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North Loop building boom may finally heal Gateway scars

The destruction of the Gateway district was a massive blunder that has sapped vitality from downtown Minneapolis for 50 years.

In the last 18 months, the North Loop neighborhood has exploded with development.
MinnPost photo by John Reinan

The destruction of the Gateway district was a massive blunder that has sapped vitality from downtown Minneapolis for 50 years.

MinnPost readers are probably well-versed in this regrettable episode. For those who aren’t, take a look at “Down on Skid Row,” a fascinating documentary featuring home movies shot by “Johnny Rex,” owner of the Sourdough Bar and unofficial mayor of the Gateway.

Star Tribune columnist James Lileks has an excellent collection of before and after Gateway photos, with biting commentary, on his personal website.

In addition, the Historyapolis Project is compiling an accessible record of Minneapolis development as a catalyst for community discussion.

old gateway
City of Minneapolis via the Historyapolis Project
The Gateway district was dirty and sordid, not the kind of place that spoke of progress in a forward-looking era.

It’s easy to see why the city fathers of the 1950s wanted to be rid of the Gateway, the Skid Row of Minneapolis. It was dirty and sordid, not the kind of place that spoke of progress in a forward-looking era.

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But in lancing that boil, urban planners destroyed the streetscape of nearly half of downtown, leaving behind a sea of asphalt parking lots that turned a vibrant neighborhood into a wasteland. Many of the parking lots remain to this day, empty vessels where once there was life and commerce. The new construction that did take place is possibly the most uninspiring collection of giant shoeboxes ever to blight a major American city.

But just beyond the former Gateway lies the North Loop. And the boom that’s taking place there gives me hope for a downtown renewal.

I’ve worked in the North Loop now for six years. When I started, it was a quiet backwater with wide, brick streets and great old warehouses. There was some new development, but when the recession hit in 2008, all that came to a halt.

new gateway
City of Minneapolis via the Historyapolis Project
Urban planners destroyed the streetscape of nearly half of downtown, leaving behind a sea of asphalt parking lots that turned a vibrant neighborhood into a wasteland.

Now, in the last 18 months, the neighborhood has exploded. Hundreds of apartment and condo units are under construction. New restaurants are springing up everywhere: world-class dining spots like Borough and The Bachelor Farmer as well as neighborhood joints like the Smack Shack. The Fulton Brewery opened a taproom that’s become the place to grab a beer before Twins games. There’s foot traffic on Washington Avenue all day long and well into the night. It’s gotten a lot harder to find on-street parking, even during off-peak hours.

My colleagues and I have had front-row seats for the boom; new buildings are going up all around us, one of them literally three feet from our office walls. We’ve lived for months now with the noise of heavy equipment. We regularly apologize to clients who find their chairs suddenly vibrating when the piledrivers go to work in the middle of a meeting.

And I couldn’t be more delighted.

The North Loop hums with energy that’s creeping ever closer to the Gateway void. My hope — and my belief — is that one day soon the development will jump to the south side of Hennepin Avenue and begin to repopulate the depressed and denuded landscape that still exists around the central library.

When that happens, we may finally have the beginnings of the world-class downtown that the planners of the 1950s envisioned when they razed Skid Row.