There has been a lot of coverage of Block E lately, given the recent announcement of renovations and new tenants. It is way too early to really comment, but I hope the current owners add some doors and windows to better engage the street. In the meantime, in case you missed it, Bill Lindeke wrote yesterday an excellent piece about four things we should know about Block E. Here is a fifth; Block E was once successful. Remember that? The fact that for a period of time it was successful and then emptied out so fast begs some questions about big projects and the city’s vision for downtown.
The year was 2004. The most recent iteration of Block E has just opened and occupancy was 98%. Is that possible? It was true for a little while. The Urban Land Institute in Washington D.C. commissioned me to write a Development Case Study about it. You can read the case study here. What is interesting is the tension that existed between the city and development team. The developer, McCaffery Interests, and architect, Antunovich Associates, placed a heavy emphasis on the building frontage and how it related to the street, and create a lively pedestrian experience on all sides of the project, including storefronts, windows, trees, lighting and plazas. The four corners were most important to the team, and the argument can be made that when occupied, those four corners indeed worked well, particularly the plaza where today’s Kieran’s Irish Pub is located.
While interviewing McCaffery and Antunovich, it became apparent they viewed skyways as a detriment to street life, and they advocated that Block E not include skyways. The city insisted on skyways. The case study explains it thusly – while skyways provide valuable connections, they diminish the power of the attractiveness of street level tenants. The development team found it hard to maximize the exterior’s appeal in a community so focused on indoor spaces. Right or wrong, the McCaffery had a point – but perhaps the city engaged the wrong development team….
Block E received criticism for including so many national tenants in the project. Why would suburbanites come downtown to visit Applebees when they can stay in Maple Grove and park for free? Good point. Much of this was explained at the time as the fact that those who can afford rents for new real estate are mostly national chains. True, but what is interesting is the developer of the hotel on-site, Graves Hospitality, which runs what is now the Graves 601 Hotel, is a local entrepreneur, and now a quite successful one with one of the only successful pieces of Block E that remains to this day. It does lead to the conclusion that if we really wanted an evolution of small-time, local shops and restaurants, we should have left Block E in place in the 1980s and used tools such as today’s DID and special districts to encourage a wider range of tenants.
The Experience Gained section of the ULI case study provides a foreshadowing of what was to come. Block E was already a lightning rod for the role of TIF in the 2001 election, and it was believed in 2004 that successful lease-up of the project meant bad press was behind it. If only. More damning was chairman and CEO Daniel McCaffery’s assessment, even when it was perceived to be a successful project, of what he’d have done differently. McCaffery would have added a residential tower (seems like a no-brainer in today’s apartment market), would have had the city help with security in the project’s early years (indeed a problem that has been helped recently coordination of the MPD and DID), and lastly if McCaffery were “king for a day” he’d remove all skyways and reassess downtown’s one-way street system in order to return the prominence and power to the street level, drastically improving quality of life in downtown Minneapolis. Wow.
Those of you who know Daniel McCaffery may chuckle at his pronouncement of being “king for a day,” but he has a point (and after all, don’t we all dream of being king for a day?). He does bring up a larger issue of what our collective vision is for downtown. If skyways are so important perhaps we as a city need to better vet who we engage to develop and design our real estate. It is refreshing that we are reassessing some of our one-way streets and recognizing (well, the Downtown Council’s 2025 Plan is) the “skyway paradox.” This issue won’t go away with Monday’s announcement of renovation plans at Block E.
Incidentally, the original development program for Block E in 1999 called for retail space, a “family-style hotel” (whatever the hell that is…a hostel?) and a plaza at the corner of 7th and Hennepin with a diagonal interior passageway through the project. McCaffery only took over after the city’s preferred developer, Brookfield Properties, lost development rights. I’ll point out that nothing from the original development plan got built, and both McCarffery and Brookfield have largely sold off their holdings in the city.
What I hope isn’t lost in all of this is not so much an argument over whether public dollars are used for development but how. Do these dollars go to private or public entities? And more importantly, what do we want our downtown to look like and how do we want to use it? We can’t have it all. If we really want a more vibrant streetlife, the skyways have to go. In many ways downtown is much better than it was in 2004 when Block E was successful for a brief moment in time, thanks to the DID, grocery stores, bike lanes, Target Field, food trucks, and people’s insistence on using the sidewalk. Maybe we’ll get a great park in a couple years! But let’s remember our biggest failures can teach us the biggest lessons. Let’s remember Block E and not let those lessons go to waste.
This was crossposted at Joe Urban.