Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Invisible Cities

Dateline: 2:11 pm August 27, 2012 Filed under:

In the past four weeks the Soap Factory, as part of its Common Room series, has led some fascinating walking tours. Most recent was Invisible Minneapolis, which looked at development plans that never came to be. It was a compelling peek at what could have been in our city and left me both completely depressed and hopeful that good decisions can be made in the future.

One of the Invisible Minneapolis stops was the largely vacant Block E, a multi-use retail/entertainment center that opened in 2004 and just eight short years later sits largely vacant. The four ground floor anchor tenants (Borders, Hard Rock Cafe, Gameworks and an Italian restaurant) are gone, and all that remains in Block E (not counting the Graves 601 Hotel and Kieran’s Irish Pub, which replaced the italian restaurant) are Starbucks, Jimmy Johns, the Shout House and AMC Theaters, whose lease has not been renewed (even Applebee’s closed, an ominous sign for this “neighborhood”). Futhermore, Block E has been a complete public investment disaster. Consider this – Block E cost about $140 million, of which $39 million was public financing. In 2010, Block E sold for $14 million. Yes you read that right – the six year old retail/entertainment center (at the time) sold for one-tenth its development cost and $25 million less than the public dollars invested in it (the primary value of the $14 million was its 550-vehicle parking garage, or roughly $25,000 per parking space, in line with comparable parking facilities). A staggering failure.

What is so galling is what could have been. Whereas a three-block proposal for Block E (including the two blocks on either side between Hennepin and 1st Avenues (one of two formal proposals)) was intriguing, one unofficial proposal was that Block E instead become a park. A simple park, with underground parking. Downtown Minneapolis has nothing like this, and there may never be another opportunity to have such a centrally-located open space. A one-square block park where the core of downtown meets the stadium, arena, First Avenue (the music venue), the theater district and the warehouse district. What a wonderful addition that park would have been!

Well, not to dwell on Block E. Around Minneapolis and in cities everywhere, well-conceived developments fall by the wayside. Why? NIMBYs, lack of financing, political will, the list goes on. But sometimes something else gets developed on that site, something far worse that fails to elevate the urbanism of its site, neighborhood and city. I’ve discussed this in past posts about NIMBYism and better planning strategies.

It kind of makes you wonder what our cities are missing out on and what we can do about it. Larry Millett’s wonderful book Lost Twin Cities documents what we had, but what about what we never had? What is intriguing is how these “invisible” projects, just like actual buildings that have been lost, live on despite never having existed. But that’s the thing, they did exist, if only on paper or CAD drawing filed away in city halls across the country. Surely there are proposed projects that deserved to be struck from consideration, but what about all those buildings that should have been built? I’m not going to offer solutions here for Block E or any other “invisible” plans. This is just a time to pause and reflect about what could have been.

I encourage you to share stories and images with me about projects you deem worthy that never saw the light of day.

1 Comment »

  1. One thing Sam didn’t mention is that our Invisible Minneapolis tour group got kicked out of Block E by security! We were on the second floor, outside the theater entrance, listening to a speaker, and a security guy came and booted us out. To me, that says so much about what it wrong with Block E.

    Comment by Lucy Thompson — August 29, 2012 @ 11:09 am

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