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Tear down those Star Tribune walls

The case for tearing down the newspaper’s building in Minneapolis is pretty compelling.

At this point, such a building — not right in downtown, not connected by skyways — would command only about $11 per square foot in rent, a return to investors of 4.5 percent.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota School of Architecture, pretty well summed up the issue as I saw it: “There is nothing left of any historic significance inside this building. And there’s very little outside except for the sandstone medallions.”  

He was speaking at a hearing Monday morning of the Minneapolis City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee whose members were to decide whether or not to grant the Ryan Companies’ petition to demolish the Star Tribune building as part of its $400 million redevelopment plan for Downtown East that would include two office towers, apartments, stores, the inevitable parking ramp and a two-block park dubbed “The Yard.”

I have only been in the Strib building once, back in 2009, for a job interview. (I wasn’t hired, but no hard feelings.) What I remember of the place: the building sat in an ocean of parking lots, disconnected from anything else downtown, without even a Walgreen’s nearby to shop at; the interior was bleak, with very little natural light, grubby walls, columns in weird places and acres of empty desks. (The paper had just emerged from bankruptcy and was about to undergo another bout of layoffs.) I am ashamed to say that not in that visit nor in hundreds of subsequent drive- and walk-bys did I notice the six medallions. As it turns out, they symbolize Minnesota industries, milling, farming, mining, fishing and so on.

On Nov. 19, the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission defied the considerable clout of the Ryan Companies, the even mightier wallop of Wells Fargo, which is negotiating a deal to occupy a large chunk of the office space, and a heavy-duty charm offensive from project-advocate and still mayor R.T. Rybak and voted down the demolition application. Instead it directed city’s Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) to conduct a “designation study” to determine whether the structure should be made a historic landmark. Such a study takes about a year.

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In a way, the designation constitutes a “taking” of the property by the public because once a building receives the label, it can’t be modified or torn down without review by CPED and the Heritage Preservation Commission. That limits what its owner (or any subsequent owner) can do with it and squelches its value as an asset. Of course, the owner can “adaptively reuse” the building — and there are many examples of such successful repurposings around the Twin Cities, but getting the job done isn’t always easy, cheap or practical.

‘Functionally obsolete’

What’s more, the Star Tribune itself wants out of the place. Mike Klingensmith, the paper’s publisher, testified that the building is “functionally obsolete.” It was built for another era, he said, and the staff now occupies less than half the building. He wants to move his journos and business side folks to a downtown tower where (my thought) they can likely operate efficiently from a few well-lit, well-heated and air-conditioned floors that are internally connected with escalators or stairways like Bloomberg News in New York. That outcome would be preferable to staying in what he called “a decaying building that is somewhat of an eyesore.” Ouch.

The case for tearing down 425 Portland Ave. was pretty compelling. First to testify was John Smoley of CPED, who pointed out that the property barely met a scant two of seven historic designation criteria: It was “associated with significant events.” The original building was put up in 1919 by the Non-Partisan League (which morphed into the Farmer Labor party). It created a newspaper that morphed ultimately into the Star Tribune, and the building’s association with the paper made it somehow historically important.  

The building also kind of met the second criteria — “association with lives of significant people.” The Cowles family, who bought the paper and the building in 1935, are certainly important to Minneapolis as community leaders and philanthropists, although I thought that this particular criteria required somebody like, say, Abraham Lincoln, to have slept there. What’s more, John Cowles III, owner of the paper until its sale in 1998, wrote a letter to the Zoning Committee supporting the demolition:

I am happy to support Ryan’s proposed development of a two-block urban park adjacent to the new Vikings Stadium, in place of the 425 Portland Avenue building. This public space, located next to the proposed two-block development of office, housing and retail on contiguous blocks to the north or “riverside” of the park, will provide critical green space and community gathering space for all of the residents, employees, and visitors to downtown.

Historic preservation criteria

In any case, the building, Smoley said, didn’t meet other historic preservation criteria. It failed, for example, to embody a distinct architectural style; it had been reconstructed seven times, and, although he said it more politely, the Art Deco exterior is ersatz, not original; the building contains no information about important ruins, like, say, I dunno, a Sioux village; it isn’t the work of a master builder — well, the list went on and on.

Rick Collins, Ryan’s vice president of development, demolished the possibility of reusing the building. Because of the placement of those interior columns, the structure would only work as offices, not a hotel or an apartment complex. Reconstruction would have to reduce the floor size to allow for more natural light to enter the floors, reconfigure the interior which is currently cut up by elevators, walls, restrooms and stairways; and remediate asbestos, among other things. To preserve the historic appearance, the company couldn’t add too many floors. The ultimate cost would come to $36.6 million after historic tax credits, or about $246 a square foot.

At this point, such a building — not right in downtown, not connected by skyways — would command only about $11 per square foot in rent, a return to investors of 4.5 percent. Generally, Collins said, a return of 8 to 8.5 percent is what investors are looking for. (Aren’t we all?). That would translate to a rental rate of $22 a square foot, much more, he says, than the market could bear. The result: The building would lose money every year for a half century.  

Council member Cam Gordon seemed peeved that Ryan could not wait a year for a designation study, but Collins insisted that such a stall would jeopardize the entire project. Could that be? Maybe. It’s hard to know. But Lisa Goodman, another council member, pointed out that it wasn’t obvious that the Star Tribune building would receive designation after a study. And her peeps in Downtown East want a park.

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Only a couple of preservationists spoke up. Most prominent was Linda Mack, a member of the Heritage Preservation Commission and former architecture critic for the Star Tribune. She contended that that despite its many remodelings, the building’s facade, which was redone in 1947, “is a pretty sound example of Art Moderne” architecture. Art Moderne is a later period of Art Deco, and when I went for a spin in Google, I found lots of examples in the Twin Cities, the Farmers & Mechanics bank downtown and the Horticulture Building on the State Fair grounds. Nowhere was the Star Tribune building mentioned.

Oddly, one of the most influential bits of testimony came from Mike Bucsko of the Minnesota Newspaper Guild Typographical Union who confessed that he didn’t really have much of a feel for architectural landmarks. What was important, he contended, wasn’t the building but “recognition of the decades of journalism” that had gone on there, thousands of awards the paper had won, including two Pulitzers reaped just this year.

That notion, that the newspaper’s own archives were its real landmark, seemed to resonate with the committee, and they voted unanimously to override the Historic Preservation folks, adding two amendments: first, that the developer preserve the building’s six medallions for later display somewhere and second, that the developer hire a historian to document the history of the building. That narrative is likely to end up on one of those plaques you see along the Stone Arch Bridge, and maybe it will sit in the new park along with a statue commemorating the Cowles family crossing the Mississippi.  

The demolition issues next goes up for the vote of the full City Council on Friday. My guess is “yes.”