The Subpar (Public!) Land Uses of Downtown East

After many decades as a sad parking crater, the eastern side of Downtown Minneapolis is being rebuilt. The next few years will see the completion of the new Minnesota Vikings Stadium, a two-ish block public-ish park, a two-ish block set of matching office towers filled by Wells Fargo employees, a block-sized ~1,600 space parking ramp, and a currently TBD development atop said parking ramp. The office towers will include some residential units along 4th Street South, and in all likelihood the project that goes on the parking ramp will also include hundreds of residential units, probably in addition to some sort of hotel. There will also be a residential development one on of the park blocks. Put together, something like eight or nine city blocks will be rebuilt in the space of about five years, assuming no more projects are announced–which seems unlikely.

(Image from Ryan Cos.)

Current and accurate renderings of this project are nearly impossible to come by–here’s an aerial view (Image from Ryan Cos.)

There are hundreds of millions of dollars in public money (mostly for the stadium) that have been pledged towards rebuilding this part of the city, and it’s been a long time coming. An all around excellent article in Twin Cities Business details the whole Downtown East redevelopment story, including the more or less intentional decision to ignore Downtown East while development was concentrated in Downtown West. Before we get too upset about that, it’s important to keep in mind that Downtown East was not necessarily the Champs-Élysées before it was parking. An aerial view from 1947 shows railyards, parking lots (potentially historic!), and some buildings like the Armory that are still there.

And on that note, there are a great deal of current land uses in Downtown East that are not great. To be clear, there are a number of things in Downtown East that are clearly necessary things to have in a city, but that are not necessarily places that you’d want to live or own property near. And more importantly, these land uses all have pretty much entirely terrible street frontage. We’ve got the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility, Hennepin County Juvenile Justice Center, Hennepin County Crime Lab & Morgue, huge Hennepin County Medical Center complex, and two gigantic, City-owned parking ramps along 5th Avenue South.

Metrodome no longer present

Metrodome no longer applicable

But! You may have noticed that, during that list of buildings and uses, all of the users are government. So we can change that street frontage! Maybe. Reworking the intake area of the county jail is probably harder than auctioning off land around HCMC for a liner development. Still, it’s worth examining the buildings we’ve got in Downtown East at least as a way to avoid doing similar things in the future, and maybe with an eye towards changing some of what’s there.

For the purposes of this post, we’re looking at Downtown East as an idea (?) rather than the actual, technical City-defined neighborhood boundaries. So, approximately the area east of Minneapolis City Hall before you get to I-35W. Here are some photos I took on a Tuesday afternoon during rush hour. There was also a Twins game that evening.

Hennepin County Public Safety Center--i.e. the county jail-- along 5th Avenue South

Hennepin County Public Safety Center–i.e. the county jail–along 5th Avenue South

Walking along the jail on 5th Avenue South

Walking along the jail on 5th Avenue South

The jail is hard to move or change. It’s probably a good idea to have it near the courthouse, which is located in the Hennepin County Government Center kitty corner from the site. But still, there have to be some possibilities for changing the exterior of this building so that it’s not a blank wall with fire exits and nature band-aids. Fun fact: I was in the jail a couple weeks ago! Voluntarily. Did you know the fourth and fifth floors of Minneapolis City Hall are also a jail? Like literally a jail, connected by tunnel to the one across the street. Guys in jumpsuits playing cards six feet above Mayor Hodges’ head. There’s a basketball court directly above the City Council chambers. Crazy.

Two block long parking ramps along 5th Avenue South

Two block long parking ramps (Government Center and Haaf) along 5th Avenue South

The parking ramps on 5th Avenue South are a barrier between the future Downtown East development and Government Plaza

The parking ramps on 5th Avenue South are a barrier between the future Downtown East development and Government Plaza

There are two block-long parking ramps on either side of the jail facility. Both ramps are owned by the City of Minneapolis. There was, apparently, a strategy in the 1980s to locate large parking ramps on the periphery of the then-developing downtown area. Now the periphery is a barrier. The city actually used to also own two more block-long parking ramps along 5th Avenue South, the Gateway Ramp and the Centre Village Ramp, which are a few blocks from here. Both were sold to Alatus in 2007 as part of a package where the city sold yet more (!) parking ramps on the condition that some of the parking ramps, or the areas around them, be redeveloped.

I work in this part of downtown, and while I don’t park a car, some of my best friends park a car, and I hear it’s getting harder and more expensive to do so. Especially with the closure of multiple surface parking lots in the past six months to make way for new development. So it may be hard to gather the political will to just up and tear either of these ramps down. However, the street frontage could be improved with minimal loss of parking spaces. The Haaf Ramp does in fact have two retail spaces at the corner of 5th Avenue South & 4th Street South, which is great.

Corner of the Hennepin County Juvenile Justice Center at Park Avenue South & 5th Street South

Corner of the Hennepin County Juvenile Justice Center at Park Avenue South & 5th Street South

There's actually a garage entrance right on the corner of the building. Never noticed that until now

There’s actually a garage exit with a curb cut right on the corner at the front of the building. Never noticed that until now. Odd design decision?

A blank wall

A blank wall

The Hennepin County Juvenile Justice Center is directly across 5th Street South from what will be the new park, and that’s what it looks like. Lots of blank walls. Similar to the situation with the county jail, it’s hard to imagine this facility moving or being substantially reconfigured, but it’s something to keep in mind as we build a park nicknamed “The Yard” directly across the street from two (2) detention centers.


Crime Lab!

Chicago Avenue & 6th Street South

Chicago Avenue & 6th Street South–across the street from the future stadium

You’ve got to imagine that the crime lab & morgue would be a little easier to move than the jail, but estimated costs to do so have been estimated at $20 to $25 million dollars. That second picture is what will sit immediately across the street from the front plaza of the $975 million dollar Vikings stadium. Certainly a crime lab & morgue have a great deal of specialized equipment, but you’ve got to think that they’d be able to figure out how to do something with a one-story, largely windowless structure. Build something on top of it? Who knows.

Hennepin County Medical Center has a parking ramp which features an eight story tall, block-long wall

Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) has a parking ramp which features an eight story tall, block-long wall

HCMC over 7th Street South

HCMC over 7th Street South

Hennepin County Medical Center at the corner of Chicago Avenue & 7th Street South

HCMC at the corner of Chicago Avenue & 7th Street South

Really puts the park in "Park Avenue"!

Really puts the park in “Park Avenue”!

Like the two jails before it, it’s hard to imagine moving HCMC or substantially reconfiguring its operations. It’s obviously good to have a Level 1 trauma center in Downtown Minneapolis. The HCMC complex takes up an enormous amount of land, spanning five whole blocks, blocking one street and partially capping two others. There is, sort of, a front to the building which I wasn’t able to find on foot, but I did find on Google Streetview. There are literal blank walls and effective blank walls. One helicopter landed and one ambulance departed in the ten minutes or so I spent walking around. The whole complex is pretty brutal, kind of like Moos Tower at the University of Minnesota, which I used to describe as Death Star-like when I gave campus tours back in the day.

However, much of the complex does have generous setbacks from the street. It may be possible to do liner developments in the future to improve the street frontage and break up the monolithic structure.

1980s Mars Colony

1980s Mars Colony

Lately I’m really into Mars, and this picture looking down 6th Street South makes me think of a 1980s Total Recall-style Martian colony. Let’s not let any part of our downtown look like a Martian colony.

Nick Magrino

About Nick Magrino

Nick Magrino grew up all over the place but has lived in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis longer than anywhere else. He has a new cat, Sweater, and does not use hashtags at @nickmagrino. He is probably on a bus right now.