Times Square and Block E: D.O.A.*?

Today the New York Times celebrates the revival of its eponymous square, which in the past few decades “has been transformed from grubby to gaudy.”  The article is short and sparing of details, seeming to ascribe the renaissance to an uptick of corporate interest (then Disney bought this theater, then McDonald’s opened, etc.) rather than the likely hundreds of millions of dollars of government subsidy that likely went into the area since the redevelopment effort, which “outlived three mayors, four governors, two real estate booms and two recessions” began.  Minneapolis’ admitted and attempted Times Square imitator, Block E, has not been as successful, and the article has a few hints as to why.

The Times, as usual, does not skimp with their graphics: check out this panoramic collage comparing the facades on 42nd between 7th and 9th Aves as they were in 1989 and as they currently are.  Two things struck me:  one, the block is completely different today; two, the block is thoroughly unattractive today.  Billboards for fratboy booze bump up against flashy corporate logos, the battle spoils of the victory of capitalist architecture over humanistic or intellectual styles of the past.

Those very brash billboards were exactly what the Minneapolis city council of the mid-to-late 90s was going for when it conceptualized and largely paid for Block E, according to a consultant who taught a seminar I took at the U in 2004 or so.  He knew the developer of the project, whom he quoted as calling Block E the most difficult development of his career.  It seems that the Times Square-like signage that the council considered a crucial display of our prairie city’s sophistication were problematically illegal under Minneapolis zoning code.  In addition, he had qualms about the amount of retail space in what has been a slumping retail market for the past 70 or 80 years.

I think this is one piece that Minneapolis got wrong.  If you look at the graphic from the NY Times, there are several skyscrapers along the block, providing a fairly captive market for the retail uses at street level.  It is sort of baffling that Minneapolis didn’t work harder to get some office space into this building, which at two stories dramatically underutilizes one of the most central locations in the city.

The other thing that Times Square has is tourists.  Part of that is the fact that it is fucking New York City, but on top of that the article points out that “officials sign[ed] deals with Madame Tussaud’s wax museum,” implying that the city subsidized these attractions to shore up the retail attractiveness of the site.  Hell will look like Minneapolis on the day that Madame Tussaud’s opens a branch here, but there has to be some kind of museum that would be willing to open up here.  In fact, it is hard not to notice the lopsidedness of Block E’s retail today, with the 1st Ave side (facing Target Center) booked up and the Hennepin side vacant.

The aesthetics of Block E have been so roundly criticized that I don’t feel compelled to make citations here.  But this is again where Times Square is instructive.  As I mentioned before, blocks don’t get much more homely than the chunk of 42nd St highlighted in the NY Times article.  But the environment is uniformly exuberant, adding up to an experience that transcends the gaudiness of the individual facades:

The Disneyfied Block E is notable for how it manages to be bland and gaudy all at once, but for blandness it doesn’t hold a candle to the City Center ramp across the street, the Multifoods Tower on the next block over, or the fortress-like building that houses the Skyway Lounge and other mysteries behind its forbidding walls.

Yes, Block E is bad, but if it were surrounded by other gaudy buildings, it would at least be an experience.  Minneapolis has a few things to learn from Times Square:

  1. If you want exciting buildings in your city, you should allow them.  Create an Entertainment District zoning overlay that basically jettisons all the rules on signage, and then apply them to all non-historic buildings in the Theater District.
  2. Give people a reason to come.  Well, they’re working on this, I suppose, but a year-round attraction like a museum would buttress the existing entertainment features.
  3. Be patient!  Times Square took 30 years, and they had Giuliani.  Minneapolis’ Theater District is humming along, but real change may not come until (a) Downtown is a holistic urban neighborhood (with residents and businesses to serve them) and (b) a regional tourism network gets going again (think High-Speed Rail).

Now that I’ve written all this, I’m afraid I’ve given the impression that Times Square is a place I like and believe should be reproduced.  It is not.  When Minneapolis’ Theater District is as successful as Times Square, I will likely go there less often.  But in Block E, Minneapolis has made an investment in the Times Square model.  I humbly offer suggestions as to how best to continue that model to success.   Whether it should be done is a different question.

*the D.O.A. I refer to is the poem D.O.A. (Disneyland On Acid) by Danielle Willis

Warehouse District/Theater District

After veering dangerously and boringly close to the realm of the rant in the last two posts in this series, I’m going to attempt a format to make this more readable and on topic.

Overview

The Warehouse and Theater Districts are some of the more recognizable areas of Minneapolis,and also benefit from a very central location and uniquely abundant historic resources.  In my opinion, these three things will propel these neighborhoods to be some of the most successful in the city at attracting development.  Oh, yeah, and there’s a stadium or two on the edge of the neighborhood to get the bankers excited.

But that popularity could be a downside as well – this area is packed with sloshed sleazeballs every Friday and Saturday night, and do you really want to live next to that perpetual disco beat?  Here the city could make an effort to disperse the clubs a little bit – maybe by being more lenient about allowing clubs in other neighborhoods?

The biggest obstacle to development in these neighborhoods, though, is that they are already pretty much developed.  In this regard it is similar to the North Loop, which surprised me as I actually thought there would be much less space to develop here.  But again we get to the design aspect – the Warehouse district’s parking lots are more dispersed, smaller parcels, and more interior to the blocks, and therefore less noticable.

And it is that patchwork quality to the development opportunities that excites me – I love the surprising, heterogeneous quality of cities made of lots of tiny lots crammed together.  I look forward to to the neighborhood this will become.

The Map

Details

  • Federal Reserve Lots – There are several large parking lots around the Federal Reserve building that are great for residential developmentsdue to their proximity to the river and their centrality.  I’m not sure how realistic it is to expect them to be developed, though, as the Fed is a major employer and presumably wants to keep the parking for the benefit of its employees.  Hopefully a compromise with structured parking lined or topped with apartments will work.  Another wild card is the huge lot to the northwest of the Fed – it is actually owned by the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Commission, which is rarely subject to the profit motive of us mere mortals.  But with the exception of no more than 50 feet adjoining the railroad line on the west, it’s difficult to imagine much transit use for this parcel.  An unlikely exception is the possibility of a rail station here – but that is contingent on a great deal more commuter and regional rail lines than currently exist and could likely coexist with high-density residential (see Vienna’s huge new Hauptbahnhof project).  I predict high potential for development here.
  • Twinsville North – Considering the plans that have already been marketed for this area, it is guaranteed that some kind of development will happen in the Cut north of Target Field.  The only question is what happens in that awkward space between the two viaducts?  My own opinion, to be explored in a later post, is that the viaduct is massively overbuilt (since it’s only need for peak traffic, instead of four lanes it could be two lanes that change direction twice a day).  So my hope is that the northern viaduct could be torn down, leaving one large contiguous parcel.  Regardless, there is huge potential here.
  • Parks –  I have two ideas for parks in this area:  the more likely is the parcel adjoining the Hiawatha station between Hennepin and 1st.  The rest of the block could be finished in a way that would frame the 120 feet or so from 5th Street for a classic plaza.  The other idea is for a traffic circle park at the corner of 1st Ave and 8th St.  It could be built in a way that calmed traffic and improved flow through those bizarre intersections, and still have room for a park of close to an acre (about a 220 foot diameter).  Both of these ideas aren’t even close to the realm of reality until we have a Park Board that has some interest in developing urban parks.
  • And the rest?  – This neighborhood, more than most, has lots of small buildings that are already dense, relative to the rest of Minneapolis, but could be denser.  I’m sure I have left most of these buildings off of this assessment, as I mostly just included existing buildings that are a particularly poor use of their site (Ribnick Fur, for example).  So if interest in urban living does take off in Minnesota, this assessment will certainly be too low.

The Numbers

Warehouse 80 un/ac 110 un/ac 140 un/ac
High 2297 3158 4020
Medium 248 342 435
Low 22 31 39
Total 2568 3531 4493

Prognosis

Due to the lack of space to build in the Warehouse and Theater Districts, this area will not be a huge source of new population for Minneapolis.  But what development does occur will be very dense.  While the new zoning under development for the riverfront may limit some blocks there to 6 stories, I think there is high potential for high rises throughout the neighborhood.  Even without a lot of additional residents, these neighborhoods will be full of people for years to come.