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'Cedar-Riverside' gets a second chance

Developer George Sherman last week officially launched a $132 million refinance and renovation of Riverside Plaza.
Wikipedia Commons
Developer George Sherman last week officially launched a $132 million refinance and renovation of Riverside Plaza.

The idea that design can dictate the ideal life is hardly new. Plato's "Republic," Augustine's "City of God" and Thomas More's "Utopia" each imagines an architecture with perfectionist powers.

One of America's best remaining examples rises above the intersection of two major freeways near downtown Minneapolis. Depending on your perspective, Riverside Plaza is either a towering eyesore or a valuable lesson on how a utopian vision can fail miserably yet succeed in an unexpected way.


Ralph Rapson's clump of skinny concrete towers with faded colored panels never fulfilled its "new town in town" promise, never transformed the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood into a lattice of Euro-style flats in which people of all ages and incomes would live happily together on the doorstep of a great university.

Only 1,303 of the projected 12,500 units were ever built. After an acclaimed opening in 1973, the complex deteriorated gradually into what has been called "a slum in the sky." Rapson's exposed concrete didn't wear well. The grounds weren't cared for. The mechanical systems fell into disrepair. The neighborhood declined. The towers themselves have been fully occupied for four decades, but not with the diverse population that Rapson had hoped for. Nearly all residents have been poor, and nearly all have been immigrants from Asia, then Africa, making their first stop in a strange new world.

Now, Riverside Plaza has come nearly full circle. Developer George Sherman last week officially launched a $132 million refinance and renovation. Construction is expected to take two years and to include a repainting of the panels to the original primary colors, a redo of the grounds, an expansion of the on-site charter school, a remodel of each apartment and a massive overhaul of the mechanical systems — most critically the plumbing, heating and elevators.

Restoring Rapson's original design
Riverside Plaza's 2010 listing on the National Register of Historic Places provides Sherman valuable tax credits to help in his project. It also provides assurance that the renovation will match Rapson's original modernist design, down to the smallest detail.

Local government, for its part, will improve the streetscape along Cedar and Riverside avenues and install new lighting, signs and pedestrian/bicycle links between the existing Hiawatha Line LRT station and a new Central Line LRT station being built at the Cedar/Washington intersection two blocks away. If nothing else, Riverside Plaza is well located.

Minneapolis sees the renovation as a springboard to a lively new transit-oriented district centered on the Central Line station. It has identified a dozen pads for potential mixed-use buildings. It intends to make the district a showcase for how a transit station can generate new housing and business activity close by. One might say that Rapson's big idea is getting a second chance to deliver.

A tour of the site
Sherman and Mike Christenson, the city's director of planning and economic development, offered a brief tour of the monumental renovation last Wednesday. I went along.

Mike Christenson, left, and George Sherman discussing Riverside Plaza's   renovation.
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Mike Christenson, left, and George Sherman discussing Riverside Plaza's renovation.

I was first struck by how much worse Riverside Plaza looks from close up than it does from far away. After four decades the raw concrete that so dominated Rapson's brutalist style makes a building look truly brutal. It had been more than 30 years since I had stood on the once-lovely elevated plaza. The view of the city skyline was still impressive. But the immediate surroundings had turned drab and depressing. I wondered whether $132 million could really do the job.

We rode an elevator to an upper floor, where drywall and plumbing work was already under way. Sherman explained that the current plumbing system takes a half hour to deliver hot water to some units, and that the waiting time for elevators can be just as long. The modest apartments will be renovated at the rate of 65 each week. Tenants will move into special "hotel units" while their own homes are remodeled.

"For us, it's kind of like doing open heart surgery while the patient is awake," Sherman explained. The arduous process should be completed by late 2012.

Architecture finds a new meaning
Perhaps the most impressive aspects of my visit were the residents themselves. They are nearly all Somali immigrants who have fled from a chaotic homeland to the kind of welcoming order that Riverside Plaza seems to offer.

"They have big aspirations for their children and they really value education," Sherman said, ticking off examples of kids who have grown up to be doctors and lawyers. Parents drive taxis and work in parking lots so the next generation can have a better chance, he said, adding: "By in large, this a very industrious, very impressive group."

"This is the American story," said Christenson, who lived in the complex in the early 1980s while attending law school. "We aren't Arizona. We love immigrants. We want immigrants in this city. It's who we are."

Developer George Sherman leads a tour of a renovated Riverside apartment.
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Developer George Sherman leads a tour of a renovated Riverside apartment.

He told a story about a community meeting during which Sherman and others went into great detail about the upcoming repairs and about the temporary inconveniences that construction would impose. These were things that might annoy a typical Minnesota audience, but the immigrant crowd was calm and unconcerned. Finally, one of the Somali elders seated near the front rose to speak a simple sentence: "We care about our young people," he said. Then he sat down.

For Christenson, the message was palpable. In a single sentence Ralph Rapson's idealistic dream about Riverside Plaza had been fulfilled in a different and unexpected way. Who is to say that this clump of unlovely high-rises on the edge of downtown never lived up to its noblest potential?

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Comments (7)

With apologies to Ralph Rapson,* I vote for eyesore. Even new, this development was badly out of place -- mountains of drab, gray concrete scarely enlivened by seemingly random colored panels.

I commend George Sherman for his willingness to invest in rehabilitating the innards of these depressing-looking towers so their occupants can have decent housing. Sherman's preservation and adaptive-reuse work -- usually in more-attractive venues -- is an asset to the Twin Cities.

*One disappointment doesn't diminish an entire career. Rapson's original Guthrie theater, next to the Walker was an attractive, lively, sparkling structure that enhanced to its surroundings.

The wrecking ball got the wrong building.

I always found them strangely interesting looking, and I would bet with fresh paint they would still look odd - even ugly - but would have some lovability.

Having spent 50+ years in St. Louis, this story immediately brings to mind the execrable Pruitt-Igoe project, mercifully imploded years ago after it had demonstrated that – in St. Louis, at least – towers filled with urban poor people made for a neighborhood so ugly and dangerous that it terrified even the local police.

That said, I hope this turns out to be an entirely different story altogether. I’ve driven past the project many times in my 2 years here, wondered what it was, why it was there, etc., and now I have a better idea. Even as it stands, the towers are more attractive than Pruitt-Igoe was when it was brand-new, and Europe is filled with taller and uglier buildings, inhabited, for the most part, by happy citizens going about their daily lives, so I don’t subscribe to the notion that this sort of housing automatically denotes a vertical ghetto of some sort. “Brutalist” architecture doesn’t appeal to me, particularly, but if modest cost is one of the parameters, it’s hard to avoid something similar, and it sounds like Cedar-Riverside is, indeed, a place where the stereotypical “American Dream” is being played out once again, as it has for generations.

The size and expense of one’s home tells us nothing about one’s character, and unless some new, magic source of environmentally-benign energy is discovered, a whole lot of people are going to be living in housing of substantial density 2 or 3 generations down the road. I don’t rule out the discovery of such an energy source, but it’s not the sort of thing that makes for sound planning: “Step 7 – then a miracle occurs…”

Given the size of the development, I share Steve’s concern that $132 million might not be enough, but it appears to be devoted to the sorts of things, especially building infrastructure, that are essential to making a project like this work the way it’s supposed to. I also very much like the idea that there’s some housing for people of modest means that has some nice views of the cityscape. I’ve lived in several areas where the assumption seems to be that only the affluent are entitled to have a decent view – of anything.

It would be good for Minneapolis if the renovation is as successful as its supporters and investors want it to be.

This monstrosity is definitely on my list of unsalvageable buildings. If it did not house immigrants, relatively poor people and others of communities that are traditionally disadvantaged I'd certainly want it torn down ASAP. To me it represents everything that went wrong with the Urban Renewal movement of the '60's and '70's.

Other buildings on my wrecking ball list include the Multifoods tower, the Metrodome and Block E.

The list is also likely to include any new Vikings stadium as it will be a behemoth structure completely out of place in its surroundings.

I wonder what Rapson would say if he knew his panels were being "repainted" and the plumbing redone etc; in an attempt to rehab what was essentially a failed project? Even in its inception, not well received by many?

And where is the "humanistic approach to architectural design' as a hallmark so often describing his 'functionalist' approach?

Stacking people like pigeons in a tall chicken coop...where is the human element? Surely nothing to cluck - or is it 'crow' about?

(Will Gehry ever look back and say of a few of his early 'concepts'..."Heck, it looks like a tin can sans rust."

Do architects who have reached some pinnacle of success regionally or nationally, applaud self, or their design; whatever the original intent...or is there a voice from above (hopefully), calling down ..."Tear down that failure!"

There are no design gods before us...to err even occasionally, is human,eh?

'Modular dystrophy' is a curse not a gift from the 70's.

I was just beginning college when my urban studies professor handed out some mimeographs of articles on the "new town in town" concept that HUD and others were pushing in the late-60s/early 70s. Featured prominently in those hand-outs was Cedar-Riverside. I wasn't impressed as they struck me as the type of building we had hoped we had forgotten from the worst of the urban renewal days.

I visited it for the first time during a conference in 1994...and thought, man, if this was the future of American cities, I should get another job! It was truly worse up close than it was from far way.

The years haven't been kind to the project. $132 million seems awful expensive for a project that, to me, epitomizes the loss of great neighborhoods in our cities for buildings like these...seems like $132 million could build a really nice neighborhood for the residents of the area and really begin to knit the somewhat frayed fabric of the neighborhood back together again.

The most affordable housing we have already exists. It would be impossible to see this many units built for $132 million. Land prices, material and labor costs, land availability and other development challenges would require a lot more money. So George Sherman and the city's development department should really be commended for what they are doing.

I've never been a big fan of the exterior design of this project, but as Steve Berg correctly points out - in its own strange way, the project has been a significant settlement point for generations of new Americans trying to gain a foothold in a land of opportunity. That's not to say the project hasn't had it's problems, but everytime I attend a community meeting, I'm really impressed by the commitment of the residents towards bettering their neighborhood.

This project, and the approaching Central Corridor rail link will have very interesting (and I think largely positive) impacts for this area - provided the community continues to have the opportunity to shape and define what is built here.

One other important aspect that didn't make the MinnPost article (likely due to space constraints) is the outstanding effort of the city to develop a job training and employment system for the resident of Cedar-Riverside towers. The plan is to hire around 90 residents to assist in the rehab. It's really great to see Minneapolis and other government agencies commiting themselves to hiring goals for local community members - this creates a double-bottomline for the neighborhood and demonstrates that the city is serious when they say that projects like these will create community benefits.