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

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2 comments on “Times Square and Block E: D.O.A.*?

  1. Given the recent closures and openings in Block E, what kind of retail mix do you think can work there?

    As for tourists, I don’t know what it would take to attract them, let alone where they would come from. In NYC, the Times Square tourists come from all over the nation. I doubt that millions of tourists will stream into Mpls to hang out on Block E. The best you can hope for is party folks at the clubs in the Warehouse district.

    • Well I think a grocery store would work Downtown – my understanding is that the small retail in Block E has also done well, it’s just the anchor spaces that have struggled. Part of that is the businesses there – maybe you’ve seen the recent reports that Borders is on the brink of bankruptcy – but also it may be that they are just too big of spaces. There is also an unresolved tension in retail in the USA – retailers hate entrances on the street, while customers love them.

      This is a blog, so I’ll be frank: American retailers are fatally arrogant. They understand that Americans prioritize price, and after that retailers don’t pay any attention to customers’ preferences. But then I’m a socialist, so you probably shouldn’t ask me about the dynamics of consumerism.

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