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Plumbing, pigeons and paint: Maintaining Minneapolis’ iconic Riverside Plaza at 50

Riverside Plaza, the 1,300-unit modernist apartments that dominate the eastern Minneapolis skyline, quietly turned 50 years old last year.

Compared to much of America’s large-scale mid-century urban housing, Riverside Plaza has fared well.
Repainting the panels on Riverside Plaza was part of a major renovation project over a decade ago. Compared to much of America’s large-scale mid-century urban housing, Riverside Plaza has fared well.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

Riverside Plaza, the 1,300-unit modernist apartments that dominate the eastern Minneapolis skyline, quietly turned 50 years old last year. When it was originally built in 1972, the apartment complex, composed of six distinct buildings, a parking lot, and massive concrete plaza were intended to be just the first part of a much larger complex of urban mixed-use structures. With all the phases complete, the concrete communities would have basically replaced Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, which was seen then as a slum with no future.

But that’s not what happened. Neighborhood opposition and shifting politics halted expansion of the ambitious housing project. Over the years, the apartment complex evolved into an affordable community with historic designation.

One guy has been there almost the entire time, keeping the building from falling apart.

“When I first set foot on that property, there was a much larger college population there,” said Gordy Willey, the longtime chief engineer of the Riverside Plaza apartment complex, when I asked him what’s changed. “The University of Minnesota was there, and there were nearly 100 apartments in each building reserved for Control Data for their school.” 

Minneapolis has changed since Control Data, a now-defunct tech firm, had a small West Bank training school. Riverside Plaza’s strange history reflects the changing mores of urban planning and Minneapolis society. Despite the economic and social tides, the thousands of apartments in Riverside Plaza still stand tall, providing homes for countless Minneapolitans close to downtown, jobs, the state’s largest university and the diverse attractions of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. 

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That’s not to say everything has always gone smoothly, at least not from an infrastructure point of view. With this many homes, windows, heaters, and sinks, something is always going wrong.

“It’s not the kind of job security most people want,” Chief Engineer Willey admitted. “When you’ve got 1,303 apartments, you know it’s probably going to happen. You hope you get to it before it cuts loose.”

Somehow, 66-year-old Willey has been working at the apartment complex through almost its entire lifespan,  and it’s safe to say that nobody knows the ins and outs of the buildings better than he does. He began working in the buildings as a twenty-something mechanic back in 1982.

The way he tells it, Willey got the job almost accidentally. The engineers ahead of him in seniority quit, were fired, or couldn’t agree on a salary, leaving him the last man standing. He continued working for Sherman Associates when the developer bought the complex in the late 1980s, after a default by the previous owner, and he hasn’t stopped fixing things since.

There’s a long list of things that need to be kept in good shape in Riverside Plaza, everything from the heating oil tank to thousands of appliances to the sprinkler system to the emergency power supply. 

Fun fact: emergency power was installed in the 1980s after Metrodome construction (!) knocked out power to the neighborhood, trapping people in the elevators. Willey had to go in and rescue people stuck in between floors.

As you might imagine, the elevators serving the buildings have always been a headache. Because the buildings were originally planned with studio and one-bedroom apartments and fewer families, the original designers didn’t foresee elevator demand being as high as they are today. As Willey puts it, “they get a workout.”

For decades, the biggest problem was the pipes. Until the $70-million-dollar 2010 remodel, Willey was constantly fixing the pipes for the buildings’ “dual-temperature” heating system, where hot and cold water flow all through the complex. When they were first constructed, the insulation contractor did a substandard job, leading to near-constant rust and rupture by the time Willey took over the maintenance.

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Reinstalling all those pipes was job No. 1 during the extensive 2010 remodel.

“That problem is now behind us, and that has made my life much much better,” Willey said. “Those pipe failures happened 24/365, whether it was 20 below outside, or 95 degrees and 2 a.m..”

An image of Riverside Plaza from 1975.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
An image of Riverside Plaza from 1975.
From the beginning, it was never smooth sailing for the Riverside Plaza project. Its ribbon-cutting infamously coincided with the anti-war protests at the University of Minnesota campus in May 1972. Demonstrators trickled over into Cedar Square West (as it was then known) and threw eggs at Housing and Urban Development secretary George Romney. It made national news headlines, especially as the state’s largest anti-war protests broke out the  following week, when students occupied the nearby University campus. 

All that while, tenants were moving into the brand-new apartments of the “New Town in Town”, as the short-lived Federal policy that helped fund construction was known. Back then, the apartments were intended for every kind of household, from furnished student housing to upscale apartments for singles (like fictional Minneapolis resident, Mary Tyler Moore) to affordable housing for families. It was supposed to be a diverse, futuristic community reflecting every facet of Minnesota society.

In that light, Riverside Plaza might be viewed as a failure, a place that, as groundbreaking DFL politician Allan Spear described in his memoir, “never fulfilled its expectations.”

It’s all perspective

It turns out that everything depends on perspective. One group that arrived to live at Riverside Plaza are the flocks of rock doves that continually pirouette over the skies of Cedar Avenue. With panoramic views of the city and the river valley, the buildings offer ideal nesting ground for urban pigeons, giving a mellow soundscape to the brutalist concrete spaces. 

You might think they were always there, but you’d be wrong.

“Well into the 1970s, there were no pigeons,”  Willey told me. “I can’t pin down the exact year when they showed up — it was sometime in the 90s —  but they just grew exponentially.”

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In a kind of arms race, Willey and his Riverside Plaza maintenance staff have worked for years with a university team to house falcons on the rooftops, in the hopes that raptors might keep the pigeons under control. It works, sort of, though there are always more pigeons to serve as falcon food.

Because of the falcons, whenever Willey’s crew have to go onto the roof to repair infrastructure, they bring with them a small children’s sled to use as a shield. One person keeps the falcons at bay, while the other makes the repair as quickly as possible, until they can retreat back to safety.

Still, it’s better than any of the alternatives.

“I don’t see how we’re ever gonna get rid of them,” Willey admitted. “We’ve paid different companies, tried different ways; it’s not that I’m anti-pigeon, but I’d like them to live someplace else.”

Still standing

It feels strange to walk through Riverside Plaza 50 years after the fraught opening. The wide open spaces are clean and well kept, but something seems missing. The charter school on the plaza has been closed since COVID, but the nearby corner store is open. The plaza’s art and architecture seems designed for an audience that’s no longer there, relics of a forgotten second-story city of the future.

Compared to much of America’s large-scale mid-century urban housing, Riverside Plaza has fared well. To this day, the buildings provide affordable homes for thousands of people – the vast majority are refugees from East Africa – and thanks to the extensive 2010 rehab, they’ll do so for decades to come. That stands in contrast to many other subsidized apartment complexes that have been torn down throughout the Midwest. 

“You have to be there to know, and most of the things said about that place simply aren’t true,” Willey said, referring to stereotypes about inner-city apartments. “I’ve been there all that time and it’s not an unsafe place to be. Most of the tenants are not a problem. It’s like any group of thousands of people, there are always gonna be some troublemakers.”

Especially for a Modernist housing project, 50 years is a long time to survive and thrive. Given the city’s housing shortage, the 50-year-old buildings are one of the city’s chief assets.  

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And all the pipes are insulated now, though Willey admits the bathtubs are quickly reaching the end of their design life.

“I don’t think I’d do it again, if given the choice,” Willey admitted, referring to the moment when he took over as  maintenance head. “Just like Riverside, I’m feeling my years, and a $70 million rehab of me won’t change anything.”