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What to do with Block E? Thinking outside the cubicle

Block E

MinnPost photo by John Noltner

Block E is only the latest twist in what one person called "the trail of tears" that has been the history of downtown retail developments, including The Conservatory, City Center and Gaviidae.

The entertainment complex known as Block E on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis is just about empty now that the AMC movie theater has shut down. Only Kiernan's Irish Pub, the Graves 601 Hotel and a couple other spots are going concerns.

Driving by Block E (or around it, as I did the other day) has to make you sad. Its flop marks the death of the city's hopes of turning a once-blighted block into an attraction that would draw more people downtown. 

The idea was not necessarily ridiculous. Boston's Copley Place, smack in the heart of the city, contains 75 posh shops and restaurants and links to two hotels and four office buildings. Last time I was there a few years ago, it was crammed full of people.

Block E was designed to be a more modest version, with restaurants, a giant movie theater, an underground parking ramp and one hotel -- although the cost, some $139 million (with $39 million financed by the city), was significant.

A spokesman for Alatus, the company that purchased the building in 2010, says that it is "reviewing a number of redevelopment ideas." According to Jim McComb, a retail analyst, one is "leasing the space to office users who don't need windows."

To avoid that grim outcome -- acres of cubicle workers who never see the light of day (are they thinking of creating a domestic FoxConn?) -- I decided to cast around for alternatives. What should happen in the Block E block? What could flourish there? And what should happen to the building?

Answers I got ranged from a despairing shake of the head to a smart-alecky "maybe there's a nuclear weapon that doesn't affect people."

Such hopelessness is not surprising considering that Block E is only the latest twist in what one person called "the trail of tears" that has been the history of downtown retail developments, including The Conservatory, City Center and Gaviidae. Despite all that, there must be some way to profitably use a property sitting smack dab in the middle of the city.

To move ahead, however, we have to understand the past, which means figuring out what went wrong. And let's give the economy its due. Block E opened in 2002, in the depths of the dotcom meltdown -- and a stock market collapse of about 2,000 points. And, of course, in 2007 came the Great Recession from which we still haven't fully recovered. The increase in online shopping also walloped Block E, precipitating, for example, the liquidation of Border's, one of Block E's major tenants.

Those events, however, can't explain everything. One school of thought has it that the entire concept was straight out of Ronald Reagan's America, which is to say a couple of decades behind the times. Larry Millett, architecture critic and author of “Lost Twin Cities,” says "what they built was a suburban complex." And, he adds, there is no point to creating a piece of suburbia downtown when the same stuff -- Panchero's Mexican Grill, Applebee's, GameWorks, Mrs. Field's Cookies and the like -- is available in every suburban mall, where, incidentally, parking is free. 

Design is another problem. I didn't think Block E -- which took its inspiration from two-story Main Streets of the 19th Century -- was so awful to look at; but Ignacio San Martin, director of the Metropolitan Design Center at the University of Minnesota, is not so forgiving. He describes it as "an enclosed, superblock mall-size of space with a false postmodern facade typical of 1970’s California remodels, which add no real value to the important role of public life in the city." I have the feeling that Professor San Martin may have spat on the ground after writing that.

Caren Dewar, executive director of the Urban Land Institute Minnesota, a nonprofit, adds: "Block E is very unwelcoming. It was built to be very internal." Not only does it have no windows, but it's pretty stingy with doors too. On Hennepin, there are just two. Retailers on the first floor might have gotten traffic from lively First Avenue -- but that side of the building has no entrances whatsoever.

Sam Newberg, an urbanist and founder of Joe Urban, Inc., a market research company, wrote a case study of Block E back in 2004. The city, he says, could not decide whether the project should be "designed for the street level or skyway realm." The architect wanted an escalator from the sidewalk up to the second floor, which might have opened up the structure, but the city vetoed that. Skyways do lead to the second floor, but once people traversed them, they found little more than a vast theater lobby and a few fast-food outlets.

All that, of course, is water under the bridge, spilt milk and so on. The question is: What next?

Everybody I talked to said that the hotel and the parking ramp could stay. Repurposing a windowless structure, however, is not that easy.

A ‘Mercado Municipal’

One interesting possibility comes from Max Musicant, a place-making consultant. His idea: a central market. He explains: "It would be low-tech, but real. Vendors would be high-end and low [offering everything from] artisanal goods to basic staples and snacks." Each would get a space that measured about 10-by-10, with food on the periphery to draw people inside and, he adds, "minimize ventilation and HVAC costs." 

A market could work because it needs no windows -- take a look at the San Telmo Antiques Market in Buenos Aires,  which is actually a series of markets. Also, a market can configure itself even in the odd spaces that abound in Block E. Musicant also points out that, although having so many vendors would raise property management costs, the owner's  “systemic risk” -- dependence on a few big retailers -- would be smaller.

Musicant's idea harmonizes with one from Caren Dewar, who suggested pop-up  shops or, at least, distinctive, one-of-a-kind stores that you see growing up in the Northeast and South Minneapolis. Such variability, dictated these days by the changing nature of retail, could provide the surprises that visitors might want. And, of course, having a market doesn't necessarily rule out all bricks-and-mortar stores. A few might fit into the mix. 

Departments of commerce

Thomas Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, has some doing-business thoughts. He suggests that we turn Block E into an entrepreneurial incubator to provide space for start-up businesses and new entrepreneurial enterprises. "The large floor plates of the building would be ideal for new CoCo-like space,”  he writes. I don't know how the folks at CoCo would feel about that since the Minneapolis branch of their business is only a block away.

I met with the two of the founders, Don Ball and Kyle Coolbroth, last week, and they are bursting with new ideas for budding entrepreneurs and companies: seminars, classes, off-site meetings and so on. Maybe in a couple of months, they'll need a larger space. The only drawback I see is that their current locations have pretty amazing windows.

But Dean Fisher offers another idea: "Turn Block E into a marketplace for the local economy, providing a place for local companies to show their wares and for local creatives to demonstrate their ideas and their work, with the goal of connecting them with consumers and funders." I say that we get somebody from Disney to design it. The company didn't do too badly with Epcot, which, when you come down to it, is a facility offering customers a lot of interactive infomercials -- with some thrill rides, restaurants and bathrooms thrown in for good measure.

Mega-mega houses of worship

A few people proposed an entertainment or casino development. And, while it's true that nightclubs and gambling don't require windows, there are other impediments. For one, we may already have enough nightclubs downtown. And putting, say, 10 of them in one building (you'd need at least that many to fill the cavernous spaces) would place them in vicious competition. You could invite one owner to run all the venues at once, but we already have a place like that. It's called First Avenue.

Alatus says that it has decided to drop plans for a casino, which is probably smart. A privately run casino would have to compete with tribal casinos, says McComb. Because tribes pay no state taxes, they could easily raise their payouts beyond what a private owner could offer and quickly put him out of business. The White Earth Nation made a proposal  to establish a casino in downtown Minneapolis, but the Legislature would have to declare Block E tribal land and put it in trust. It's doubtful that the other tribal casinos in the area would allow that to happen.

So I thought of going in the opposite direction. Instead of nightclubs, how about churches? Those 15 theaters in Block E could easily convert to mega-church sanctuaries for Sunday morning services and other religious events -- which require no windows. While membership in mainline denominations has declined, evangelical followers  in Minnesota increased by nearly 14 percent in the first decade of this century. Their houses of worship must be bursting at the seams. Some of vast expanses of carpeted tundra in Block E could be converted to church offices and classrooms. And, after Sunday morning services or nightly prayer vigils, adherents could flock to fast-food joints and stores on the first floor.

The One Percent Towers

Several people I talked to were ready to tear down Block E and build something else. One was Robert Belton, president of AnderBel, a North Minneapolis construction company. He doesn't see any need for more retail or office space downtown. Instead, he suggests expanding the Graves 601. "Downtown could use more hotel rooms," he says. And, funny thing: Hennepin County has already engaged a consulting firm to study the feasibility of a Convention Center hotel. 

If a bigger hotel isn't feasible, Belton suggests replacing Block E with ultra-luxury housing. "With more people living downtown, they'd be able to take advantage of the existing retail, restaurants and theaters," he says. "They'd make the area more vibrant." Moreover, the hotel could offer the up-market residents some hoity-toity extras like maid, valet and laundry service, room service, 24-hour door attendants and perhaps a spa. When hotel occupancy rates drop, it could continue to rake in fees from all the services it sells to residents of -- what should we call it? -- The One Percent Towers, of course. 

Redeveloping Block E would no doubt cost a bundle. But Alatus paid only $14 million for the complex (excluding the hotel), which, says Newberg, is basically the cost of its 550 heated parking spaces. The company should have enough equity in the property to float a loan.

One more thought about a new building. Everybody I talked to insists that there should be no more of what Millet calls "fake, historical architecture." He adds: "It would be much better if it were sleek, modern and colorful." Ignacio San Martin already has a vision: "adding new well-executed design buildings along 6th and 7th Streets, leaving the central space fronting Hennepin Ave. as an unanticipated, splendid, and celebratory public open square."  Thomas Fisher suggests turning the land into a public park. Unlike St. Paul, which can boast of two downtown -- Rice and Mears -- Minneapolis has none.

So, to sum up, nothing at all may be the best of all possible uses.

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Comments (12)

Block E's failure was

Block E's failure was predictable at the outset. San Martin and Dewar correctly repeat what many said at the time Block E was built: it fails to serve any urban function in an important central location. The suburban mall mix of tenants was noted as proof that the building as designed was a failure before it opened.

Instead of driving around it, I suggest you get out and walk. The building is a fortress, with few openings to allow interactions with either skyway or street level pedestrians. The hotel has some street level activity, but the hotel does not really connect internally with Block E. There are no skyways to the north or south, and connecting with street level requires using fire exit stairs that hide behind fire doors.

It would have been nice if the escalator from the street to the second level had been built as planned. I don't think Newberg tells that part of the history quite right when he says:

"The architect wanted an escalator from the sidewalk up to the second floor, which might have opened up the structure, but the city vetoed that. "

I believe the escalator was part of the original design approved by the City, but the developer came back to the City and asked for permission to take it out. There was debate on the City Council whether or not to approve that change. The developer won that battle, which is too bad. But to call that a City veto is not really accurate.

Outdoor Escalator

I should have been clearer in my comments to Marlys Harris regarding the escalator. My understanding from reporting on Block E is outdoor escalators are not allowed by state law, so calling that a "city veto" is a bit simplistic. The point is what we were left with is that crummy indoor steel staircase as the only pedestrian access between the 1st Avenue sidewalk and the second story. Regardless, the point is that is an example of a horrible compromise for the project, one that devalued Block E from a circulation and access point of view.

There are some good ideas here

And some not so good ones. Putting churches in the space would seem likely to under-utilize central urban property. I'm also highly skeptical that the suburban worshipers they would need to draw would enjoying driving downtown for services either.

I like the market idea, although perhaps it would be more accessible to readers to think about the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia as the example.

But to me, the biggest problem with Block E, and many past grand plans for downtown retail, is that it relied on a model of bringing people downtown instead of trying to serve those who are already there. Do the people who work downtown, or live there, want to eat at Applebees? To they want Mrs. Fields?

Block E has two built-in potential customer bases: people who work downtown and people who come to the area for sporting events at Target Center and Target Field. It should be seeking tenants that can serve those customers as the core of it's business, and considering drawing in suburbanites as a distinctly secondary priority.

The skyway level should have high-volume food properties that are under-represented downtown. Five Guys and maybe Chipotle (although there is one not far away) and something like Chop't (there is a real dearth of salad places downtown) would give downtown lunch seekers a reason to cross over Hennepin Ave.

Downtown is also short on pharmacies/drug stores. Other cities have them on almost every block, because they make their money on convenience for offices workers during the day. Block E could easily house a CVS or a Walgreen or another pharmacy option.

Another piece of the missing puzzle is electronics. There's a Radio Shack in Gavidea, and there's Target obviously, but that's it for dowtown electronics shopping. An Apple Store would be perfect (and would be a draw for customers from farther out), but perhaps a small Best Buy could serve as well. The idea is to have a place where people can stop in and grab a gadget for a gift on the way home or an accessory that they's lost, forgotten or misplaced.

Then on the First Avenue side, they need more properties that appeal to event goers. A German beer hall brand, like Hofbrauhaus, would make great sense for the former Hard Rock Cafe space, adding a style of venue that is both missing from downtown and likely to appeal to people before and after games and concerts.

Obviously, I've only scratched the surface of filling all that space. But I do think a big part of Block E's failure resulted from having the wrong kinds of properties.

Great article

A park sounds best.

Ugh

The suggestions in the article made me groan. The problem was clearly identified: no one who works in Downtown wants what Block E had to offer, and nothing Block E had to offer was worth paying for parking when you can park for free in the 'burbs. Block E failed because it was so tepid. It's just far enough off the beaten path for Downtown workers to need a VERY good reason to cross Hennepin to get to it. And it's terribly inaccessible to those enjoying events in Downtown to bother finding an entrance. Not that there was anything special about an Applebee's when you could get to a lot of other more or less special places Downtown easier. And I never understood why there was a theater there. Families living downtown might go there, but the size of that population isn't enough to sustain a full-blown theater, and downtown parents are more likely to take their kids to a museum (yeah, I know I'm stereotyping, but think about it...)

Block E needs to be a true city destination if it's going to survive as a retail space. Although the concept of a market sounds interesting, gobs and gobs of tiny vendors with arts and crap quality stuff is not going to attract anyone unless it can be a permanent farmers market (but we live in Minnesota, so...). And boutiques with higher quality stuff are just as likely to die off as any other store--they do all the time. If there's going to be food, it had better be either unique or a place where you can get affordable higher quality stuff (there's no Noodles downtown). Better, more expensive, restaurants had better be good or they will perish, too.

Maybe the answer is to lure a local main feature client into the space. For example, make rental more affordable (hey, Gaviidae could fill a lot more spaces if rent was more reasonable) and convince Surly that they need to put their brewing destination Downtown. Or something similar. Overall, the interior needs to feel more like a spectacle than your standard skyway hallway with a mishmash of bad-for-you food and last-minute-gift shops. If something like Surly was to occupy the space, you could imagine walking past glass walls displaying vats of brewing beer. THAT is the sort of place you could have a company holiday party, or take your clients, or actually GO Downtown for. Then you fill the rest with one-of-a kind shops, or at least stuff that isn't run-of-the-mill-in-every-suburban-mall businesses. Think of where you might want to be before a Twins game (or after). Or what you'd want to see if you had to pay for parking. Or what might impress a client.

Uff da

It's hard to try to fit responses to all of your ideas into any one comment, but here goes...

A) Any proposal full of wishy-washy liberal arts jargon probably isn't going to be a great idea.

B) Park is a terrible idea for this block in 2012, there's almost no residential population in this area, and it's blocked off from the main part of downtown by City Center. So basically all that's left are the homeless, plus drunks on the weekends spilling over from the nightclubs. Parks are never, ever something that should just be "done" in a vacuum because there's a pretty watercolor rendering of them before construction. Without regular sober traffic to and around a park, it will become a huge problem.

C) People have quickly lost track of what actually happened with Block E. Yes, the building is ugly and badly designed, but for the most part it was full of tenants before Alatus bought the building and forced them out for the casino proposal. We lost the two big corner tenants to the market, which was a problem, but other than that much of the touting of Block E as a "failure" is at least a little misleading, if not outright untrue.

D) Trying too hard to "do" anything in particular with Block E will probably not work out, as we've learned from so many multi-million dollar initiatives and programs all over the city. What works in a city is organic growth. Reclad the building, stick some office tenants on top, try to attract retail tenants, and call it a day. I'm tempted by some ideas I've heard about moving the StarTribune's offices over here after the Vikings stadium displaces them, but it just seems like whenever we try to explicitly ram some idea into the urban fabric, it ends up tacky and blatantly contrived.

Right and Wrong

First, I think you're largely right about "trying too hard to 'do' anything". At least in the sense that you can't fight geography. So you have to offer suburbanites something other that what they can get in the suburbs. Or office workers something different than what they can get closer to their office (on the other side on Hennepin).

People will travel (on foot or by car) for restaurants and shops that are appealing AND somewhat unique. And Block E does have an advantage in being close to the Mpls public ramps and freeway access to north and west (less so, I think, to east and south).

But also keep in mind that there is a thriving and growing residential community within walking distance of block E. About 1400 new apartment units are being built in North Loop alone. Plus more in Loring Park area. All on top of the existing condo and apartment base.

Yeah, but keep in mind

Yeah, but keep in mind downtown on foot is a lot different than in a car. I live in Loring Park and Block E is at least fifteen minutes away from me on foot, and I'm a fast/avid walker. It's a little closer to the North Loop, but the areas you're walking through to get there (either the warehouses and freeway ramps or the zombie apocalypse ex-Gateway District) aren't particularly pleasant to walk through.

In fact, I live on the sixteenth floor of a building in Loring Park and I generally don't really think of myself as living downtown, though that's how I explain it to most other people. The physical area of the "neighborhood" stretching from the North Loop to the Metrodome and the river to I-94 is pretty huge. So outside the downtown daytime working population, this site isn't necessarily in a great location to draw pedestrians.

And in terms of drawing people from the suburbs, I think it's just really important to keep in mind the overwhelmingly negative perception that people outside the city in Minnesota have of the city. See: the state legislature. In some cases, it's not entirely unwarranted (like that guy from Minnetonka getting shot in the head on this very block a few years back) but it's important to keep in mind in conversations like this. So let's maybe not go bananas trying to draw them here. They'll come for sporting events and concerts, and we can cater to that, but otherwise it just seems like a waste of time.

Farmer's Market/Beer Garden

Open up the fortress, move the stalls from the Nicollet Mall and sell fresh vegetables, healthy foods, flowers, and breads, seven days a week.

Push the push-carts to the side at night, set up a stage at one end and make it a beer garden where you can sit down, have a beer and listen to local bands.

A place where you can meet up before taking in a play and a place to hang out afterward.

The Problem is Bigger than Block E

Before we repurpose Block E, it seems that we must have a grand vision for why people would want to come downtown. The problem is much bigger. Witness the trail of tears—City Center, Galleria, etc. For many years we really have not held a focused vision for improving the attractiveness of downtown for people who don’t come there for work. We have made a start with Nicollet Mall, stadia, bike lanes, theaters, two-way streets, some apartments, etc. But downtown still lacks that compelling draw of European central cities. It could be done. We really lack good public space and non-auto connections downtown for this draw to happen. We have no parks, piazza’s, places, or grand walks around which people congregate in restaurants, cafés and outdoor activity. To do this would require vision, buy-in, and willingness to close some streets, something that we have not been able to accomplish so far. Attempts at this are going on with the work to connect downtown with the University, St. Anthony Main, the Guthrie, and the Walker. We need to think about walking, biking, connections, and the urban fabric that we live in. Block E should be part of this thought process. An indoor market may have merit. When I bring my European friends to downtown Minneapolis, their first response is that it is a cold place. (This is in the summer time.) Even the Guthrie and the Walker, major new civic investments, do not seem to connect with the surrounding downtown area. We are fortunate. We have the potential to be a great center city to which people want to come because there is something unique to offer. Paris for example, for all of its attractiveness, is thinking of re-inventing itself, with large parts off limits to cars in the future. We need some bold thinking like this, and good design implementation.

Tough Problem

As several people have pointed out, the problem is bigger than Block E and we really need a re-imagining of the city. However, we can't use that excuse to avoid making Block E better.

The structure itself is problematic. Without street-level windows on either side of Hennepin it will continue to be a intimidating place for pedestrians. That has to be fixed pronto. Punch some holes in the building if possible, tear it down and rebuild if not.

We have the Midtown Global Market so I'm not convinced a similar offering would be viable (the Global Market struggles as it is). But elements of it might work as described below.

After living almost a year in the North Loop and close to downtown since there, here are some things I would have liked or would like to see downtown. Perhaps some of these could go into a new Block E.

- Grocery. Yes, there's now a Lund's in Southeast, but walking across the river is inconvenient. It doesn't even have to be a supermarket. A series of street-facing small storefronts offering fresh produce, meats, etc. would be very nice, allowing a quick stop to pick up dinner ingredients after hopping off the bus.

- A *good* New York pizza slice place, something like the old Galooney's (RIP).

- Whirlyball! Look it up.

- A pharmacy. Snyder's used to be in there before the Shout House. I don't know why it failed.

- A video & non-video arcade. Not GameWorks, which is far too intimidating. A fun place for the kids to hang around after school and for adults to wind down after work. Include a mix of modern and classic games, perhaps even pay-to-pay home console systems. Think of it as an indoor park. It should have lots of natural light and not be a cave. The upper theater lobby is a good candidate for this kind of renovation. We need a place for people, especially kids, to just hang out and not get into trouble. It would probably require some security staffing but we have that in Block E now.

- Rooftop dining.

- A good music store. Not CDs but instruments, sheet music, books, etc. Groth is the only half-decent one left in the area and it's now way out in Bloomington.

- A used book store. Yes there are lots in Uptown but why only one or two downtown? There's room for more.

There's just some ideas. All of the retail should be street-facing. All of the activity centers should be inside on the upper levels where it's not as easy to have street-facing storefronts.

How about a Terminal Market

What a great article... Lots of ideas to mull over...
How about a Terminal Market, a la the Reading Terminal Market in Philly (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reading_Terminal_Market), or the Essex Street Market in New York City (http://www.essexstreetmarket.com/). They have the potential to draw a lot of people traffic, and they'd certainly add to the quality of life downtown. I also love the idea of a brewery, as part of a larger terminal market concept... though they should be able to pay the rent...