Target Center and I go way back. My first paying journalism job was roughly where Section 240 was today. (The old Haskell’s building, which was the perfect place for the Twin Cities Reader.)
A few years later, when the original Timberwolves owners tried to blackmail, then cajole, government to buy the privately financed building, I wrote a cover story titled, “When Pigs Fly.” The city of Minneapolis managed to launch the pig skyward, to the moans of taxpayers ever since. Former Councilmember Pat Scott never fails to remind me of my prognosticating abilities.
Therefore, I won’t try to foretell the fate of the new $155 million renovation effort. I will say this: I wasn’t sure Mayor R.T Rybak could find worse optics than the artsy drinking fountain controversy, but a vague, nine-figure panhandle for an unloved building amid budget nightmares represents a solid try. I realize the Metrodome renovation bid paved the way, but unlike the Vikings, the Timberwolves lease isn’t up until 20-friggin-25.
Because it occurred on the rubble of my former workplace, I vaguely remember attending Target Center’s groundbreaking sometime in the late ’80s. As I recall, they tore down a fairly ugly First Bank branch; the tragedy for we proto-hipsters was the eviction of Market Bar-B-Que and the loss of Goofy’s Upper Deck (where I saw one of Curtiss A’s first John Lennon tributes. Maybe the first?).
Minneapolis had already set the mark for precast ugliness with the Multifoods Tower (now 33 South Sixth), but what arose from the Bar-B-Que’s ashes was perhaps the most soul-deadening major building I had ever seen. (Actually, I go back and forth between Target Center and Cedar Riverside; the latter is bigger, but has a bit of whimsy.) This wasn’t just precast concrete; it was precast concrete with acres of metal siding.
As it turned out, Target Center’s architect had never designed an arena before, and never would again. The Timberwolves owners, Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner, made their money on apartments and health clubs; they chose a local firm they’d used for fitness centers to do their basketball palace.
This afternoon, I tracked down Alan Kimpell, who owns KMB Architects, to ask how he felt about the potential transformation of his work. Kimpell hadn’t seen the beauty shots, nor had he been asked to consult on the project. He was sanguine and handled my gingerly-put inquiries about the building’s homelieness with professional aplomb.
The plan was to tie Target Center into the Warehouse District, Kimpell says, but doing so became a “real issue,” adding, “It stands on its own, in its time. I don’t think it’s a bad building.”
A few years after the Wolves took occupancy in 1990, Marv or Harv was already muttering about having built more seats on the upper level than below. AP’s Jon Krawczynski noted that Target Center was the last arena built “upside-down,” but that meant there were many existing facilities with such configurations. Marv and Harv didn’t hire an innovator, they hired someone they knew. They wound up with the basketball version of U.S. Cellular Field, the soulless White Sox ballpark that opened in 1991 — a year before Camden Yards.
Kimpell was headed out to lunch, so I didn’t get a chance to ask him about the rumors that Marv and Harv drove architects and contractors crazy with change orders, and that it crimped the budget. (On one level, Target Center is proof that the private sector doesn’t always do it better than government.)
Kimpell did note that, whatever I thought of the exterior, it could have been plainer; the glassed-in part that looks out on Butler Square was a late addition. (That’s right; it could’ve been precast-and-siding on all four sides.) Now, the renovation dreams include making that glassy part — overlooking the Twins plaza — the main entrance.
Kimpell said KMR applied to build some of the University of Minnesota athletic facilities, but wasn’t selected. If the firm’s one completed arena isn’t a beautiful building, Kimpell can at least brag about its durability. Target Center has outlasted the other three NBA-expansion arenas built around the same time. Even though the configuration isn’t optimal for selling high-priced tickets, I can say as a Wolves fan that the sight lines are pretty good, and women should appreciate the then-revolutionary female-to-male bathroom ratio. (There were some innovations!)
As a taxpayer, I still blame that mid-’90s City Council for sticking city taxpayers with a fiscal millstone, not to mention Arne Carlson and Norm Coleman for the sin of subsidizing a second arena. Target Center is a pig, and spending more money on it while Xcel stands is likely adding earrings. I wonder if the cost of blowing it up, paying back the city, and bribing the Wolves to St. Paul would cost less than $155 mil. That said, I’d probably throw in fifty bucks if Rybak can promise I’ll never look at that precast again.