Downtown Renaissance, Again

Can condos and entertainment venues make a neighborhood out of the city's core?

A few weeks back, I took in an abridged viewing of the Purple Rain DVD. The technology afforded me the luxury of jumping from scene to scene--a good thing, since, having memorized most of the movie 20 years ago, all I really wanted was to see all the familiar buildings and landmarks around Minneapolis. I tried to get the exterior shots to jibe with the city I had grown familiar with two decades on. Which rail yard does The Kid haunt on his purple motorcycle? Is that house that served as the dysfunctional family home still standing? And so on.

The most striking scene is in front of First Avenue. It's the morning after Prince and his muse-bimbo Apollonia have first consummated their love, and they sit making out on his bike in front of the nightclub. The wide shot when Prince pulls away is a revelation: First Ave was the only building I recognized on that corner, the only structure in the scene that's still standing 20 years later.

Minneapolis has a long history of wiping out the traces of where it's been--the city has a remarkable track record of tearing down the old. With the exception of the Foshay Tower, nearly all the significant landmarks downtown were built after 1970. There's a kind of cultural amnesia built into the proposition: Most of us scarcely remember all the changes our old hometown has gone through in our own lifetimes.

Currently there is yet another transformation happening downtown. A spate of new bars and restaurants are thriving, and not just on Friday and Saturday nights. At the same time, office vacancies are at a near-historic high, signaling continued decline in the area's standing as a corporate business district. Meanwhile, a residential construction and remodeling boom promises to transfigure the look of the place still further.

Minneapolis isn't the only place this is happening. Similar ideas have lately taken hold in places like Detroit, Houston, Dallas, and Salt Lake City. Portland, Oregon, due in large part to zoning that limits highway sprawl and high-rise offices, has added some 2,000 condominiums downtown in the last six years. Denver has seen growth in jobs and its housing market by cleaning up industrial areas and refurbishing what's called the "LoDo" district. Even Los Angeles, the archetype of car culture and sprawl, is home to a downtown residential boom.

"Cities are organic, and urban renewal was one of the worst concepts," offers John Cunningham, a prominent architect and developer downtown, decrying the raze-and-rebuild philosophies of the past. "It's easy to build a building, but it takes years to build a community."

But Cunningham counts himself among many who are encouraged by what's happening in Minneapolis, and contends that the changes have been years in taking shape. He and others believe that downtown, despite years of missteps, may yet turn into a community.

 

Downtown has had its share of extreme makeovers. The city's once-famous Gateway district was demolished after post-depression fallout turned it into a notorious skid row--in 1957, nearly a third of downtown real estate was slated for redevelopment. From then on, "urban renewal" became the watchword for the city's core, and countless rundown buildings, hotels, and apartments were swept away in favor of high-rises and workplaces. A business boom in the 1980s led to the city's most prodigious spell of office space construction, and it helped make downtown a place where Twin Citians flocked to work, then fled at the end of the day.

By the 1990s, downtown fell into the throes of an identity crisis: no longer much of a neighborhood, and not quite the business center it was expected to be. The city lurched toward making it an entertainment destination--bars and restaurants and high-end retail made splashy entrances, often subsidized on the taxpayer dime. City Center and Gaviidae are two retail developments that many still consider ongoing failures.

Fast-forward 10 years. Most urban planners and developers now agree that a residential boom is crucial to a vital downtown. And while many of the new core urbanites are young professionals, a more significant number--one estimate puts it at more than 60 percent--are empty-nesters over the age of 50. As baby boomers get older, they're moving downtown in significant numbers. Many believe that this trend alone will float the residential market in the short term. Or possibly even longer.

"It will be sustainable for the next 20 years," says Judith Martin, urban planning director at the University of Minnesota who also heads Minneapolis's planning commission. "To some extent, that's how [revitalization] works."

Cunningham is also sanguine. "We're just starting to understand the benefit of the '40s and '50s, when a person lived on every block downtown," he notes.

But it's worth pointing out that most urban newcomers aren't dispersing themselves round downtown, but instead flocking to a revitalized riverfront. (It's estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 people now live downtown.) And those condos don't come cheap; many start around $300,000 and proceed up into the millions. There's little on the horizon in the way of affordable housing, however, an ongoing problem in most cities that hit a crisis point in Minneapolis five years ago. The problem has abated somewhat, but few believe the current downtown boom will contribute much to a remedy.

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