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What’s old is new: A Block E park

Bellanotte’s closing already has some people dreaming about tearing down moribund Block E and “starting over.”

Back in the day, I covered the Block E saga before the sad, doomed labyrinth was even a gleam in its architect’s eye. While Minneapolis politicos, led by Council President Jackie Cherryhomes, relentlessly pushed for our generation’s version of The Conservatory, there were a few brave souls who had a longer-term vision that looks mighty sharp today.

This 1998 piece I did for City Pages lays out the most attractive dreamscape: a Block E park.

Had it happened, we never would’ve moved the Shubert, never erected excess retail and had a fabulous tree-lined “town square” for downtown workers and shopping. They would’ve shown movies on the back of the Shub, and imagine the sylvan linkage between the park and Target Field.

The nifty thing about the plan is that it won the endorsement of city finance director John Moir, who was about the only one trying to grasp the reins during the Cherryhomes/Sayles Belton years. (Note Moir’s skepticism over the then-$26 million Shubert plan; the still-unrenovated palace costs $41 million now.) Underground parking would’ve paid for land development, and surrounding-block development would’ve spun off added property taxes, much like lakes and lakefront property do.

I don’t know if this dreamscape would’ve survived further vetting, since Cherryhomes’ headlong push for a civic monument (now tombstone) proved impossible to brake. Three years after I wrote this, Minneapolis voters ejected Cherryhomes, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and others for their developer-crazed ways.

Could we go back and undo our wrong turn, with the Graves 601 hotel subbing for the Shubert? After all, the underground parking is already built — and we know downtown is overbuilt. There’s little doubt America must trash countless bubble-fueled developments. The best alternative is building nothing (after all, housing, office and retail markets are all overbuilt), but most sites don’t lend themselves to parks. Block E does.

There are countless obstacles, of course: buying out the developer, renegotiating a handful of leases, figuring out if financing is a bigger folly than what we now have. But I’d encourage the smart folks to at least do the legwork. Sometimes, dreams are more practical than reality.

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Andrew Eklund on 07/21/2009 - 10:16 am.

    Yes, David, this would be wonderful. Who’s got the cojones to fight for it and pull it off?

  2. Submitted by Paul Scott on 07/21/2009 - 10:26 am.

    I always thought this seemed like the smartest damn idea. Something akin to Washington Square park in NYC, with a simple fountain, some chess tables, cobblestones, and yes, a few bums sleeping it off on a bench. There is this unfortunate sense of terror over public urban space, as if every square foot must become part of some consumer activity. A park would have also bridged the wharehouse district with the retail side. Sometimes the best ideas are too simple to be taken seriously. Or maybe it just had to do with the lack of tax generating activity on every last plot of land.

  3. Submitted by Bob Spaulding on 07/21/2009 - 11:31 am.

    Amen. The land begs to be a park.

    Elegantly resonant analysis.

    It’s never too late to right a wrong turn.

  4. Submitted by Glenn Miller on 07/21/2009 - 12:28 pm.

    While Washington Square would be a terrific model for an urban park, one needn’t travel that far to see a perfectly-landscaped urban block park. Go to St. Paul and take a look at Mears Park in Lowertown, arguably one of America’s most beautiful square-block parks. David, thanks for saying what needed to be said regarding Block E.

  5. Submitted by Chris Johnson on 07/21/2009 - 12:51 pm.

    This is fine example of why perhaps Lisa McDonald would have made a better mayor than RT Rybak. McDonald was not the only person with the vision to put a park there, but she was one of the most prominent and actually tried to do something about it.

    Block E is emblematic of the kind of failure which results from politicians like Cherryhomes and Sayles-Belton. Rybak may be a significant improvement, but he doesn’t have the “vision thing” that McDonald had, and that’s what is really necessary to make a city great.

    It’s doubly sad that our sister city has already demonstrated how to do it — twice, one might even argue, what with both Mears Park and Rice Park downtown. Minneapolis still sits essentially at zero for downtown parks.

    I’ve never patronized any establishment in the new Block E building, despite even having worked for a year across the street in the Plymouth Building. It holds zero interest for me. It’s sheer external ugliness predisposes any experience to being negative.

  6. Submitted by David Skarjune on 07/21/2009 - 01:32 pm.

    As Glen comments, Mears Park is an ideal model, but don’t ignore Peavey Plaza, which is a wonderful space. Seems like Block E was doomed from the start–what with City Center withering and The Conservatory dead… Thanks to David for pointing out the Shubert issue (anybody see Waking Ned Devine?). Bonus points for reminding me of that 98 Smashing Pumpkins concert and that there was at least one good idea that Lisa McDonald had in the City Council. But oooo, the Cherryhomes-Yanisch years of Minneapolis misplanning.

  7. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 07/21/2009 - 02:13 pm.

    It may be true that the best alternative is building nothing, but that’s not what you’re talking about. You’re talking about destroying something, which has happened far more often downtown than building something. So now downtown is strewn with vacant lots, like the one on the block north of Block E, and the block south of Block E. Either of those places are good locations for parks, and the lot on 5th is probably much better than Block E’s location. So why go through the expense of tearing down Block E? Especially considering some of us hold out hope that some day the USA may catch up with the rest of the world and realize that the inner city is a good place to shop.

  8. Submitted by David Brauer on 07/21/2009 - 02:30 pm.

    Alex –

    You’re right to be skeptical, but I’ll just throw these two points out:

    1. Block E simply doesn’t work as a building. It will have to be massively reconfigured for it to work right. Good money after bad?

    2. The hope that the USA will realize downtown is a great place to shop hasn’t been borne out in recent decades, even with the back-to-the-city movement. And should it be, there are LOTS of existing developments that can accommodate increased demand: Gaviidae, City Center — all the *other* monuments to hopeful failures past.

    I’m all for density in the urban core, but the other sites you mention aren’t nearly as open or workable as Block E (sans everything but the 601 Hotel) would be.

    Opening up the blocks on either side would require tearing down the Shubert (which I would actually be for, but $38 million in fundraising argues against) and the block south requires gutting the Pantages, First Ave, or the building on the corner of 8th & Hennepin.

    I’ll admit my idea is intentionally whimsical, and thus efforts to poke holes in it aren’t that hard. But it’s not *quite* as one-sided as you make out, and that’s what I want people to noodle about.

  9. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 07/21/2009 - 02:39 pm.

    Anyone who has spent any time inside the Block E mall (which doesn’t even have the dignity of a name) will know that it is a mistake on many, many levels.

    Primarily, the architecture is unlikely to be fixable for less than the cost of a new building.

    Like The Conservatory before it, the Block E mall deserves to be erased from the city’s grid, if not it’s memory. This is not like tearing down a building whose time has simply come and gone. This building never had a time, and it never will.

    And it almost goes without saying that a downtown park would be perfect in that location. (Thanks, David, for saying it anyway.)

  10. Submitted by dan buechler on 07/21/2009 - 03:06 pm.

    Alex has the best idea. Work around the pantages or schubert one being closer to the twins.

  11. Submitted by Bob Quarrels on 07/21/2009 - 04:48 pm.

    If we’re going to dream about tearing down past mistakes, how about City Center? Won’t it be all paid for soon? I’m sure the Brazilian steakhouse could relocate somewhere, maybe with the Forum Cafe fixtures from Goodfellows. .

  12. Submitted by shaun laden on 07/21/2009 - 05:08 pm.

    As if Block E isn’t bad enough already, the new Twins stadium walkway will spill out onto Hennepin Ave right across from the Hooter’s. Block E is an embarrassment, our very own slice of Eagan architecture in Minneapolis, but I find it hard to believe tearing it down is a prudent move given the state of economic affairs.

    What fans of good design should hope for is preservation of Peavey Plaza. We can now list that spot as one that has “gone Eagan” as well as a result of maintenance work that substituted original design materials with something like what my dad installed in our backyard for a retaining wall. The wall is still up and did the job, not exactly in the Modern style though. It’s the little spots around town that make for good neighborhoods. I’d be for repairing spots we’ve got before trying anything new.

    Not sure what is happening with Peavey. Anyone know?

  13. Submitted by Michael Rhodes on 07/22/2009 - 08:01 pm.

    Block E’s failure has nothing to do with downtown Minneapolis being “overbuilt”: in fact, it’s grossly under-built, or has been de-built over the last 50 years. Its failure is a result of trying to build a shopping mall downtown with a flimsy urban facade. It’s a foolish thing to do, because, as mega shopping malls go, the suburbs will always win. If Block E had been redeveloped as a truly urban place, with far smaller shops a more inviting character, it just might have had a shot.

    None of that really works, however, without transit that works, and Minneapolis has lacked that for a long time. While some people will always drive downtown, truly thriving downtown retail requires thriving transit: you will not find an example anywhere of a downtown that’s truly successful where most people drive to get there.

    I’m optimistic that the next two LRT lines (Central and Southwest) will bring more “bridge and tunnel crowd” types to downtown for shopping, dining, etc, but in the meantime, pretending that you can reach critical urban mass without great mass transit is a joke. It’s not hard to trace the decline of downtown Minneapolis (and St. Paul) to the decline of the streetcar; downtown’s resurgence will require the resurgence of rail.

  14. Submitted by James Blum on 07/23/2009 - 06:12 am.

    Michael is spot-on: Block E’s failure, like the Conservatory and City Center’s retail, is because of this Midwest fascination with big indoor spaces. Downtown Minneapolis has 2 seasons: walk-on-the-street season and skyway season. Developers could build smaller 2-level retail spaces that open onto the street on the first floor and onto the skyway on the 2nd floor. The only single-level retail should be restaurants and service providers (travel agents, tax preparers, salons, etc.), because for the most part, they are destinations (e.g., most people *plan* to get their hair cut, not decide as they’re walking by, “Oh, I think I’ll get my brows waxed this minute …”). Target’s downtown store is as busy as it is in part because it is accessible at street and skyway levels.

    Michael is absolutely right, though, that the key is transit (and retail differentiation). Downtown doesn’t have the density past 5:00pm to sustain a lot of retail (sorry, Macy’s), in part because the “bridge and tunnel” crowd doesn’t need to spend $10 for parking to shop at the same stores they can find at Eden Prairie Center or Rosedale (again, sorry, Macy’s). Transit will bring more people in contact with downtown retail, which will help, and adding some diversity to downtown would be a big boost. For example, I know a lot of hunters that work downtown, and they are willing to make the trek to Rogers or Owatonna to shop at Cabela’s. A retailer like that could absolutely be a destination store downtown, and could help support many small retailers nearby (but only if there are no Cabela’s stores any closer than where they are currently). Of course, that’s too obvious to actually happen …

  15. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 07/30/2009 - 10:45 am.

    I appreciate your push for creative thinking about Downtown Minneapolis, David. I just question whether bulldozer-style renewal is a fresh idea there, or an appropriate one (although I do support it in many areas of the city).

    Personally I prefer smaller parks to larger ones in dense cities, but certainly Minneapolis has been lacking in a town square since at least the 1960s (RIP Gateway Park), so that goal might be worth the expense and waste of the wrecking ball.

    But if you continue to push for Town Square Block E, I ask you to at least consider the fact that it would be framed on one side by a 3-story parking garage and on the other by the concrete and neon nightmare of Target Center. Not exactly showpieces.

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