Political Theater

Mary Fallon

You can't argue with the rent: The Guthrie Theater currently pays nothing to the Walker Art Center for the building that houses its 1,300-seat thrust stage. Yet this past July, the Guthrie and artistic director Joe Dowling announced intentions to build new stages and new facilities that could prompt a move from the site the company has occupied for 35 years.

The Guthrie's board will not even formally consider potential locations until January, but the first act of this production has already tossed the city's most venerated theater into the middle of several long-standing planning debates. And though the Guthrie may not have wished to raise the curtain yet on this political theater, the cast already includes some substantial players. The Guthrie's future artistic program has become entwined with competing visions of 21st-century Minneapolis, including: the expansion of a worldwide insurance conglomerate; the plans for a downtown entertainment core; and the efforts to provide adequate sports fields for the city's underserved kids.

And were that not sufficiently complicated, the Guthrie may also play a part in revising one of the city's oldest, and most intractable scripts: the decades-old physical and economic segregation between the poor and minority populations of North Minneapolis and the wealthy, amenity-stuffed southwest side.

Though Guthrie managing director David Hawkanson cautions that all plans are "very preliminary," the theater has nailed down a few specifics. In July the Guthrie sent subscribers an outline of a three-stage plan. The traditional 1,300-seat thrust stage, which juts like a peninsula into the audience, will, according to Dowling, "always remain a part of the Guthrie experience." Dowling also argued for "creat[ing] a second space within the Guthrie complex... a 500-600 seat theater dedicated to the presentation of 20th- (and 21st-) century work." Finally, Dowling forecast "a 150-seat studio theater where work of a more experimental nature can take place, where young actors can cut their creative teeth and where a continuing exploration with form can keep us alert to new ideas." (Dowling says that the studio theater is not a replacement for the irregularly scheduled Guthrie Lab in downtown Minneapolis's Itasca Building, although what future that space might have in the above scheme is difficult to determine.) In addition, the Guthrie hopes to greatly expand catering facilities and shop space.

Beyond that, Guthrie leaders say little, insisting that not much is known this early in their feasibility studies. For example, Hawkanson steadfastly refuses to project how much Dowling's vision will cost, especially before a site has been determined. "I'm not even comfortable putting out a range," he says. "There are so many issues. A parking solution behind the Guthrie could cost $25 to $30 million"--referring to the neighborhood's chronic parking crunch--"while a parking solution downtown might cost nothing because there is existing parking. We've been very careful not to put any numbers out."

But the actors on the Minneapolis political and theatrical scene abhor a vacuum. Figures as high as $100 million have been whispered around town. When Hawkanson hears this, it provokes a fit of definiteness: "I can't imagine it being that size a project," he declares.

One source close to the Guthrie says that a project in the $40 million to $60 million range "sounds reasonable."

How the Guthrie, which currently has an endowment of $42 million, might pay for their proposed new stages remains undisclosed, and the theater has yet to rule out the possibility of public financing. "It's certainly something we're exploring," says Hawkanson. "The viability of that is going to have a lot to do with where the site is."

In any case, early in the project, the Guthrie has already started spinning the prospects of public money: "This isn't like a baseball stadium," says Guthrie publicist Dennis Behl.

Though the Guthrie has expressed its ambition to remain in the Lowry Hill neighborhood, it seems unlikely the Vineland Place building could house another two theaters. And while Hawkanson says that no site "is off the table yet," four possibilities stand out.

The first involves the Walker and the large brown building that now houses the Allianz Insurance Co. (This is the edifice on Hennepin Avenue with the glowering stone buffalo in front.) Last Tuesday Allianz--a German conglomerate that is the fifth-largest insurance holding company in the world--made public what it had told its 500 employees three weeks earlier from the Guthrie stage: that the growing company will be leaving its space within the next several years.

Jim Vos, the company's real estate consultant, describes Allianz, the Walker, and the Guthrie as "three very large animals in a very small cage," noting that over time the Walker has made "more than one offer to purchase the building. It's all been very cooperative, very friendly, but the company has not been inclined to accept because they have never wanted to be anywhere else."  

Now that the opportunity is there, could the Walker take over some Allianz space and perhaps expand its current building to accommodate the Guthrie's two new stages? Walker administrative director David Galligan says his institution "is not moving," but doesn't rule out much else. The Walker could expand into the Allianz space, although Galligan cautions that the Walker has no current plans to raise funds for such a project. The current Walker/Guthrie complex could be expanded to house additional facilities; however, parking remains a critical problem. Residents oppose expanding the Allianz surface lot into a ramp, and it's unclear whether the Allianz structure could be removed and replaced with parking.

"The neighbors say that is not the place to build a five-story parking solution," Hawkanson says.

If the Guthrie bolts from the Vineland Place complex, Dowling says, "the Park Board site and downtown are the only serious options that we have." The site most often mentioned for a new Guthrie complex is an overflow parking lot that sits between the Sculpture Garden and Parade Stadium, land owned by the Minneapolis Park Board. But the Park Board has a strict policy against giving up parkland to anyone. The fact that the Parks Commissioners also seem to have expansionist visions of late, though, gives indications that an interesting deal might be struck.

This year, for the first time in its history, the Park Board has sold bonds--that is, borrowed money, backed by revenues from golf course surcharges, sailboat rentals, and even popcorn and ice cream sold at lakeside concession stands. Laugh if you will, but Parks Superintendent David Fisher says the bonds will raise $18 million, and the current plan is to use the money to build suburban-equivalent sports complexes for city kids at Fort Snelling, Northeast Minneapolis, and in the Bryn Mawr Park just north of I-394 east.

What does this all have to do with the Guthrie? When theater leaders paid a courtesy call on the board recently, gruff parks commissioner Walt Dziedzic cut to the chase. "I told them go back, go to your corporations, foundations, and tell them the kids of Minneapolis need some help. They need to get on a level playing field with kids of the elite. They want our land, they've got to do something for the kids."

Dziedzic, a former minor-league catcher and cop, represented Northeast Minneapolis on the City Council for decades, until this January. Past Park Board deals with cultural pooh-bahs still stick in his populist craw. "The park board spends over $300,000 a year taking care of a Sculpture Garden for the 'Golden West,'" Dziedzic says of the Walker's sculpture park, the surrounding neighborhood, and the wealthy suburbs beyond. "Fisher said it's maybe not that much, but I say bullshit!"

Fisher, meanwhile, says the board has not formally "heard, or even considered" any land-for-cash deal. But he acknowledges there is "a lot of opportunity" for an even bigger deal that would dramatically re-connect North Minneapolis with a chunk of the "Golden West."

If this plan comes to pass, the view from the Walker's front steps could look like this: Moving north toward the Spoonbridge, the new Guthrie complex would be off to your left, where the overflow lot now stands. A new parking ramp would be built somewhere between the expanded theater and Dunwoody Institute, the vocational school that sits across Dunwoody Boulevard from the Sculpture Garden.

Behind Dunwoody, where railroad tracks, I-394 landfill, and the Minneapolis impound lot now squat, would be green space--the extension of the Bryn Mawr fields that the Park Board desires. A new parkway road would snake north from Dunwoody Boulevard, adjacent to the expanded park, over Bassett's Creek (which will soon return to the surface after being buried in a tunnel since the 1920s) all the way to Highway 55, where the Sumner-Field public housing projects once stood. On either side of 55, three new lakes--yes, lakes--are being excavated, and around them will sit 450 units of market rate, low-income, and public housing, constructed as part of a federal settlement to de-concentrate poverty in North Minneapolis. A community center might be built in the parkland in the Sumner-Field space.

Tom Streitz of Minneapolis Legal Aid describes the grand plan as "a chance to penetrate a long-held barrier between black and white residents, poor and rich, north and south." Streitz represents the public housing residents who successfully sued the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) for having concentrated poverty in the area. And although a lawyer for the poor might seem an odd player in the development game, as part of the victory, residents won a place at the table to help guide what would be built on their former homes--a plan that now may stretch all the way from their former housing to the Walker's white walls. Currently, representatives from the Park Board, the Guthrie, the Walker, Legal Aid, Minneapolis NAACP, MPHA, and the City Council are all working on a task force to formulate this vision.  

"The Guthrie is not the engine of this plan," Streitz emphasizes. "They are more like the caboose."

To be sure, much of what is being planned--the lakes, the housing, perhaps the parkway--will likely be built whether the Guthrie jumps in or not. Chuck Lutz, MPHA director of special projects, has identified $54 million already for the project from tax-increment financing, MPHA funds, Hennepin County, the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, and even the Metropolitan Airports Commission (which may pay because the north-side lakes could fulfill obligations to replace wetlands lost to airport expansion). But even if this all comes to pass, Lutz adds, the plan is still $7 million short and doesn't include financing needed to move the impound lot.

"They would be hitching their wagons to our star, and from my perspective, they can only add value," notes Streitz. "They would bring in a different set of foundations that would be philanthropically interested in the bigger project."

The Guthrie's Hawkanson is now calculating his organization's place in these equations as the theater begins raising what might be tens of millions of dollars. "There's no question a group of potential funders are anxious to see how our plans match up with the future progress of the city," Hawkanson says. We're very aware of that. We can't do this in and of ourselves."

If the Guthrie is the caboose in the conception of the Sumner-Fields scheme, it's more of an engine in the shaping of the new downtown. There's no doubt that City Council president Jackie Cherryhomes--arguably Minneapolis's most powerful politician--wants the Guthrie downtown as part of the ever-expanding--and ever-more-subsidized--theater district, which includes the Hey City Theater, and the State and Orpheum Theatres. Cherryhomes says she was "disappointed" when Guthrie consultant William Morrish told her recently that the theater favored the park site. "Everybody on council would love for the Guthrie to come downtown, but Bill was real clear," she says. "It is the second choice, and I have not had any reliable contacts to the contrary." Hawkanson demurs, saying only that "Bill was speaking to Jackie as an individual."

Quips Morrish, an urban design specialist: "I've had a long talk with Jackie about the park site because of the stuff happening on the north side. But there is no priority site I've told her the Guthrie is interested in. I think it's cool that she has a preference, though."

Other council members do speculate the Guthrie could be an anchor for a new development on the vacant Block E between Target Center and City Center, should the current $101-million hotel and entertainment complex proposed for the site evaporate. Another alternative is Block D, which also houses the Hennepin Center for the Arts. Fueling such speculation: the presence of block owner Jim Binger, a theater impresario who is also a Guthrie board-member-for-life and a regular presence at Guthrie board and long-range planning-committee meetings.

At the same time, a Guthrie source says, Binger has never uttered a word in Guthrie meetings about the theater moving onto his block. For his part, Binger defers all comment to Hawkanson. The managing director says, "right now Blocks D and E are not available. At this point, [downtown] is not a fit for us."

Once again, Hawkanson adds that he is not excluding any possibilities. "The mayor and Jackie have both been terrific about letting us go through a process," he says, adding that "no one has suggested political pressure, or [offered] any carrots."

But the city may already be prepared to pony up, according to Jim Niland, the 6th-Ward DFL'er who chairs the influential Community Development Committee. Asked if he would support public funds for the Guthrie, Niland says, "Yes, I would certainly support that. I can't really say how much right now, but it could be significant."

At a time when the council has already sunk tens of millions into the State and Orpheum Theaters, and is willing to spend another $4.7 million to preserve and move Block E's Shubert Theater, the city has already tied downtown development to entertainment. "You've seen same economic studies that I have," Niland says. "If you spend money on economic development, you get a tremendous return on arts and culture as opposed to stadiums for pro sports."

"There would be a tremendous payoff," in moving the Guthrie several blocks up Hennepin, Niland continues. "We could host an international theater festival like Winnipeg [Stratford] Shakespeare Festival, where everyone is closer to restaurants and shopping where they can spend their money."  

Hawkanson chuckles when asked how it feels to be in a potential tug-of-war between a barrier-busting parks coalition and an entertainment-chasing City Council. "I think the more opportunities we have, the better," he says.

The Guthrie can only hope to plot such a charmed course in the second act of this development drama.

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