Mall or Nothing

Why is Minneapolis rushing to put Block E on the entertainment-retail bandwagon? And what would it lose if it doesn't? We asked Margaret Crawford, a professor of urban studies at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles, how the proposed development fits in with national trends. Crawford has written extensively about malls and company towns (she'll be a speaker at an upcoming Weisman Art Museum conference on the Mall of America). Her conclusions on what to do with Block E were radical, philosophical, and in stunning contrast with the local consensus.

City Pages: Having reviewed some of the history and politics of Block E, what do you find most interesting about this saga?

Crawford:It seems like the City Council is concerned about getting something that's going to do well instantaneously, and it's supposed to be a major regional magnet. And they can do it--if they get a sexy development, like one that DDRM can [help to] deliver. A very jazzy, entertainment-focused design will bring people downtown.

CP:But for how long?

Crawford: That's the question. What we've seen in Los Angeles is that these incredible points of attraction developed very rapidly, particularly among young people. They tend to completely take over a place, and after a while they lose interest. So these kinds of developments have a limited life span. What the city really needs is to develop longer-term strategy for a strong urban center.

CP: The plan from Loon State Ventures went further than just the standard retail-office-multiplex combination. They were proposing more public space, along with housing and a big performance space...

Crawford: But even with all these positive public elements, it's still under the direction of a single developer. Almost all cities have a tendency to go for these mega-projects. And it changes the very nature of the city: Instead of being fine-grained and having surprises, it turns out to be a big chunk with virtually no surprises. If you look at upper Michigan Avenue in Chicago, it's basically a series of malls. And it's really changed the nature of the street.

CP: That's exactly what happened to Nicollet Mall, much of which has been given over to malls and big chain stores. Now Target's coming...

Crawford: I've only been to Minneapolis once, but the downtown was like the history of shopping-mall development. There's one of every generation there.

CP: Can you elaborate on that?

Crawford: Well, in the '50s, suburban malls were kind of boring and utilitarian. They just provided shopping with open-air promenades--another kind of "mall"--in between the shops. Southdale is really important because it introduced the concept of retail excitement by enclosing the mall. Then you kind of break all ties with reality.

CP: You can stay in there all day.

Crawford: You can also start to really create excitement inside. Diagonal escalators and all these other things created a very stimulating environment, so that finally there was something almost as exciting as the city, but it was in the suburbs. By the time suburban malls had drawn away all the customers as the center city was declining--a lot of other factors are involved here--the enclosed mall was reintroduced into the city. They were meant to produce an image of the city that was better than the actual city.

CP: That's when Minneapolis got City Center, the early '80s. And then came the historical developments--in Minneapolis we have Riverplace and St. Anthony Main across the Mississippi from downtown.

Crawford: Yes, the festival marketplace, which you find in every city. They usually depend on an existing historical building. There's limited shopping for totally unnecessary items. This was supposedly more authentic for those people who don't like malls. You get a little bit of history, so it's seen as being slightly educational. Festival malls were also linked to the quality of urban uniqueness, a sense of place. That's what struck me in reading about this Block E project: It's seen as being unique, too, but actually it's the same as what every other city has.

CP: And I think the developers know about that contradiction. They talk about the uniqueness on the one hand, while saying how other cities are doing these things and that's why Minneapolis has to do [the same things].

Crawford: This is the basic contradiction in mall development. Malls are supposed to be unique, but they can't be because they have to follow successful development formulas. There's always this desire to be enticing and new, but it's undermined by the necessity to be like every other mall of the same kind.

CP: To yield a certain dollar per square foot. Or on a personal level, to create something new and exciting that's also familiar and safe.  

Crawford: And now people get bored very easily, so you have to provide more and more to attract people. That's what hyper-reality is about, when simulation is far more exciting than reality.

CP: A Brookfield Development representative referred to a multiplex with digital sound and stadium seating as being "state of the art and one of a kind. It will draw 2.5 million people a year."

Crawford: But again, "state of the art" is always moving on and so you end up with something that goes out of date pretty fast. It's just an endless cycle of constant change. It'll work for a while, but it'll have to be retooled within 5 or 10 years when virtual-reality environments are not exciting anymore. All this is rather predictable--as I said, downtown Minneapolis is like a compact history of the development of malls, and this is another chapter.

CP: There's been talk of how Block E is really the intersection between the theaters on Hennepin and the retail on Nicollet Mall and the Warehouse District, so it's a key point in the city. And slapping down a big box wouldn't seem to do much to encourage flow among those places.

Crawford: Probably not. Once you turn over large blocks of urban land to a developer, the city is really at their mercy. But there are a bunch of things the city could do if they wanted to open up that site for a set of different kinds of proposals, instead of a single project from a single developer. The proposal I like, even as an interim proposal, is the one from FORECAST Public Artworks, which is this idea that Block E can take on different purposes. It's a completely different model of development, and a much more compelling model in a certain sense. To have something that changes according to demand and use really rapidly--this is exactly the opposite of building a giant chunk of real estate that may be out of date in a few years.

CP: The entertainment-retail developers are saying they can accommodate change, but...

Crawford: ...but the likelihood of Block E being another dead mall in 10 to 15 years is very high, I would say. Why not proceed slowly and maintain that place in a flexible and responsible way? I think it would be far more interesting.

CP: Your observation that the city seems to be in a mad rush to get something built is interesting, considering how long Block E has been sitting there as a parking lot.

Crawford: They seem to be panicking in a way that makes no sense. Cities take time to develop. It's never instant. The city should wait and see what's happening, instead of jumping in and trying to get 40,000 people downtown each weekend. See who's coming, see what will work out. Then you'll get a more enduring and successful downtown, much more like Boston or San Francisco.

CP: It's kind of sad because it seems to me that Minneapolis has this tendency to jump on development bandwagons just as they're starting to go downhill...

Crawford: Well, it seems like the city panics and starts looking for the easy fix. And the problem is that things happen incrementally over time; the good things don't look like achievements, but they tend to endure. The mega-project is really just a new version of master planning. You have this big development, it actually gets built, and then there's an empty shell there 10 years later. On the other hand, there's a planning method called "disjointed incrementalism," which sounds bad, but it actually describes this process of adding to things in bits and pieces, and if you add something that doesn't work, it's not a big deal to change it. That's closer to the real process of evolution that makes cities work. This Block E plan is really like steroids: A quick injection and you get the bulge, but what happens down the line? You have to pay the price.

CP: That's what I've never understood about the developer mentality. A mile away from Block E you have the Conservatory, which is a high-end retail mall that was boarded up after 10 years. Why can't developers look around and see all the failures?

Crawford: There's nothing worse than a big development that fails like that, and they're all over the place. And it used to be much easier to build a successful mall. [Now] there's this incredible saturation of almost-duplicated retail all over the place. Which is why I like this FORECAST proposal--I can't believe that they didn't even do that before.  

CP: You mean since Block E has been a parking lot for 10 years...

Crawford: And maybe even that's not a bad idea. Convenient parking is really important. To me the whole situation with Block E actually represents the tragedy of American cities--not because it's empty, but because everyone's so insistent that something be built. This is the renewal mentality: the idea that you clear something away, you wait for all these years, and then it's going to be renewed, magically, instantly. It's exactly the opposite of the build-on-what-you-have approach.

CP: You could call that an American trait in general.

Crawford: It is, and in cities it has had a particularly devastating result. [The FORECAST] proposal holds off development. It says look, we'll do a farmer's market, then an ice-skating rink, then an arts fair... a bunch of things like that could happen there.

CP: That are low-cost and still bring people downtown.

Crawford: And the city can learn from them. It can learn things about downtown, and about people who come. It's almost like a Rorschach test on empty space. This sounds corny, but I always try to see what a space wants to be, because places do want to be something. No place is ever truly empty. There are people all around Block E and if it's empty but accessible, as they proposed, then you'll find out what it actually needs and wants to be. Then you can build on that instead of just saying, oh, we'll do this, it worked in L.A.

CP: That's a really interesting way to look at it. Even in its 10 years as parking lot, Block E has developed a culture of its own. It has become a sort of public space.

Crawford: That just demonstrates why the whole approach to it as "empty" is wrong. Because it's actually full. It has meanings that are already there.

CP: It's like Ground Zero of downtown, so of course it's going to have a force even with nothing built there.

Crawford: And the city and these developers, just by imagining that it's empty, are doing a disservice to the real nature of cities and what they contain, this mysterious quality that makes one city a particular place as opposed to others. I was also impressed by the FORECAST proposal because it has a means of marking the seasons, it reintroduces a whole other set of time into the city, right into its center. Minneapolis has been trying to deny time with all these skyways and things like that. And again, something that's empty can be better than something that's full. But it probably won't happen.

CP: No, Brookfield will just do their latest variation on City Center, which it built across the street from Block E, or Gaviidae Common, the high-end retail mall they put up on Nicollet Mall.

Crawford: That right there is the danger buzzer that should go off. You get one developer dominating and what they do is not all that great. There have always been a lot of nooks and crannies in a city that is developed piecemeal. You get this quality of almost haphazardness, with lots of corners where things can thrive, these kinds of mysterious spaces that open up unexpected things. And this mega-scale, Godzilla-like development precludes that. Developers know they need nooks and crannies, they try to build them in, but it really doesn't work.

CP: Because it's simply too planned out.

Crawford: And in a sense, that's why they have to up the ante in terms of excitement--because it's really not that exciting, but that's what they have to sell. It's supposed to be excitement but really it's kind of a flash in the pan. But you can also see that there are some ways of thinking about it in which you don't have to buy those solutions. There are people besides developers thinking about Block E in interesting and sophisticated ways, and that's rare. They may not win this time, but at least people are trying to understand what cities are like.

Intern Katharine Kelly contributed to this story.

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