Ok, the truth is, I grew up in the suburbs, but there’s no question that Minneapolis was the center of our city – where we went for entertainment, dining, medical specialists, drug paraphernalia, etc. St Paul was kind of in the periphery for me. When I was a kid we went to Highland Park to get our pictures taken, but we didn’t ever go much further.
All of which is an elaborate excuse for how I could grow up in the Twin Cities but somehow miss the monumental Montgomery Ward warehouse in the Midway, until I came across it on the ever-giving Nokohaha’s blog.
This building was really incredible: a 27-acre site, a million square feet of space inside, a neoclassical front wing, nine stories, and 256-foot tower that “defined St. Paul’s University Av. strip.” That last quote is from a Sept 22, 1989, Star Tribune article about the plan to demolish this landmark and replace it with a strip mall. Specifically, a strip mall that “mixes the historic flavor of the Midway with 1990s-style development.” Were they successful? There is a Wal-Mart, which is pretty much the epitome of 90s city-building. Not sure they hit the target on the “historic flavor of the Midway” piece.
But this blog isn’t all about sarcastic complaining – it’s also about moralizing. And this one has a heck of a moral. While digging through the Star Tribune archives (anyone with a Hennepin County library card has access to articles starting in 1986 – they also have Tribune archives from 1867-1922) I found an article from August 15th, 1988, comparing the Midway Wards to Minneapolis’ retailing behemoth, the Lake Street Sears.
At the time, the historical significance of both buildings was seen as a weakness, or as the article says of the Sears building “it’s difficult to mask the monumental pillars and the dated look of the tower with the big green letters on top.” But the stores were still doing well, since the “performance at the University Av. Ward’s was substantially higher than the average of $175 per square foot reported for department stores nationwide by the National Retail Merchants Association for 1986.” In addition, the stores’ monumental appearance made them loom large in the minds of customers, and according to a Sears employee “some customers go out of their way to visit Lake St. because they believe the “main store” carries a broader, deeper selection of goods.”
The fate of the two buildings diverged drastically after 1988. The Sears store closed not long after, but the building remained, albeit vacant, until 2005, when it opened as the Midtown Exchange, with retail, offices, rental and ownership housing, and chubby mermaids. All this for the low, low price of $190m, some $40m of which came from the city, mostly in TIF dollars (also I think the city owned the property after a developer abandoned it in the mid-90s, which couldn’t have been cheap, but I can’t confirm this).
St Paul spent a lot less on redeveloping the Wards building. In 1994 and 1996, the city spent $12m on a spree of urban renewal, leveraging a $50m strip mall and a Kmart of unknown value. The city had to step in when the developer quoted above was surprised to find pollution on the site of a factory and backed out. The project was finished by a Republican from Chicago who was famous for spreading Kmarts all over the Midwest. If you have been to the Red Wing Mall, you know his handiwork, and coincidentally Minneapolis dodged the bullet of having him redevelop the Sears building when he bailed in the mid-90s (which is when I think the city bought it).
So let’s tally the score:
- Minneapolis spent $40m, St Paul spent $12m.
- Minneapolis got hundreds of new residents, St Paul got a dozen new dumpsters
- Minneapolis got a corporate headquarters, St Paul got an abandoned Chi-Chi’s
- Minneapolis got a vibrant incubator for small businesses, St Paul got several vacant big boxes
Unless the Republicans get their way, Central LRT will run in front of the old Montgomery Ward site soon, and redevelopment could follow (although chances are Wal-Mart will be sucking money out of that low-income neighborhood for decades). Any new developments could be better than what is there now, but they won’t have the draw of what was there then.
Note: While the demolition of the Midway Wards was undoubtedly a planning blunder, it is not on the official list of Top Ten Planning Blunders. Check back often for Official Blunder #6, coming soon to these pages, dear reader.