigation into a development near historic buildings is only possible when the construction involves federal funding. Another option is compiling an Environmental Assessment Worksheet, a process where community comment is invited. But according to Dennis Gimmestad, a compliance officer for the state Historic Preservation Office, the time to generate momentum for an Environmental Assessment Worksheet has probably passed: "It needs to be looked at before you get too heavy into things," he says. And things are heavy enough already: On December 30, the full City Council is expected to approve last Monday's Council committee decision regarding Brookfield's plans for Block E. If and when that happens, the Shubert is doomed.

 
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