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New building would add a giant RBC sign to the Minneapolis skyline -- should we let it?

A rendering displayed at the Minneapolis City Council's planning committee meeting shows where the RBC sign would be placed.

A rendering displayed at the Minneapolis City Council's planning committee meeting shows where the RBC sign would be placed. City of Minneapolis Planning and Zoning Committee

Downtown Minneapolis’ Gateway project has been a struggle in city planning that Sisyphus could relate to.

But after years of nothing but delays, dropped proposals, and a sad-looking parking lot on the corner of Hennepin and Washington Avenues, the old, faded site of the Nicollet Hotel looks like it’s finally getting some love again.

United Properties has agreed to build a 35-story tower on the spot to serve as RBC Wealth Management’s headquarters -- complete with 530,000 square feet of office space, 280 hotel rooms, 22 condos, and an underground parking garage with over 450 stalls.

But there’s a catch.

In return for this shiny new development, the anchor company wants to plop a big old RBC sign at the top of the building.

The proposed sign would sit at 484 feet -- the “FOSHAY” sign is perched around 447 feet -- which means if this new building gets the city’s seal of approval, the RBC logo will become the highest sign in the downtown area.

The city council planning committee has had some concerns about that. The city’s upper canopy is supposed to be a classy zone. There isn’t “a proliferation” of brand names and logos up there, and city planners wanted to keep it that way. Letting RBC have its way -- on what is supposed to be one of the city’s 10 tallest buildings -- might set a “new precedent.”

But United Properties didn’t take no for an answer. The firm appealed last week -- hard -- with an application including this phrase, which was written by RBC’s CEO, Michael Armstrong:

“The ability to brand our new building with a rooftop wall sign is critical to our company’s future growth and success.” This, mind you, is coming from a multinational wealth management company which happens to be part of one of the biggest banks in Canada, which prompted columnist Lee Schafer to call it “one of the saddest statements from a business executive to ever appear in the Star Tribune.”

Be that as it may, Armstrong’s letter went on to say that, in case anyone was concerned, the logo would be “tasteful and simple.”

Based on the plans presented during United’s appeal to the planning committee last week, the sign is a rectangle about 123 square feet in area, to be placed on the side of the tower’s highest point, facing South Third Street. 

So far, everything seems to be coming up RBC. The planning committee ended that presentation by approving United’s signage appeal -- among other exceptions to the city’s guidelines for the site. Sign or no sign, this is a piece of downtown that the city has been trying to flip for the greater part of 20 years.

“If this was an easy site to develop it would have been done already,” City Council Member Lisa Goodman pointed out at the meeting. “Sometimes that means we don’t get everything we want.”

Fellow City Council Member Steve Fletcher was also in favor of letting the sign slide, but on one condition:

“I think it’s very important that if [the sign] becomes a part of our skyline, it becomes a part of our identity,” he said. In exchange, he wants to see continued “community investment” from RBC -- willingness to help the city grow. A spot that high on Minneapolis’ silhouette must be earned, not bought.

We’ll know for sure whether RBC’s dream building will become a reality when the plan goes before the city council tonight.