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From WeDo to East Town, why so many neighborhood branding efforts in Minneapolis go up in smoke

A series of initiatives to reimagine areas of Minneapolis have come and gone in recent years, all of which had the same ostensible goal: to attract people to areas whose old names may no longer reflect their new reality.

The building at 811 East Lake Street, in the heart of the city’s Latino neighborhoods, has been christened “SoPHI” for south of Phillips.
The building at 811 East Lake Street, in the heart of the city’s Latino neighborhoods, has been christened “SoPHI” for south of Phillips.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

In building-boom era Minneapolis, the process of redeveloping the site of a former Mexican restaurant on Lake Street into a multistory apartment complex began like so many others.

Nearby residents questioned how affordable the new apartments would be, and how they would affect the neighborhood’s property values. When neighborhood leaders summarized those concerns in letters to the city, planners went back and forth with the project’s developer. In the end, a five-story, 48-unit building was approved, ushering in a project that will tower over the busy corridor as a symbol of the city’s growth.

In addition to the predictable questions about the building, the project included a feature that has also become an increasingly common element of new development in Minneapolis: a new name, one not only intended to identify the building, but rebrand its surroundings. The building at 811 East Lake Street, in the heart of the city’s Latino neighborhoods, has been christened “SoPHI” for south of Phillips. 

It’s not the first rebranding effort of its kind, of course. Whether developer-driven or sponsored by neighborhood associations, a series of initiatives to reimagine areas of Minneapolis have come and gone in recent years, all of which had the same ostensible goal: to shake old reputations and attract people to spend money in areas whose names no longer reflect their look or feel

But why do some rebranding efforts in Minneapolis work — while so many others do not? 

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The success: North Loop 

North Loop is by far the most successful example of a neighborhood rebrand in Minneapolis. Forbes magazine once called it “One of America’s Best Hipster Neighborhoods,” which the magazine actually meant as a compliment. 

Yet for most of the area’s history, a large railroad yard surrounded by factories and warehouses gave residents few reasons to visit or live there, and urban planners grouped it in with downtown’s Warehouse District. “It was not a great neighborhood, and no one ever thought anything would happen,” said Tim Bildsoe, president of the North Loop Neighborhood Association. 

By the 1980s, artists set up shop in the industrial area, finding relief in the area’s lax building regulations and cheap rent. But Minneapolis’ economic boom in the ’90s and subsequent construction attracted new attention to the area.

North Loop is by far the most successful example of a neighborhood rebrand in Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
North Loop is by far the most successful example of a neighborhood rebrand in Minneapolis.
Millennials, tourists, award-winning chefs and tech startups flocked to the area in the 2000s, attracted to the neighborhood’s renovated warehouses and walkability. The area no longer felt like the sleepy Warehouse District, so neighborhood leaders hired a marketing firm to come up with a new image and name. 

Bildsoe said it was a conscious decision to establish a brand to attract visitors, residents and businesses that was separate from the Warehouse District Business Association, which represents entrepreneurs specifically, and developers and the city embraced the change.

“The North Loop brand has been so successful because people used the name,” said Fritz Kroll, of Edina Realty and the neighborhood’s association. “Housing developers, shops, restaurants and commercial building owners started using the name consistently, and that helped build awareness.”

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From WeDo to East Town

Less successful was the effort to rename the part of downtown surrounding Hennepin Avenue from the Walker Art Center to the river. 

Remember WeDo? 

No, YouDon’t.

Begun in 2011, the effort came about after the National Endowment for the Arts awarded the Hennepin Theatre Trust money to establish “a cultural district brand” that draws “people from one end of downtown Minneapolis to the other,” according to Meet Minneapolis, the city’s convention and visitors nonprofit. 

The Hennepin Theatre Trust later recruited the Walker Art Center, the city and the creative branch of Target Corporate to help with the project. And by early 2015, the groups had launched a full-fledged campaign for calling the western part of downtown, including First Avenue and a portion of Loring Park, the “West Downtown Cultural District”: WeDo. Wearing “WeDo” attire and handing out free mech, brand ambassadors fanned out to spread the new name.

WeDo didn’t catch on beyond the creative team from which it originated, and the groups soon stopped promoting it last year.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
WeDo didn’t catch on beyond the creative team from which it originated, and the groups soon stopped promoting it last year.
But WeDo didn’t catch on beyond the creative team from which it originated, and the groups  stopped promoting it last year. The initiative’s website, wedompls.org, doesn’t even work anymore.

Around the same time, business leaders in downtown’s neighboring district began brainstorming how they could reinvent themselves to capitalize on the U.S. Bank Stadium’s opening in July 2016. They worked with the local PR firm Padilla to come up with some two dozen options for a new nameEast Loop, E Do, SoFa, Celebration Heights, East Central Park and the real possible game changer, East Downtown. 

Ultimately, the East Downtown Council, which represents businesses in the area, shot down suggestions for “The Stadium Village” or “Stadium East” and unanimously agreed to launch a new logo and website under a new name, the East Town Business Partnership, “to help form a narrative larger and more integrated than the Stadium as a definer in itself,” Executive Director Dan Collison said in an email.

And yet, for all that effort, as far as residents and even city planners are concerned, the neighborhood’s name remains Downtown East. 

The long road of Marcy-Holmes

Perhaps no Minneapolis neighborhood has had a longer identity crisis than Marcy-Holmes, the city’s oldest neighborhood.

Located on the east bank of the Mississippi River and bordering the University of Minnesota and Como neighborhoods, the area sat outside of Minneapolis’ geographic bounds until 1872, when the city annexed most of the town of St. Anthony. It was not until the 1970s, though, that neighborhood leaders launched an effort to differentiate the area by establishing the name that exists today, honoring Marcy Elementary (now called Marcy Open School) and Holmes Park

But the rapid redevelopment of Minneapolis construction permits surpassed $1.4 billion last year alone has changed Marcy-Holmes’ landscape dramatically. What was once a neighborhood of mostly single-family homes has turned into the epicenter of high-rise apartment complexes, celebrated restaurants and bicycle paths. At the same time, neighborhood leaders have wrestled with how they should redevelop riverfront land to maintain history but take advantage of rising property values.

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The transformation has raised questions from residents over the years: Does the Marcy-Holmes’ name still represent the neighborhood that it is now? Do visitors of the Kitty Cat Klub or the Fourth Street McDonald’s know they’re technically in Marcy-Holmes not Dinkytown? Same goes for areas near Hennepin and Central avenues that most people consider northeast. 

“Nobody can tell you which is which,” said Chris Lautenschlager, of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association (MHNA). “We would push back constantly … But the people we interacted with would be like, ‘Whatever, old man. It doesn’t matter.’”

Perhaps no Minneapolis neighborhood has had a longer identity crisis than Marcy-Holmes, the city’s oldest neighborhood.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
Perhaps no Minneapolis neighborhood has had a longer identity crisis than Marcy-Holmes, the city’s oldest neighborhood.
While neighborhood leaders have long debated the neighborhood’s identity, the confusion reached a tipping point most recently in 2017, when MHNA members and residents held meetings to explore the possibility of a new image. “East Minneapolis” was a possible contender. But feeling a sense of pride in the name’s deep-rooted history, long-time residents shot down the effort, Lautenschlager said, and the push eventually lost traction with new developments taking up most of the MHNA’s time. 

And yet, Lautenschlager said a new effort to change the neighborhood association’s name could be on the horizon. He is currently researching the pros and cons of expanding the Marcy-Holmes association’s borders southeast, covering all of the University neighborhood to the edge of TCF Bank Stadium so that the group represents more Dinkytown residents. And with the geographic change would come another duty: renaming MHNA to reflect its wider base. 

The idea to expand borders is pending approval from the association’s board as well as agreement with city planners. If that happens, Lautenschlager said he’d like to use the opportunity to create a name based on the area’s location, east of the river, so people remember it better than Marcy-Holmes. “It’d be called something else, like the East Bank District or the East District, or something like that that would be more geographically based,” he said. 

So what actually works? 

Lautenschlager, who leads the Nicollet Island-East Bank Neighborhood Association in addition to Marcy-Holmes’, said he’s had enough conversations about names with residents, developers and the city to know what makes a rebranding initiative work.

One-off ideas by developers or business leaders with big marketing campaigns often fail, he said. A campaign by a Minneapolis-based realtor to rename the area that encompases Surdyk’s as well as portions of Hennepin and St. Anthony Main as “Old Town,” for example, hasn’t showed signs of gaining traction in the community, he says. 

Such efforts are often “the idea of one person, or they’re the idea of a consulting team,” he said. As such, “They don’t [create something] organically over time through the community.”

Surdyk’s
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
A campaign by a Minneapolis-based realtor to rename the area that encompases Surdyk’s as well as portions of Hennepin and St. Anthony Main as “Old Town” seems destined to be about as popular as WeDo.
“I’ve never heard anyone refer to East Town, the incarnation of Downtown East, without laughing. … There’s always a chuckle there, whenever people refer to ‘WeDo,’ West Downtown that doesn’t make any sense.”

Instead, names that fit with the community or ones that residents think of themselves seem to stick, he said. That’s because people throughout Minneapolis place so much identity on their neighborhoods’ label and image; only community-driven efforts to reinvent areas’ prevail.

Which brings us back to SoPHI. While high-rise apartments in Marcy Holmes is the new normal, the 48-unit apartment complex at the intersection of Chicago Avenue and Lake Street is the first development of its kind in that area. Once it’s completed, in the winter of 2020, the new five-story building will tower over neighboring businesses that have been there for decades, such as Chicago Lake Liquors and Chicago Lake Coin Laundry. The site’s former owner, Los Ocampo, will rent space on the ground floor.

“Everywhere you look, no matter where you look, the scenery is changing,” said Daryl Guthmiller, a manager at the laundromat. 

The project’s website touts “urban living made easy” with studio apartments that have Italian-made furniture, solar-powered utilities and phone-controlled amenities. 

The rental prices are unknown at this point, but Tabitha Montgomery, who leads the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association, said they will offer a clear indication of what type of customer the developer is trying to attract to the area. (Developer DJR Architecture, Inc. could not be reached for comment.)

Montgomery said she’s heard mixed opinions about the complex. Many in the neighborhood have questioned how it fits into the city’s goals of preventing the displacement of low-income people, especially since more than one-third of Powderhorn residents earn less than 35 percent of the area’s median income, or $35,000 annually for a family of four. 

But in general, Montgomery said the community sees any redevelopment on Lake Street as a good thing. And despite the new interest from the high-profile developers, she believes the neighborhood’s core values of inclusion, diversity and artistry will remain strong.

“The community at large is concerned about affordability overall and displacement occurring for people already in the community as new developments come in, but not that we would brand or [change] what the community wants to reflect and to embrace,” she said. “I don’t think that’s in jeopardy at all.”

All of which means local sign painters probably won’t be in high demand anytime soon. “No one is walking around, talking about, ‘Oh, I live in ‘South Phi’ or ‘So Phi’,” Montgomery said. “They picked a name that I don’t think is going to be anything more than the name of that apartment complex.”