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Minneapolis Gateway redevelopment planted seeds of revival

Downtown’s revival began more than 50 years ago when the lower loop’s blight began to disappear.

ING building
The Gateway redevelopment gave us the elegant Northwestern National Life Insurance Building (now ING, 20 Washington Ave. S.) whose graceful columns continue to anchor the Nicollet Mall.

In “North Loop building boom may finally heal Gateway scars,” MinnPost writer John Reinan looks back at Minneapolis’ Gateway, the mid-20th century urban-renewal project that every urbanist loves to hate.

Reinan maintains that Gateway “sapped the vitality of downtown for 50 years.” But Reinan’s valid criticisms of an admittedly flawed program paint a black and white picture that needs more nuanced shades of gray.

As Gateway got under way in the late 1950s, downtown’s vitality was being sapped, not by the on-coming bulldozers on Washington Avenue, but by the suburban boom that threatened to turn downtown into an economic wasteland.

The threat to downtown was compounded by the squalid bars and flophouses in the lower loop that cast a blighting influence over the city’s struggling retail core just a few blocks away. City planners and their allies in the business community  turned to the only tools available to them at the time — the newly created federal urban renewal program — to clear the blight.

A notable loss

Renewal clearly had its downside. As bulldozers moved through the lower loop, they swept away a huge piece of the city’s architectural and commercial history, including the highly-prized Metropolitan Building, whose loss is being mourned still today.

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But even the story of the Metropolitan Building is more complex than the legend that has grown up around it. City development officials did try to deal with the owner of the Metropolitan Building to come up with a restoration plan, which the city was willing to help fund. But, at a time when the idea of adaptive reuse had not yet taken hold, he refused the offer.

If Gateway had come along 10 or 15 years later, the Metropolitan Building might have been saved, and the city might have taken a more fine-tuned approach to redevelopment, but that was not a realistic option as planning for Gateway got under way in 1957.

Gateway did, for a time, turn the lower loop into a sea of parking lots surrounding a collection of bland office buildings, many of which have already succumbed to the wrecking ball. But there were some positive developments as well. The  redevelopment project created the Tower Apartments that helped launch the downtown housing boom, and the elegant Northwestern National Life Insurance Building (now ING, 20 Washington Ave. S.) whose graceful columns continue to anchor the Nicollet Mall.

Some missteps — including Block E

A case can be made that Gateway, even with all its flaws, helped plant the seeds for a downtown revival effort that has flourished and taken hold over the last 50 years. To be sure, there have been some missteps along the way — most notably with the ill-fated and architecturally offensive Block E project on Hennepin Avenue. But, overall, downtown development has been a notable success.

Today, downtown serves as an important economic engine for the entire metropolitan region. It generates a substantial tax base for the city of Minneapolis and provides jobs for 160,000 Twin Citians. In and around downtown, a whole new urban village has been created with a population inching up toward 40,000.

During these tumultuous economic times, our central business district is the envy of many Midwestern cities that have watched their downtowns limp along on life support.

Downtown’s revival began more than  50 years ago when the lower loop’s blight began to disappear. Maybe Gateway, warts and all, deserves more respect than it has received over the years.

Iric Nathanson writes about local history for a variety of Twin Cities publications, including MinnPost. He is the author of “Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century: The Growth of an American City,” published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, and is a former project coordinator for the Minneapolis Community Development Agency.


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