Sold Down The River

Minneapolis's brave new riverfront will have parks, museums, and upscale condos. Who said subsidized housing was just for the poor?

Across the river the story isn't that much different. St. Anthony Main and Riverplace were built in the late '70s as "festival marketplaces," a trendy concept that involved upscale shopping behind historic facades. Today, after decades of financial problems, the projects have found a shaky footing with inexpensive offices surrounded by high-rise condos and townhouses. The clerks at any remaining retail stores blink suspiciously when a stranger approaches.

Like the Mill Quarter, St. Anthony Main didn't live up to the developers' promises. Shopping malls everywhere started hemorrhaging money in the late '80s, and the value of the buildings plummeted accordingly. According to MCDA records, Riverplace's construction cost a total of $182 million, almost half of it from public sources. The returns haven't exactly been gangbusters. The commercial buildings at Riverplace are currently assessed at $5 million--down $2 million in the past ten years. St. Anthony Main swallowed another $9 million each of city money and investment bonds. In 1991, a local investor picked up a sizable chunk of it for a dollar.

THE SHOPPING BOOM in the '70s. The office boom in the '80s. Next up: The housing boom, specifically upscale condos, loft-style apartments, and townhomes designed for downsizing boomers and downtown office professionals. In the past two years, almost as many housing units have been added on the riverfront as in the two decades before. But there's one difference. Most of the housing built during the '80s was midpriced apartments and condos like the high-rise RiverWest Apartments and Riverplace. The new trend is in "human-scale" structures, and the new market is wealth.

Rehabbed warehouses are especially popular; so are townhomes with quasi-historic styling. Rottlund Homes' Landings development on the east side of the Hennepin Avenue bridge has brought howls from preservationists, but buyers are happy to shell out $300,000 a pop. At Brighton's Northstar project, which will contain about 80 units, buyers are lining up before the cornerstones are even in place. "We have a list of over 100," Lucas says, "and some of them are very into it."

What Lucas, Brighton, and the city are selling those buyers is more than a condo: It's the latest trend in urban design, a promise of "community" along with pretty buildings. Features include "pedestrian-friendly" landscapes, parks, and, importantly, neighborhoods of mixed income and race. These, designers, architects, consultants, and planners have deemed, are the essential elements of the city. (They are also what cities and developers have joined hands to destroy in the last 30 years.)

But look closer, and the new boom doesn't look so different from the last. On Block E, the city's single biggest development project short of the riverfront, a multimillion-dollar mega-entertainment complex got the nod while a low-key proposal for a park was turned down. On the south end of Nicollet Mall enormous office towers are displacing successful small businesses in old buildings. Neighborhoods of mixed income and race? Citywide, the numbers are only getting worse.

But the riverfront, officials promise, will be different. Last year, the city opted to spend $100,000 to have a Pittsburgh firm called Urban Design Associates draw up a master plan for the riverfront. UDA's claim to fame--aside from Crawford Square, a new downtown Pittsburgh neighborhood built on the site of '50s slum clearance--is having been among the dozen "boutique architects" working on the Disney town Celebration.

Celebration is a sort of theme park of nostalgia. Its design mimics an idealized version of prewar small-town America--old-fashioned houses with small yards, picket fences, and screen porches. Wholesome, neighborly values are strictly enforced by the Imagineers: Celebration doesn't have a mayor or a City Council, but residents must sign on to copious Disney guidelines. (They can choose any of five shrubs to plant in their yards. They may not park pick-up trucks on the street.)

Ironically enough, it was UDA's "open planning process" that landed it the job of designing Minneapolis's riverfront. The firm has conducted a dozen public meetings with developers, planners, and neighborhood groups, explains Dick Victor, a riverfront project coordinator at the MCDA. "We're trying to keep it very public," he says. "We're trying to give everybody a piece of this up front."

And on the back end? Like Celebration, the riverfront that emerges from the UDA plan is likely to be a self-consciously quaint version of itself. If the forthcoming master plan follows the drafts, industrial plants and the jobs they brought will become "family entertainment venues" such as mill museums. In place of the thousands of working men who once lived downtown will be white-collar professionals sick of their big suburban houses.

It's this latter group that is driving the downtown market. "You have a whole generation of people who are staying healthier longer," explains Bill Morrish, head of the University of Minnesota's Urban Design Center. "People are downsizing out of the house as their children move out." But even boomers have to (gasp) die eventually. Who will buy up the mega-buck condos when they light out for assisted-living complexes in Florida? Who assumes the debt of mid-life borrowers? For that matter, who establishes families in the 4,000-square-foot homes they vacated on the edge of the city?

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