Remember When Block E Was a Success?

block eThere 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.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is

19 thoughts on “Remember When Block E Was a Success?

  1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    Re: skyways.. Curious who the major players on the Downtown Council are? The 2025 plan seems to acknowledge that a second tier is a major detriment to street life, yet they suggest 1) doubling down by adding entrances at sidewalk level or 2) limiting expansion (but not a strategic divestment as they require major overhaul, as you suggest).

    My point is.. this is a major opportunity for the big players who are behind the DC’s vision (and Jan Gehl’s assessment of our town) to step up and question if the skyway should be included in the reconstruction of Block E. Pitch in some money for advertising/etc with a clause to remove the skyway and put all storefronts facing the sidewalk. Be the first step in a 40-50 year journey to make downtown better. (BTW, the City of Minneapolis should be doing the same, not actively building more skyways connecting stadia to parking ramps…)

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Agreed! The problem has been identified, although if you ask “are skyways nice?” people say yes but if you ask “do they draw people off the sidewalk?” there isn’t a way to argue no.

      So the Downtown Council – members include businesses and stores downtown including Target, Accenture and the Timberwolves – has identified that skyways are a paradox, and the solutions put forth are halting.

      Watching skyways get built connecting to the new stadium is going to break my heart.

      1. Rosa

        it’s worth asking “Would people be on the sidewalks in winter anyway?” when you ask if skyways draw people off the sidewalks. Are office workers going to go down to street level on their breaks or after work in winter? Or would everyone just eat at the one lunch place in their own building and then scurry home, when it’s cold?

        The sidewalks downtown seem plenty busy in summer, skyway or no skyway. But as a person who worked downtown in a building not connected to the skyway for many years, and then a connected building for a few years after that, the difference wasn’t sidewalks or no sidewalks, it was sandwich in the breakroom vs. going out.

        1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

          It is a fair question, and my answer is the nearly half of downtown workers who commute via transit begin and end their day on or near a sidewalk. And the fact that most elevator access to office space requires being on the street level, I’d say nearly everyone touches the street level even if they don’t go outside. And while people need coffee and lunch, sure, I’m willing to admit overall sales of coffee and lunch might decline if people were faced with having to go outside on really cold days – they may just stay in. But the tradeoff of overall streetlife and increase of street-level retail would be a very good tradeoff in my mind.

          1. Adam MillerAdam

            That really highlights the paradox. Do skyways decrease street-level activity? Absolutely. Do skyways increase overall downtown activity (economic and otherwise)? Absolutely.

            The challenge for the anti-skyway argument is why a reduction in total downtown activity is worthwhile, which is an especially hard argument to make to the businesses that will lose the marginal economic activity.

            But really, I don’t think skyways are real the problem. I think the problem is and for decades has been that there aren’t enough people downtown. We have a core that emphasizes (or has repeatedly tried to emphasize) retail with no customers other than commuting workers. There is essentially no housing within the boundaries of 3rd St S to the north and 11th St. S to the south and Hennepin to the west and 5th Ave. to the east. That’s something like 50 plus square blocks with only the very small 6 Quebec and the Lasalle Apartments offering housing. That’s your lack of vibrant streets right there.

            The new Nic and the Soo Line Building renovation are obviously address that a bit, but we’re still talking about housing being pretty exclusively on the edges of the downtown core.

            1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

              The Chicago Loop loses quite a bit of its vibrancy after office hours – this is a common occurrence in office cores – but its sidewalks bustle with people during the day because they don’t have an alternative like skyways (there is a very small tunnel system as well but the vast majority of the network (and retail space) is at the sidewalk/street level.

              Sure residential development will add some vitality, but both The Nic and Soo Line buildings will be skyway connected, which will take away from the potential contribution to street life residents will add.

        2. Adam MillerAdam

          That’s exactly it. And as someone who commutes on foot, it means driving to work when it’s raining, snowing, bitterly cold or uncomfortably hot.

          The challenge is to make the convenience of thy skyways work with better street-level vibrancy, not to remove the convenience in an attempt to force people to use the street.

      2. Marcus

        Skyway to the Viking stadium wouldn’t break my because I think they might be a deal breaker to get a Super Bowl-which I want bad. A stairway to ground level/ proposed plaza should be required.

        After that I think they can be phased out, although I have no idea how.

        I moved to Seattle in 2006 and came back 2011 and was pleasantly surprised how much the city and especially downtown had changed for the better.

        I wanted a park/ plaza for Block E. Maybe we could still do that with ?block d? (the parking lot behind Gluek’s/ Masonic Temple). Maybe when I’m king for a day

  2. Adam MillerAdam

    “while skyways provide valuable connections, they diminish the power of the attractiveness of street level tenants”

    This sounds more like an assumption than a fact. There is no reason a building can’t be designed so that a street-level tenant doesn’t also have access to skyway level customers. It’s hard to do because most of the skyways were add ons to existing buildings. Block E does not have that excuse.

    Anyway, when I hear people complain about the skyways I always want to know whether the complainer lives or works downtown. I rarely hear people that do complain about them.

    I simply do not agree that the “skyways have to go” to get a “more vibrant street life.” Perhaps for the “most vibrant possible street life” but there are many things that can be done to improve without doing away with the skyways, and it’s far from clear that maximizing the vibrancy of the street level is the most important goal.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      I always bristle when people defending the skyway system assume those critical of it don’t live or work downtown. I worked downtown for half my career (so far) and used the sidewalk as much as possible by choice. I’d choose ground-floor businesses like the excellent Trieste Café. Even when visiting a second level business, I’d often enter on the ground floor off the sidewalk and make my way upstairs as if the skyways didn’t exist. Even yesterday, when the high didn’t crack zero, my family and I took the train downtown to see Santa and Macy’s, shop at Target and Barnes and Noble, and have lunch at the Local. We didn’t need nor did we use a skyway. The sidewalk on Nicollet Mall served us just fine.

      1. Rosa

        I always did that too, because I didn’t know the Skyway system and did knwo the streets.

        But most of us arent’ going to be out at street level in the 0 degrees. Even transit users – watch us all wait in the lobby and rush out just when the bus is sighted.

      2. Adam MillerAdam

        I did not assume that, I said I wanted to know.

        I’m not sure what conclusions we should draw from your anecdote. I don’t think you’re the typical downtown visitor, and, of course, if you were, then the skyways would be nothing to complain about because everyone would be outside anyway. And I’m not sure we should be making decisions about how downtown is designed based on what visitors want.

        But there is apparently some reason why people who want to use the skyways should not be allowed to. What is it?

  3. Jon

    I have to completely agree with Adam on his points. As someone who has lived and worked in downtown MPLS for over 10 years, I would never get rid of the skyways. I use them daily for walking, commuting, lunch, people watching… They lead to vibrancy downtown esp at midday. I would be in favor of added connections to the street level from the skyways, but to tear them down would be a very bad decision.

    Also, I can see the arguement for lack of vibrancy due to lack of residential downtown, but if you look at the Northloop, there is plenty of residential there, but I wouldn’t call the Northloop streetlife vibrant. Even though I like very much what they are doing in the Northloop, the streetlife is pretty meager.

    I conclude that the biggest problem with vibrancy on the street in most major cities (Not including NYC) is the inventions of the computer and television. People are glued to them. When you look at black and white historic photos of vibrant streetlife from the past it is because the streetlife was the entertainment. People weren’t glued to devices.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      The Crystal Court sets and remains the gold standard for street level/skyway level integration, largely because of the space and transparency used to create sightlines allowing for ease of transition between the two, and the location of the escalator is painfully obvious. Enter the Crystal Court from the street and you can actually SEE what is on the second level. Retailers there benefit not only from very good, navigable design but also thousands of workers and hundreds of hotel guests on that very block every day.

      Block E has a pretty tall order to achieve better links between levels – we’ll see what they come up with.

      One potentially realistic solution is tactical removal of a few key skyways that would result in more people using the street level. For example, eliminate all skyway crossings across Nicollet to encourage better retail diversity at street level.

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