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What to do with Block E? Thinking outside the cubicle

To avoid the grim outcome of more cubicle space, I decided to cast around for alternatives.

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.
MinnPost photo by John Noltner

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.