New Gateway project recalls early efforts to combat downtown blight

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Gateway Park’s focal point was a classically designed pavilion with two pergolas extending from either end of the building. The green space embodied the principles of the City Beautiful movement.

An ambitious new project, known as the Gateway, will soon take shape on the historic Nicollet Hotel block now that local officials have selected a developer for the city-owned site. The Pohlad family’s United Properties won the competition to create what city leaders hope will be an iconic development at the north end of the Nicollet Mall. The Gateway will include a 36-story hotel, apartment and office complex on the site of the Nicollet House hotel that opened in 1858.

The project’s name recalls early efforts to combat urban blight that had infected the city’s first commercial district, adjacent to the downtown riverfront. By the turn of the last century, the district, centered on lower Hennepin and Washington Avenues, had become little more than a collection of shabby bars and storefronts, surrounding Minneapolis’ soon-to-be-abandoned City Hall.

In 1915, the Minneapolis Park Board pioneered the use of urban renewal when it built Gateway Park, on a triangular two-block site that included the early City Hall. The larger of the two blocks fronted on Washington Avenue. Infested with rats and other vermin, that block had contained 27 saloons before it was “urban renewed” by the Park Board.

The new downtown green space embodied the principles of the City Beautiful movement, which sought to uplift urban life through the use of beautification and monumental public architecture. Gateway Park’s focal point was a classically designed pavilion with two pergolas extending from either end of the building. An inscription at the base of the pavilion declared “THE GATEWAY: MORE THAN HER GATES, THE CITY OPENS HER HEART TO YOU.”

Not all local civic leaders had opened their hearts to the idea of a Gateway Park when the project was first proposed in 1908. In his history of Minneapolis parks system, David C. Smith notes that the proposal generated substantial controversy early on. Local financial titan Thomas Lowry championed the Gateway plan, but Charles Loring, the Park Board’s first chairman, opposed it. Loring believed the board had no business trying to beautify downtown. The man known as the “father” of the Minneapolis parks system maintained that the Gateway would become nothing more than “a loafing ground for unemployed men,” according to Smith.

In later years, Loring was proven right during the Depression, when Gateway Park did, in fact, become a “loafing ground.” Even the construction of the upscale Nicollet Hotel across from the Park in the 1920s did little to halt the tide of blight that enveloped the Gateway.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The prediction of Charles Loring — that Gateway Park would become a loafing ground for unemployed men — came to pass. This photograph shows the park in 1937.

By mid-century, city business leaders, including the members of the newly created Downtown Council, were increasingly fearful that the blighted Gateway district could infect the city’s retail core and hamper Minneapolis’s post-war economic resurgence.

In 1957, using the tools of federal urban renewal, city officials responded to these concerns by embarking on a new Gateway initiative, this one substantially more ambitious than the earlier 1915 effort.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The city’s Gateway Urban Renewal Project covered a 70-acre swath
of lower downtown.

The city’s Gateway Urban Renewal Project covered a 70-acre swath of lower downtown, which included the original Gateway Park. The massive clearance project would bulldoze the blighted blocks around the park, and replace them with the Towers Apartments, the city first downtown market-rate housing development, and the column-clad Northwestern National Life Insurance Building, now known as the Ing Building.

In recent years, the Gateway Project has been soundly criticized for demolishing much of the city’s early commercial architecture, including the much-admired Metropolitan Building, and displacing the district’s low-income residents.

But Gateway renewal did lay the groundwork for a downtown resurgence that has continued up through the early years of the 21st Century. Now, 100 years after the first gateway was created in 1915, a major new development across from that early parks aims to maintain that momentum for the next 100 years.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Peter Roethke on 02/12/2015 - 04:39 pm.

    “Blight”

    Can we please, please retire the word “blight” from the discussion of urban planning?

    As generally used, the word (originally used to describe diseases affecting plants) implies that the built environment is the cause of social dysfunction. This is the mentality led to the disaster of urban renewal: if you view the buildings themselves as pathogenic, then their eradication should destroy the disease (presumably drunken unemployed men, in this case).

    The buildings are not the problem. Substance abuse, unemployment, and poverty are serious problems. But they were not caused by the dense, mid-rise, mixed-use pre-war brick buildings demolished in this instance. Conflating the two was the error of the early 20th century reformers; their cure – the sterile banality of corporate mid-century architecture – was worse than the disease they were purportedly combating.

    This medical vocabulary is completely inappropriate to describe the built environment. The article notes how this block contained 27 saloons before they were bulldozed, allegedly because there were rats and “vermin”. If rats and cockroaches justified destroying buildings, then much of central Paris should be leveled. If you don’t take out the trash, even the most beautiful building in the best neighborhood will attract rodents and bugs.

    So, please: retire the word “blight”. It confuses things a lot.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 02/13/2015 - 08:23 am.

      Hear Hear!

      Urban “blight” is a chicken and egg problem. Areas get neglected, people get neglected, and the neglected people congregate in the neglected areas. Instead of treating the neglect, planners “cure” the problem by beheading the chicken and scrambling the egg. Then, they wonder where they might get more chickens when dinner’s over. The late 40’s and the 50’s were an era of great loss for US history. Instead of preserving or modernizing what was already there, planners opted to spend, spend, spend to produce shiny new buildings (it’s particularly sad that the aesthetics of the 50’s were terrible) and other fixtures. I presume that this was mostly to sustain the incredible economic growth rates as well as the baby boom, and maybe even to cover up the fact that we learned that women were just as capable in the work place as men and we wanted a lot of manly destruction and building going on.

  2. Submitted by David Markle on 02/12/2015 - 08:29 pm.

    Blight

    Some good came of the Gateway renewal, and John Pillsbury was justly proud of the Monoru Yamasaki-designed NW Natl Insurance Co. building. Ironically, his ancestor, Mayor George Pillsbury, was one of those responsible for the concentration of saloons in that area through the establishment of the “liquor patrol limits.” But many of the old structures along Washington Avenue S. might have been saved, nowadays, for their charm and potential value. The Vendome Hotel comes to mind. And as Iric Nathanson implies, a permanent historic scandal resulted from the consternating demolition of the remarkable Metropolitan Building (originally Guarantee Life Building).

    I agree with Mr. Roethke that it’s incorrect to conflate buildings with social problems. Our Minneapolis landlord licensing ordnances go far in that way, covering not only property maintainance issues but tenant behavior at other locations. For better or worse, the terms “blight” or “blighted” appear in the Minnesota statutory language governing the application of tax increment financing and in federal language enumerating valid activities for certain types of tax-exempt organizations, to cite only two examples of their official status.

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