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The future of Nye’s hangs in the balance between preservation and density

Courtesy of ESG Architects
A rendering of the proposed 30 story tower for the Nye’s site.

When travel writer Doug Mack wants to show out-of-town visitors around Minneapolis, there are three places that he takes them: Matt’s Bar for a Jucy Lucy, a walk around historic Nicollet Island, and over to Nye’s Polonaise Room. Of all city’s old locales, Nye’s Polonaise Room, with its schmaltzy decor, its piano bar and polka lounge, and its long list of characters, is probably second only to Matt’s in terms of displaying the ebullient spirit of the City of Lakes.

On weekends, a wide cross-section of the metro area crams into glittering yellow booths as long-time waitresses wielding pierogies and Zywiec push their way between dancing elbows. So when Nye’s owners announced they would be closing this year, it crushed many a nostalgic heart (my own included).

But today, a heated debate is taking place around the future of the Nye’s site, which sits just across the Hennepin Avenue Bridge from downtown. A new building on the plot is being designed by a developer, Schafer Richardson, but the proposed 30-story tower has infuriated the historic preservation community and placed a spotlight on the delicate balance between historic preservation and increasing density in Minneapolis. At stake is what exactly the future of the city will look like.

The future of Nye’s

Since the December announcement of the closing of the supper club (named the “best bar in America” by Esquire magazine less then 10 years ago), most people I’ve talked with have resigned themselves to the loss of the irreplaceably quirky joint. (There is a Facebook group dedicated to saving the establishment.) The real estate is too valuable, and the owners too committed to selling, to harbor much hope for a deus ex machina move from an angel investor.

In the meantime, development proposals for the site have been popping up like pogo sticks. The first announcement back in December declared that the buildings would be demolished and replaced with a vague “concrete and steel” mixed-use building, despite the site falling within the borders of the Saint Anthony Falls Historic District. Then, this month, a new proposal surfaced that would keep the existing historic buildings, but include a 30-story apartment tower in the background. As you can probably imagine, the proposal didn’t sit well with Minneapolis’ historic preservation community.

Doug Mack is the vice-president of Preserve Minneapolis, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the city’s historic resources that hosts meetings, breakfasts and tours focusing on Minneapolis history and architecture. Last week Preserve Minneapolis released a statement declaring the Nye’s proposal showing “a cavalier disregard for long-standing rules, neighborhood character, and local heritage in the city’s oldest and arguable most historically significant neighborhood.” The sticking point is that the historic district calls for limits on building heights to four-stories, height limits dwarfed by the proposed building,

“This developer came in and started simply ignoring the guidelines,” Mack explained when I called him this week. (For a typically thoughtful preservationist like Mack, “cavalier disregard” is a strong statement.) “I sincerely doubt that SR didn’t know what these guidelines were. The Nye’s plan goes against historic precedent, either through ignorance or willful dismissal of guidelines. There’s a sense of complete disregard of established precedent and for looking at context.”

The ephemeral nature of historic character

One of the oldest urban clichés states that cities are “always changing,” and nowhere do social and economic tides grip Minneapolis more than the area surrounding the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. Today, Nicollet Island, just next to the Nye’s site (and one of Mack’s must-see spots), seems like a quaint historic neighborhood filled with hundred-year-old homes nestled along curving tree-lined streets.

But in reality, the island’s historic fabric is a carefully crafted illusion. With its central location between the two mill districts, Nicollet Island used to be one of the most densely populated spots in the city, filled with dense and rundown apartments and factories of all kinds. Many of the old homes found there today were moved there from elsewhere in the city, planted onto land bulldozed by traffic engineers hoping to construct another freeway through downtown.

Likewise, both sides of today’s pastoral riverfront used to be clear-cut parcels dominated by massive railroad yards and piles of industrial detritus. And before that, they were the home of the Dakota people. Unless you strap on historical blinders, looking at today’s Saint Anthony area reveals a palimpsest of urban visions and historic erasure, an archive of long-forgotten dreams of planners and businessmen. How should shiny new buildings fit into such a rich and tangled past?

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Nicollet Island in 1906, covered in factories and apartment buildings.

One of the great tragedies of the development-versus-preservation debate is that it so often leads to extreme positions. The vast majority of people involved in the city’s planning process want to strike a balance and avoid all-or-nothing fights that quickly devolve into personal shouting matches.

Council Member Jacob Frey represents the city’s Third Ward, bridging downtown and the Northeast riverfront, where the majority of Minneapolis’ new development investment is taking place. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s trying hard to strike a balance between keeping the past and building a future.

“I believe growth and preservation are not mutually exclusive,” Frey said this week. (For legal reasons, Frey cannot comment on the specific Nye’s proposal until it comes before the City Council.) “There are ways to incorporate density, retain historical character and dramatically improve public realm and streetscape simultaneously,” he said. “Look at cities in Europe; they don’t knock down castles, historic architecture or churches. They build around it, and it’s resulted in a really wonderful experience on the street. You move through time periods and centuries all in one block.”

The case for density

When she was elected last year, Mayor Betsy Hodges set an ambitious goal for growing Minneapolis’ long-stagnant population, calling for an increase to 500,000 residents over the next ten years. That goal is one of the reasons that not everyone thinks the Nye’s proposal is a bad idea. For example, Scott Shaffer (no relation to the developer) is an urban planning student at the Univeristy of Minnesota’s Humphrey School, and frequent activist around urban development issues in Minneapolis. Shaffer believes the proposal is an example of how to make walkable lifestyles more affordable and accessible to more people.

“I like the existing business and buildings; they’re an important part of Minneapolis history,” Shaffer told me. “So I’m happy the proposed project saves the two turn-of-the-century buildings, and extends the mixed-use feel of the street. The new building would be down the block a bit, where there’s a parking lot right now. It would contribute to walkable character of Northeast Minneapolis, and add to the neighborhood a lot of people who would be able to ride the bus, walk downtown on a nice day, and go do all the nice things that make Northeast pretty great.”

For his part, Doug Mack believes that there is plenty of growth and new construction in the city already. He points to plans at the Superior Plating site, only two blocks away, as a great place for density. With Frey’s support, an 18-story building is planned for the site of an old (and polluted) metals plant. Despite NIMBY stereotypes, most preservationists take pains to accommodate growth while maintaining a sense of history by focusing on things like consistent massing (overall building shape and size) and materials (visual presentation of surfaces).

When Nye’s Polonaise room shuts down, there’s little question that Minneapolis will have lost one of its most historic establishments. But every good thing must come to an end. Given the changing tastes and the hot downtown real-estate market, these kinds of changes start to seem inevitable. But the question of what sprouts up in its place moves beyond simple nostalgia.

“When you make a decision, the most important thing to do is to consider the alternatives,” Frey told me. In every single case battle of preservation-versus-growth always ask the question, ‘if not this, then what?’”

Given the cloudy future of the Nye’s Polonaise site, answering Frey’s question does not seem easy. No matter what happens, whatever night Nye’s closes its doors for the last time, you’ll find me down in Northeast gazing at the river and remembering the old days.

Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Ian Stade on 02/26/2015 - 09:24 am.

    Our Lady of Lourdes

    Thanks for weighing in on this issue. Apparently when the Wells Fargo Tower was built, St. Olaf church kept seismic recording devices in its basement to ascertain the amount of damage being done to the church during construction. I hope Our Lady of Lourdes has a similar plan. It is the oldest house of worship in the city.

  2. Submitted by Jim Million on 02/26/2015 - 10:06 am.

    See Walls

    The supreme irony of cleaning our beloved Mississippi and its cluttered banks seems to be that ultimate appreciation of our effort may be secured from a $4,000/month unit on the 15th floor of one of our many proliferating residential towers that often block the long-established views of rooted residents. Saint Paul, for example, now offers Irvine Park residents (known for their long-suffering preservation/restoration commitment) the contemporary Mississippi view: brick and balconies of that “see wall” now firmly planted on Shepard Road.

    Caution: We must be NIMBLE, not NIMBY, in planning and approving the many similar projects to come; otherwise, the Minneapolis City Council may be faced with approval of overnight camping sites on the Stone Arch Bridge, perhaps the final remaining vantage point of our fabulous river scape.

    Walling off the water requires urban planning by neutral experts, not by developers and politicians trying to increase the tax base by 500,000 new revenue units.

    [Also consider that half the Nye’s Tower residents will have splendid views of North Minneapolis and Columbia Heights.]

  3. Submitted by Walt McCarthy on 02/26/2015 - 11:58 am.

    Nye’s Tower.

    Why would the city allow such a dull characterless building above a landmark old-fashioned one? It looks like something build by a child on an on-end shoebox.

  4. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/26/2015 - 12:51 pm.

    Four Floors?!

    If we’re going to make this mass transit thing work, we’ll need density. We won’t get that by feinting at the thought of a building over four floors.

  5. Submitted by James Rickton on 02/26/2015 - 12:56 pm.

    More affordable?

    “Shaffer believes the proposal is an example of how to make walkable lifestyles more affordable and accessible to more people.”

    Most of the condos around that area go for $500,000 on up into 7 figures. I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s not exactly my image of affordability.

    Walkable? Sure. Affordable? Not for 95% of us.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 02/26/2015 - 02:53 pm.

      Affordability comes from increasing housing supply

      I’mm speaking for Shaffer here, but unless it’s government subsidized, almost all new housing construction is “high-end.” Affordability comes in two ways, first from increasing supply and lessening the demand to remodel and increase price for existing housing supply. Second, over time prices of housing goes down, so that what was top-end housing in the 80s is now affordable because it’s older.

      Anyway, there’s a lot of data on this, but I’m sure that’s what Scott meant by that.

    • Submitted by George Carlson on 02/26/2015 - 11:03 pm.

      More affordable?

      James Rickton’s estimate for the sale price of condos on the East Bank area of Nye’s is significantly overstated. Most of the condos in the area are in Windslow House, LaRive, the Pinnacle, and the Falls. Most of the sales in these buildings are well under $500,000, with smaller units going for much less. A penthouse unit in one of these buildings might go for 7 figures, but you are talking about one or two units out of three or four hundred.

      The newer buildings, 222 2nd Street SE (where Horst had his huge two-story penthouse) and the St Anthony Village Lofts perhaps sell for a median price of around $500,000 but there are many fewer units in these buildings than in the older buildings. And they contain fairly large apartments.

      The newer apartments being proposed are rentals and they are, for the most part, not large. They are affordable for many empty-nesters to whom they are to be marketed.

  6. Submitted by Scott Shaffer on 02/26/2015 - 02:38 pm.

    A holistic view

    The idea is that the rich people who want to live in the neighborhood will live in this expensive new housing, instead of bidding up the price of middle-income housing and displacing poorer people. Many fancy new housing projects are surrounded by modest, affordable housing units.

    New housing generally houses wealthier people. In 20 years, after many more new buildings have been built, this tower would be occupied by middle-income folks, and we’ll be happy that we let it be built.

  7. Submitted by Diane Lindgren on 02/26/2015 - 05:50 pm.

    Building with an eye to the future

    As the city council pushes for ever more highrise housing to increase Minneapolis population, I’m wondering what the demographics are of the occupants of this housing. I’m concerned that the current proposed occupants are baby boomers and younger people who have not yet started families. If this is the case who will occupy this housing when the younger people start families and seek single family homes and baby boomers age out of the housing and there are too few of their age group to fill this housing in the future.

    • Submitted by Joseph Senkyr on 02/26/2015 - 10:39 pm.

      Luckily, when the current 20-somethings leave to start families, today’s children and teenagers will be 20-somethings. Funny how that works.

      • Submitted by Diane Lindgren on 02/27/2015 - 12:05 pm.


        True, but will there be enough in the “children and teenage” demographic to replace the current 20-somethings? Not sure about that, and that still leaves the baby boomer issue.

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 03/03/2015 - 07:43 am.

          Never mind

          The fact that “tomorrow’s 20 something hipsters” will be living at home languishing under mountains of student loan debt. Basing your housing future on the whims of the two most transient groups of residents is hardly a sustainable plan, when I see one of these trendy monstrosities feature so much as a swing set perhaps I will find them more realistic as something other than short term posturing for the “beautiful people” set and mid life crisis therapy.

  8. Submitted by David Markle on 02/26/2015 - 05:58 pm.

    Reasonable progress

    I think Frey may be right in saying that we ought to be able to build and also preserve, but in Dinkytown he’s been too late or incorrect.

    Bill, were you around when the luxury condominiums of Winslow House (not far from Nye’s) got subsidized treatment from the state? Cal Bradford, Flo Golod and I appeared before the State Board of Investment to oppose the subsidy. Arne Carlson (then State Auditor) gave a short fire and brimstone speech criticizing the subsidy and the Board’s Chair called the subsidy “reprehensible,” but all they could do was fail to endorse, not stop the process. At least a former City Council Member who had appeared on behalf of the bonds looked ready to crawl from the meeting room in embarrassment. Of course the developer, Louis Zelle, had good political ties; are you surprised?

    I have nothing against Matt’s Bar, but it speaks ill for Doug Mack, travel writer, if he actually takes visitors there as if it were a big Minneapolis attraction and visitors might enjoy getting burnt by squirts of hot cheese.

  9. Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 02/27/2015 - 08:26 am.

    Two groups

    It seems to me that most opposition to new development in town comes from two groups (although there’s often a significant overlap in their membership).

    The first is people who cannot afford units in new development and have some kind of knee-jerk jealousy reaction without realizing that (as stated above multiple times) today’s luxury housing is tomorrow’s affordable housing. (There’s also the fact that some affordable units are freed up when people move into these new buildings and start paying more).

    The second group, which seems to include most of the historic preservationists around town (but not all!), are people who don’t want anything in town to ever change because of some twisted nostalgia of the past they have. It doesn’t matter if something isn’t really that historic, it’s DIFFERENT and that scares them so they lash out at any changes being proposed (see also: dinkytown). Different automatically equals bad to these folks.

    I’m honestly really glad that our planners and city council haven’t paid too much attention to these groups so far, because they could have easily choked off much of the recent good economic fortune we’ve had and left us as just another stagnant Midwestern town. Hating the rich and/or change is no way to plan your city’s future, and I’m getting really tired of short-sighted people naysaying every new development that comes up. If they’d help shape developments in a productive way rather than just saying “NO” constantly and repeatedly I might have more respect for them.

    • Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 02/27/2015 - 09:18 am.

      Also, I’d like to point out that “build it somewhere else” is not a helpful comment. That empty parking lot you’d love to see a new building on instead is probably not for sale or has a way higher asking price. The lot where a developer wants to put a new building and has to tear down something else? They probably either already own it or have a deal in place to buy it for a price that makes the development financially feasible to them. Unfortunately parcels of land are not freely interchangeable and sometimes the land acquisition deal is one of the hardest parts of a development project. Pretending that they can just go plop a building down somewhere else is pretty naïve or willfully ignorant.

  10. Submitted by Ralf Wyman on 02/27/2015 - 09:27 am.

    Historic character long gone

    I don’t quite see the point of people being so up in arms. The historic character of the neighborhood is long gone. La Rive and it’s cousins tower over the neighborhood with their very 80s architecture, there’s that rather drably suburban “new urbanist” building across from Nye’s with the Chipotle in it, and 2 blocks away is the modern glass Cobalt.

    If a developer is willing to save the Nye’s buildings and raise a tower behind it, that seems a reasonable way to preserve a relatively architecturally isolated structure while bringing density and energy to a destination location close to the river.

  11. Submitted by Edna Brazaitis on 02/27/2015 - 11:13 am.

    Nicollet Island

    It is always wonderful to hear of all the folks that enjoy Nicollet Island’s special charms.

    The Dakota name for the Island is Wi-Ta Wa-Ste or “beautiful island” Many early city leaders, including Charles Loring, the father of the Minneapolis park system, felt that the Island should be a park. Loring, who lived on Nicollet Island during its period of historical significance, reminisced about living on stating that ” Nicollet island was a dreamland in those days.  … The island was really a park as it stood. It was thickly grown up to a grove of as beautiful native maples as one would care to see.  I think of it many, many times.”

    The start of the Island’s emergence of a park began in 1976, when the City dedicated a portion of the South tip of the Island as Bicentennial park. Much of the rest of the Island, as well as, other riverfront land was acquired in the 1980‘s. The resulting Riverfront Regional park with its historic and archeological amenities has been immensely successful and helped lead the riverfront revival. The Met Council estimated that in 2013, the park received 2 million visits making it one of the top attractions in the state. In 2012, the City estimated that the public investment in the riverfront brought $1.9 billion of private investment and added or preserved 7,000 jobs.

    For some reason there are many myths about Nicollet Island. For example the article seems to infer that homes on Nicollet Island were destroyed for a freeway. The alignment for the never built I-335 was changed in Oct 1967 to avoid Nicollet Island before the funding for ROW acquisition was appropriated around 1970. No homes on Nicollet Island were torn down for the freeway. Also, while some historic houses were moved on to the island under strict controls of the State Preservation Office, the majority of the residences on the Island, including the 139 year old building that I live in, have been on the Island for over 115 years.

    The Island was developed with three areas. The north was residential, the area along the bridge was commercial and the south tip was industrial. The residential lots were sold with restrictions against the evils of the time, including the selling of strong drink. The residential portion on the Island reflected the population at the time and included business leaders, newspaper publishers, artists, mill workers and an African American family that included a woman who arrived in Minnesota when it was still a territory. The 1906 photo included in the article is of the south industrial area and shows part of the commercial area (where one could certainly find “strong drink”.) By 1906, the Island was past its heyday, and it is generally thought outside its period of historical significance. The historic homes were all built before that time.

    Last year Preserve Minneapolis gave a summer walking tour of Nicollet Island. I hope that they will do so this year; and, if they do, I hope that Minnpost readers will come, enjoy the Island and learn more of its fascinating history.

  12. Submitted by David Markle on 02/28/2015 - 07:56 pm.

    A stagnant Midwestern town

    Sorry to say we are pretty much a “stagnant Midwestern town” in terms of our failure to set up a good, up-to-date regional transit system, thanks to “short sighted people”–including our leaders–who don’t know the difference between a train and a streetcar.

    As to preservation of once ordinary commercial buildings such as Nye’s, or to take a more vivid example, Dinkytown, the short-term decision will very likely take place in the arena of cold, hard economics. But several questions remain, such as a possible vision of long-term value in the existing neighborhood character related to those old buildings (value of what magnitude?) and whether the will and means exist to preserve if that relationship is deemed sufficiently valuable. Can the properties remain economically viable if development of larger new structures continues nearby?

    A striking example of a high value of that kind might be the Harvard Square area of Cambridge, Mass. It has changed somewhat since I knew it on a practically daily basis in the 1960’s, but imagine it largely filled with new medium and high-rise buildings: a good thing or not? If only a few odds and ends were to remain (such as the architecturally interesting and more or less historic Harvard Crimson building) would that be good long-term economics or not?

  13. Submitted by David Markle on 02/28/2015 - 08:36 pm.

    The Cambridge building cited

    By “Harvard Crimson” I meant the curious building of triangular footprint I knew as the Harvard Lampoon building, situated I believe on Mount Auburn and Linden.

  14. Submitted by Janne Flisrand on 03/02/2015 - 06:40 pm.

    Too few to fill the units? -> affordable housing!

    I could only hope there might be too few people who want that unit when that happens. Then the rents will go down, and we’ll have more affordable housing!

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