Downtown Renaissance, Again

Daniel Corrigan

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.  

"Affordable housing has to be addressed," says one downtown architect, "but I don't think it will be." The reason: Land prices downtown are at a premium, and developers are reluctant to build anything that would attract the working poor. (There are requirements for developers to set aside an "affordable component" in any new building, but defining that is based on a metro-wide median income; most "affordable" units are anything but.)

"The city needs to step up and tell developers they'll sell land cheaper if they build low-income housing," the architect continues. Will it happen? "I don't think so; there's no reason for the city to even care about that in the middle of a boom."

Ed Goetz, another urban planning prof at the U's Humphrey institute, shares the same concern. "This is not sustainable growth, if only the highest-end luxury housing is being done," Goetz says.

Judith Martin isn't as concerned. "Affordability is a red herring," she argues. "Ten years ago, if you were having conversations of too many rich people living on the river, people would have laughed at you."


Then again, there was a time when nobody was too worried about the glut of office space springing up in downtown Minneapolis. In 1992, Alex Schwartz, of the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University, drafted a case study of downtown Minneapolis that highlighted the office tower boom and quantified what proved to be the most radical transformation the city had ever seen.

"The building boom increased Minneapolis's supply of downtown office space by over 300 percent, from 6.5 million square feet in 1978 to more than 19.6 million square feet in 1991," Schwartz wrote. "Added to the skyline were five new office towers over 40 stories high and several others with more than 15 stories. On average, the city absorbed 750,000 square feet of new office space during the 1980s, the equivalent of one new 40-story building each year."

Schwartz goes on to note that the explosive growth of the era also saw the construction of the Metrodome, the Target Center, and "a major convention center," along with several shopping centers, parking ramps, and new skyways. What Schwartz's study does not mention is that, by the time it was written, a goodly portion of the city's new office space was vacant. Minneapolis had overbuilt.

"Reusing stock"--converting existing buildings to new uses--is a big part of the residential component of downtown's rejuvenation. On the other hand, the entire process could wind up converting a lot of unused office spaces into unused living spaces. Underlying this gamble is a broader, more value-laden question.

"What's the appropriate function of a downtown in the 21st century?" Martin asks. "It used to be only a place where people would work, but none of that is true now."

It's evident that city leaders past and present have hedged their bets on entertainment districts. Minneapolis has spent millions refurbishing the State, Orpheum, and Pantages theaters on Hennepin Avenue in hopes of creating a "theater district." Bars and restaurants along First Avenue can pretty much bankroll their entire operations on weekend nights. And despite the many absurdities of Block E, there's evidence that at least two places--Escape Ultra Lounge and GameWorks--attract crowds on weekends.

Certainly the jury is still out on Block E. Even though GameWorks is doing business here, the company has declared bankruptcy, and the future of the Minneapolis location is uncertain. This news came not long after Snyder Drug declared bankruptcy and moved out of the complex in February. The viability of some other Block E tenants is dubious. Cunningham claims that putting a movie multiplex there was a particularly bad idea--until such time as there's a lot of residential foot traffic downtown, the notion that anyone will pass by suburban theaters with free parking to go to a movie downtown is ludicrous.


One trend that augurs well for downtown's residential future is the increasing difficulty of life in the suburbs. In the 1960s, 25 percent of Americans in metropolitan areas resided in the suburbs. By the end of the century, that figure had tripled. The end result was that most of the problems that plague urban centers--traffic, pollution, high density--now dog the suburbs as well.  

"People are starting to realize you can't build your way out of sprawl by building another freeway," Cunningham says. "The L.A. mode of building for the automobile has broken down."

There is little about the particulars of downtown's future that is certain--except that the shape of things will have far more to do with the direction of market forces than the dictates of urban planning. The city has gone to great lengths to preserve some historical sites and fund preliminary site cleanups. But the rest is up to the wishes and fantasies of the private sector.

The enclave taking shape across the river on East Hennepin is held up by some as an example of what market forces can do for the good. Still, it's generally believed that vibrant neighborhoods are anchored by things like grocery stores, gas stations, and hardware stores. Whether they will materialize--or, if you're an optimist, where and when they will materialize--is anyone's guess. Currently, there is talk of attracting a grocer to City Center as part of the complex's $15 million renovation.

But really, the future is pretty much anyone's guess. "Those things won't come if there's not a critical mass of bodies who are going to be here," says the U's Ed Goetz. "It could be a very important entertainment center, or a place for recreation, or it could be a place where people live. Should it be all three?"

Some observers, like Judith Martin, think it can only be good news that there is any kind of life downtown. "These are not places that can function as warehouses anymore," she says. "There are many things that buildings can work for. And what's the alternative? Empty buildings.

"The reality is, wherever people are is a neighborhood," she concludes. "The question is, what are you gonna do with it?"

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