Goodbye Golden Boy

Baby Boomers and Block E. Preservation and parks. Urban history and virtual reality. Outgoing city planning director Paul Farmer on the politics and passions that got him fired.

CP:When you came to Minneapolis, it was clear why the city wanted you working here. Projects you steered in Pittsburgh--light-rail transit, the riverfront, downtown improvement--have had city councils across the country drooling. For your part, you've been quoted as saying Minneapolis had always been on your short list of places to live. Why?

FARMER: One reason is simply the long period of success of public-private partnership in downtown Minneapolis. This is a downtown that didn't just boom in the 1980s when a lot of downtowns were. It boomed in preceding decades, and for a city of our size it's going through an unparalleled boom right now. I believe that has something to do with planning. From a practical level, downtown is now over 40 percent of our tax base. People like to says jobs have been growing in the suburbs, which is true, but the single area of greatest growth has been and continues to be downtown Minneapolis.

Between 1980 and 1997, Minneapolis added nearly 40,000 employees and 12 million square feet of office space to downtown. With the Piper Jaffray building, the Target office tower, and American Express in the works, are we in danger of overbuilding downtown?

I don't think so. All these buildings are utilizing a prime tenant as a mechanism to decide their square footage. I don't think we're anywhere close to the overbuilding that places like Houston and Denver saw when they had a booming economy based only on oil. When oil prices fell, those cities were left with enormous amounts of extra square footage. It took years to get beyond that. Minneapolis has a diversified economy and we have some businesses, like Target, that actually need room to grow.

That brings us to Block E, an area expected to generate interest in city residents and visitors alike. Countless rounds of proposals inform the saga of this block, with your department authoring the specifications for the most recent one. How does Block E fit into Minneapolis?

The city already has a regional entertainment destination called the Warehouse District, and that has been reinforced by decisions such as the one to put Target Center in that location. Just go down there at night and you'll see the kind of draw it has. There are two equally valid approaches that we can take to Block E: We could continue to add by doing Block E alone, or embark on a grand gesture by also doing blocks D and F, which are largely parking lots. We're working on both of those scenarios. What we're trying to do is, first, respect the historic nature of the Warehouse District. It can't be re-created in a Mall of America or a suburban location. Block E is critically important because of the way it ties so much together--Target Center into the Nicollet Mall area through Block E and the City Center. It ties the theater district along Hennepin into the heart of the Warehouse District, which is more north of the Target Center and along First Avenue. Then, you don't try to re-create the look of the warehouse in a building on Block E that looks old. You simply respect your neighbors in terms of scale and massing, and develop something that's of its time. You don't try to create retail there. You try to do something we don't have now, like a downtown multiplex cinema. And developers are proposing a whole series of other kinds of entertainment experiences--virtual reality and the like. Keep in mind that people's entertainment tastes change over time, and the building on Block E is almost guaranteed to outlive the actual uses that are there when it is built.

What about those who have suggested a park for Block E?

A park is a viable option, but because of the history of acquisition of the block, it's become financially difficult. When you look at something like Central Park in New York, there were those who said, "Oh, we can't take that valuable land and do nothing but a park!" But no one can imagine Manhattan today without it. Look around the country: There are downtown city squares where the economic value that occurs on the perimeter of the park certainly justifies the park itself. But I think that rather than a nonbuilding, which is basically what the park is, a building allows the connections to be maintained more easily four seasons of the year, given Minnesota's climate.

Nicollet Mall, to many residents, has always been a place to go shopping. Now with several office towers going up, is the historic nature of the mall changing?

To some extent. It's actually called for in the city's plan--office development on the west side of the mall, instead of the entire downtown being east. In the area of south Nicollet, there was uncertainty brought on by a 1989 lawsuit against the city. Tenants were on month-to-month leases, so they weren't willing to make major improvements, and property owners weren't willing to sign long-term leases. There was kind of a false economy created for the last half-dozen years that may be ending with new construction there. What we've been trying to do is put back retailing on the mall. The Piper Jaffray tower will have some retailing flanking the lobby. In the Target project, the entire frontage along the 900 block will be retailing. There's a conscious attempt to really put back much of the liveliness that retail shopping and restaurant experiences bring to our street life.

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