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How long can Uptown’s malaise last?

Signs of hope, but surprisingly little progress, three years after a summer from hell in Uptown Minneapolis
Still nothing doin’ at Uptown’s crossroads.
Still nothing doin’ at Uptown’s crossroads.
Photograph by Caitlin Abrams

Two Februarys ago, Northpond Partners, a Chicago-based developer, announced a $150 million redevelopment of the former Calhoun Square (now Seven Points), trading retail for hundreds of apartments, both subsidized and market-rate. The project has not broken ground and is mired in financing challenges.

Beyond that project, Uptown’s problems seem a testament to the power of bad vibes. Bracketed by the bustling Minneapolis lakes and the reasonably vibrant Lyn-Lake neighborhood, surrounded by new multiunit housing and some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the cities, Uptown has a foundation most commercial districts would envy. Yet in recent months the losses have mounted, most prominently the The Arts & Rec mini-golf/entertainment venue, which rebranded as Uptown Collab and promptly closed. It, Target, Roam Furniture, and Williams Pub are this year’s casualties. In the last 18 months, H&M, Indulge & Bloom, Urban Outfitters, and Salon Levante also departed Hennepin and Lake.

Yet the good news is not negligible. Crime is down—a result of neighborhood-based security initiatives (but also because Uptown is quite empty much of the time). Developer Ned Abdul’s remake of the Uptown Theater as a live performance space opened in July. New eateries have arrived, as well as new night spots.

Negative indicators remain, however. Former city economic development director David Frank came and quickly departed from leadership at the Uptown Association (UA), a worrying sign to area stakeholders. There has been no progress in engaging the city in tax and zoning changes area that landlords say would allow them to make commercial space more attractive to small businesses. And the 2024 rebuild of Hennepin Avenue remains a worrying disruption on the horizon. Landlords say interest in commercial space remains very low by pre-2020 standards.

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The contrast to downtown Minneapolis, groaning under myriad activation initiatives, is notable. Downtown’s prospects should be weaker than Uptown’s, given the loss of half its commuting workforce as commercial landlords hemorrhage tenants. Yet downtown shows promise, or at least dedicated focus.

“Uptown is obviously not a priority for the city and the council,” says longtime Uptown property owner Jeff Herman. Though the city did partner with Common Bond Communities on the below-market-rate housing component of Seven Points, it’s otherwise not engaged. Typically, the city devotes staff resources to commercial districts when they exhibit what is known as “market failure.”

“You can argue Uptown is an example of market failure,” says Frank, now an independent consultant. “‘The market will take care of it’ is the view of the establishment, but at the moment, it isn’t taking care of it.”

Seventh Ward Councilmember Lisa Goodman, who represents the northwest corner of Uptown, has a different view. “There is no market failure. Uptown is undergoing a correction,” she says. “Property owners sold to developers who needed high-rent first-floor tenants [such as Apple and Victoria’s Secret] to cover their mortgages. If they lower rent to $5 a square foot, they’ll get tenants.” Last year Herman told TCB that property taxes alone account for $10 per square foot of Uptown rents. (CM Aisha Chugtai, who represents most of Uptown, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Herman says he currently sees minimal leasing interest—the neighborhood’s wave of violence in ‘20-’21 continues to cast a pall. “There’s fear still,” he says. “There are times I don’t feel safe after dark.” The significant presence of unhoused people in Uptown, some with very visible mental health and addiction issues, is a reality not encountered at suburban malls and main streets.

Herman believes unique, imagination-sparking businesses are the future, but the only businesses showing enthusiasm for Uptown are nightlife venues, which can generate Uptown rents. “We’re seeing a transition to a nightlife and entertainment future,” says Frank. “It won’t be galleries and bead stores. I hope it works. The Warehouse District is heavily policed and is still not great.”

Uptown Theater owner Ned Abdul believes nightlife will buoy Uptown. “[The theater renovation is] a neighborhood rejuvenation effort more than a business venture,” he told TCB. “It will bring 200,000 people in over 100 events a year through Uptown. People and density will help with crime. A ghost town helps no one.”

Northpond’s redevelopment of Seven Points is seen as crucial to Uptown’s renewal. In a statement, co-owner Sam Ankin noted, “We are continuing to pursue housing and updated retail at Seven Points. The macro environment has provided some headwinds, but we are committed to work with the city and neighborhood to find our way forward.” (A source with knowledge says Northpond has explored options for the site without an apartment component.)

The environment he speaks of is an interest-rate spike and the ongoing threat of rent control in the city, which makes lenders wary that developers can generate sufficient return to pay back debt. “Capital decides where it is going to go,” says Goodman. “It is hard to attract capital in a rent-control environment.”

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The Ackerberg Group is the largest office landlord in Uptown and is bullish on its potential. “Work-from-home is an opportunity because [Uptown] can provide office tenants unique amenities like trails, lakes, fitness, and coffee culture,” says president Jackie Knight. “But a lot of business is hesitant to make long-term commitments now.”

Frank’s brief ascension to the executive director’s role at UA in 2022 was viewed as cause for optimism, given his connections to local government and a national perspective on urban development best practices. His rapid departure unnerved the business community. The UA is not a typical business association; instead, it exists to present Uptown’s annual art fair—once a distinctive regional event but now one of many—which has suffered from diminishing returns for half a decade.

Frank would not discuss his departure, but multiple sources say its board remains preoccupied with the art fair, unable to divert focus or raise funds for other ventures. (UA director Jill Osecki did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Frustration with the association led businesses to “take things into their own hands,” says Herman. Clothing retailer Urban Jungle organized a street market for July 16 with over 50 vendors selling vintage wear and collectibles. Herman believes a calendar of similar events could show the broader community that Uptown can again be vibrant and