Monday, August 6, 2012

Urban Renewal - The Leveling of Minneapolis

Minneapolis and Saint Paul will never look like Detroit. The Twin Cities will also never look like Rome, Athens, Paris, London, Boston, or New York.

Urban renewal on top of urban renewal is a constant in the Twin Cities, as if the past is a snow that seasonally melts away.

development spursThe renewal refrain is that action is needed to spur development, whether the action is to put something in or tear something down. Minneapolis has spur scars from more than one hundred years of failed plans and leveled buildings.

Over one hundred years ago, there was another Gateway plan that was something of a disaster.

The Gateway, Minneapolis

The Gateway
Minneapolis had been losing lumber and flour milling in the late 1800s. Bridge Square, the triangular area near the Hennepin Bridge, had become a haven of bars and flop houses.

Minneapolis decided to fix Bridge Square by tearing down the bars and putting up Gateway Park.

Opposed to the Gateway plan were William Folwell, former president of the University of Minnesota; Thomas Walker, creator of the Walker Art Center; and Charles Loring, the first president of the park board. Loring argued that the park would simply become a hangout for vagrants, and was philosophically opposed to the park board taking land from businesses.

The land was purchased in 1908. The city leveled 27 saloons in 1½ acres. The Gateway was dedicated in 1915. The building that housed the toilets was inscribed with the words: “More than her gates, the city opens her heart to you.” Problems emerged immediately. Park superintendent Theodore Wirth estimated 8,000-9,000 people used the Gateway toilets daily. The Gateway was insufficient to the task.

Contrary to the desires of the Gateway’s promoters, it did not lead to renewal of that part of the city. But it did become a place to hang out. Instead of flophouses and saloons, the transients had the Gateway.

In 1960, the Gateway was the focus of another urban renewal effort. The park was sold at a fraction of its purchase price, the Gateway building was leveled, as were 40% of downtown district buildings. [source1 source2]

You Did What?!?
The Metropolitan Building (aka Northwestern Guaranty Loan Building) was one of the buildings leveled at the same time as the Gateway. The first Minneapolis skyscraper, the Metropolitan featured a 12-story tall glass covered atrium with glass floors, similar to those still found at the James J. Hill Library in St. Paul. The rooftop had a garden. It had solar lighting and a green roof. It was green before its time.

The Metropolitan was still in use when Minneapolis decided to tear it down.

Minneapolis has too many parking lots, said the Minneapolis City Council in a July 2012 Star Tribune article. The parking lots are a blight on the city. The Minneapolis City Council will study the problem.

Who leveled the buildings that created the parking lots? Minneapolis did. It always has. That's why the city of Minneapolis owns a majority of its parking lots.

The Battle for Newness
Go to Fort Snelling and read its history. For a fort that never saw battle, it has always been destroyed. And rebuilt. Destroyed and rebuilt. The 1957 highway plan called for its complete destruction. Planners know best.

Retail Plans for Downtown Minneapolis
How many plans have there been to attract retail customers to downtown Minneapolis?
    ♠ Skyways (1962) [1, 2, 3]
    ♠ City Center (1983, $50 million public subsidy)[1, 2]
    ♠ Riverplace (1985)*
    ♠ Conservatory (1987-1998, $85 million)[1, 2, 3]
    ♠ Gaviidae Common (1989, $28 million) [1, 2]
Plus two other loans Brookfield Properties defaulted on, causing Minneapolis to own the Saks portion of Gaviidae.
    ♠ Block E (2002, $39 million public subsidy)[1, 2, 3]
    ♠ Hiawatha Line (2004, $715+ million)[1, 2]
    ♠ Central Corridor (2014, $968+ million)[1, 2]

The Conservatory only lasted a decade. Why are Minneapolis buildings built to last, if they have shorter expiration dates than food?

What's wrong with skyways?

Inherently nothing, but it creates a second-story city of block-sized, unmarked boxes.

What's that box? City Center. What's in it? Nothing. What's in that box? Block E. What's in it? Nothing. So E stands for Empty?!?

There is no character, no class, no interest. No reason to stop and look. No indication of what's in it.

Most of these projects have underpinnings of the Minneapolis jealousy of the suburban malls. Or it is something more. Minneapolis wants to be something it isn't. And Saint Paul wants to be like Minneapolis. That's why it wants its own Gateway fiasco, the Gateway Corridor.

* Representative Phyllis Kahn based her opposition on the use of city-funded tax increment financing [TIF] to support [Riverplace]. "I also consider it appalling to use the public subsidy of tax increment financing for development in an area that is a prime site for private development," she declared. "If this proposal goes through, I hope that every public official who supports it will feel the righteous wrath of a taxpayers' revolt."  - Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century by Iric Nathanson, page 151.

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