Here comes ‘Minnesota Modern’: Latest plan for Block E shows promise

Courtesy RSP Architects
RSP Architects, which has its offices at the Grain Belt Brew House in northeast Minneapolis, has been retained to renovate Block E's innards and exterior.

Finally! Some good news about Block E, the half-block retail-and-entertainment complex on Hennepin Avenue. The project, built in 2001 to pep up downtown Minneapolis, has been languishing almost empty since the AMC movie theater shut down more than a year ago. So ostentatiously had this partly city-financed development flopped that some observers had advocated the nuclear option — and they weren’t talking about the Senate filibuster.

But Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and it looks as though we may have an extra blessing to count. On Monday morning, Camelot LLC, which purchased the troubled complex for an estimated $14 million in 2010, announced that it has inked a “tenant letter of intent” and begun lease discussions with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx to transform the building into what the press release calls “a world-class training facility.” According to Phillip Jaffe, a Camelot partner (the other two are are Bob Alatus, a developer, and Irv Kessler, a hedge fund manager), two NBA basketball courts, locker rooms, players’ lounges and corporate offices will take up about a third of the complex, leaving the balance of the floor space available for restaurant, retail and office tenants.  

The faux-charming 19th century-ish facade will also undergo a redo. RSP Architects, which has its offices at the Grain Belt Brew House in northeast Minneapolis, has been retained to renovate Block E’s innards and exterior. The style will be “Minnesota Modern.” I am not sure what that is, but supposedly it will be in keeping with other local architectural landmarks like the Guthrie and the renovation of the Millennium Hotel (which RSP did). Other projects in the firm’s portfolio: The Children’s Theatre and the Target Wing at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Given all that, I am expecting at least one endless bridge or flying buttress.

And better yet in this age of corporate handouts, the project will proceed without any public funds — just as private buildings are supposed to do. As you may recall, the city originally contributed a $39 million loan to the cost. Camelot says it still owes some $13 million to the public but plans to repay that by 2019, seven years ahead of schedule. To me that means that the company has been doing spectacularly well with the parking facility which was included with the Block E purchase.

‘I’m hopeful’

The fact that anything is going into this building other than an abattoir or a used car dealership is a cause for some elation. “It’s exciting,” says Caren Dewar, executive director of Urban Land Institute Minnesota, a land-use and real-estate research organization. “I’m hopeful.” Last time I spoke to her about Block E, she had whispered over the phone, “Tear it down?”

Among the more prominent cheerleaders has to be Tom Hoch, president and chief executive officer of Hennepin Theatre Trust and the mover and shaker behind Plan-It Hennepin, a consortium of organizations hoping to transform Minneapolis’ main street into a “cultural district.” “It’s exciting to see something happen there,” he says. His office is across the street, he adds, and he’s looking forward to having a view of more than an empty building in the years before he retires. “But it’s all in the execution,” he adds.

Too true. Even with a possibly cushy lease from the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx, Block E has a ways to go before it becomes a raving success.

For starters, there’s the question of office space, about 100,000 to 120,000 square feet of it. Will there be takers in a neighborhood that hasn’t really ever been a home to corporate offices? Jaffe of Camelot concedes that there haven’t as yet been any nibbles because he and his partners have been working to finalize the deal with the basketball franchises. The floors will have to be turned into Class A or top-of-the-line business space; that will require installing more windows (because few corporate honchos want to preside over windowless cube farms) and possibly leveling out floors that sloped to accommodate movie seating.

Artist rendering of Block E renovationCourtesy RSP ArchitectsThe faux-charming 19th century-ish facade will be replaced with “Minnesota Modern.”

Second, the market for downtown office space is not currently hopping. According to a recent report on the Twin Cities from Collier International, “absorption” or usage of office space was relatively weak in the third quarter. Even though the economy was strong, employers were “densifying” —  i.e., allocating fewer square feet per staffer. What’s more, redevelopment of office space in older buildings, like 510 Marquette, the McGee Building (on Second Avenue South) and the Neiman Marcus store will compete with any new space developed at Block E.  

Jaffe says that Camelot will also be on the hunt for restaurants — or maybe one restaurant. One reason Block E didn’t work in the past, he says, is that it offered pretty much what anybody could find in the suburbs. “What was the point of going downtown to Applebee’s when you could go to Applebee’s in Brooklyn Center?” he asks.

Upscale family experience

What Jaffe has in mind is “something unique that doesn’t yet exist in Minneapolis today” that will provide “an upscale family experience and add some vibrancy to the neighborhood.” The two main restaurants still thriving in Block E, Kieran’s and Shout! Piano Bar, both have shticks of a sort: the former Irish bands and weird sports (Minnesota Freeze Australian Rules Football) and the latter dueling rock pianists. There are no doubt plenty of possibilities, though the only one that came to mind was the Nyotaimori Restaurants in Japan, which allow diners to eat sushi off the bodies of nude servers. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing like that in Brooklyn Center.    

Retail will be another tricky piece to handle. Jim McComb, a real estate and retail consultant, points out that “The building has some strange features.” There was no easy way for pedestrians (or shoppers) to get from Hennepin to First Avenue. They had to go up to the second level and then down to the first to exit. Designers, he adds, wanted to put an escalator on the west side of the building to allow people out to the street but the city vetoed that. “The circulation never worked well,” he says.

Jaffe promises that the architects’ plans will change all that. “Ten to twelve thousand people a day pass through the building and the skyways.” There are bound to be retail outlets that can sell something to them. The first floor, as I see it, is more problematic. Block E, which has only a couple of entrances, is far from inviting.

Sam Newberg, an urbanist and founder of Joe Urban, Inc., a market research company, says he hopes “more ground level windows and doors are added. If they aren’t, it will be hard to call it an improvement.” He advocates going small. “Jimmy Johns and Starbucks have been there all along, on the ground floor. A few more tenants like that – small stores like Jamba Juice or whatever, even continued use as art galleries, are most of the answer.”

Right now, the architects’ renderings make the building look pretty bland and corporate — if at least modern and clean. But Jaffe is hoping to add some pizzazz. Block E sits in what he calls “the billboard district” so he’s not averse to adding lights, advertising and creative signage to the building to give it a kind of Times Square feel. Tom Hoch says that the developer has already agreed to meet with his Cultural District Alliance, which includes representatives from the Walker Art Center, the Twins and Artspace, to talk about the design. Let’s hope that the outcome is at least a little rakish to capture some of the spirit of the bars and pool halls that once flourished on the block.

Of course, the building will only work if people use it. The best way to insure that  — in my not-so-humble opinion — is to make the Timberwolves/Lynx practice facility a destination. If, for example, the teams offer a small bleachers section where the public could watch team practices (for the price of a ticket), families would have a reason to visit. Maybe, when the teams aren’t practicing, local high school or college teams could use the courts for some of their games. Once people are in the building, well, they’ve got to eat, so they’ll patronize the restaurants with or without gimmicks. And maybe they’ll do a little shopping, say, buy a team T-shirt or a ball cap or a book about basketball.   

Whatever they do, you’ve got to hope that Camelot’s partners succeed in retailizing what has become a void right in the middle of the city’s main drag. Says Jim McComb: “I wish them well with that very difficult building.”

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Adam Miller on 11/26/2013 - 11:18 am.

    Mixed signals

    First off, it’s really great that something will happen to the building, which is an automatic improvement.

    But the challenge with this building has always been in trying to compete with “Brooklyn Center,” which doesn’t work. Unless you’ve got a sporting event, you’re not going to regularly pull in large numbers of people from the suburbs. The place needs to be able to survive off of people who are already downtown, or for whom going downtown is no less unappealing as going out to suburban malls (i.e., people who live in downtown adjacent neighborhoods). That means businesses that sell things that downtown workers and residents want (Jimmy Johns and Starbucks being two examples, but not necessarily the only mold). Brands like Five Guys or Chop’t (downtown really needs better salad options) would seem to have a lot of potential for the lunch crowd. Perhaps a drug store. Aside from Target, there’s not really a place to buy electronics downtown. Obviously, adding office tenants also helps add some built in demand as well (and it’s not really out of the way for offices, one of downtown’s tallest office towers is a half block away).

    But the backbone that keeps the facility alive needs to cater to the customers it can actually get.

    After that, good luck to them if they can get a destination restaurant. Personally, I think a German beer hall-style venue would do great in the old Hard Rock space, where it can cater to game crowds and offer a style of venue that is otherwise absent from downtown, but I’m sure there are lots of other ideas too.

  2. Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 11/26/2013 - 11:43 am.

    The abattoir is a splendid idea. Charcuterie to the people!

  3. Submitted by John Reinan on 11/26/2013 - 03:39 pm.

    Bring back Moby Dick’s!!!

    Just sayin’. It’s not everywhere you can get a whale of a drink.

  4. Submitted by jason myron on 11/26/2013 - 03:55 pm.

    You beat me to it, John.

    The conversations I overheard coming from that bank of payphones in front of the men’s room in Moby’s could be the basis for a pretty good novel.

  5. Submitted by mark wallek on 11/29/2013 - 09:26 am.

    I second the motion

    I think an abattoir would be just right for the block, if they don’t clear the land and leave it as a urban park block. An abattoir would provide jobs, oh not fancy white collar six figure jobs so popular today with those who have them, but surviving wage jobs (different from living wage jobs of course). There would be plenty of human activity rather than the empty echo of the wind in abandoned retail space. Of course, the image of Minneapolis as a natty downtown of the one percent and guests would suffer, but who cares other than that one percent? Leys have an abattior and lets put the property to good use.

  6. Submitted by Erica Mauter on 11/30/2013 - 02:33 pm.

    A friend of mine has been suggesting using some of that space for a downtown version of the Midtown Global Market (business model questions aside). Might be nice for food trucks servicing downtown to have loading dock access to a commercial kitchen space. You could put a scaled-back version of the Nicollet Farmer’s Market inside during the winter.

    I guarantee you there’s no way the Wolves and Lynx allow public access to practices (season ticket holders can hardly even get those perks), but some kind of mini-museum (to display the Lynx two championship trophies!) and a pro shop that’s more accessible than the skyway location on the back side of the Target Center would be great.

  7. Submitted by Charles Gray on 12/02/2013 - 11:49 am.

    Back to the future?

    If we really want “something unique that doesn’t yet exist in Minneapolis today,” how about some expansive green space? I opined in print w-a-y back before Block E was built that a park atop a below-grade parking ramp would perhaps be the overall best use of the space. And I’ve seen nothing since to change my mind.

  8. Submitted by Steve Mayer on 12/03/2013 - 10:02 am.

    Wait a minute

    Are you calling Moby’s an abattoir?

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