Lasalle Avenue: Downtown Minneapolis’ Worst Street

When the weather is nice (i.e., not this week), I normally walk to work on Nicollet Mall. While I’m largely a creature of habit, sometimes I like to get a little crazy and mix things up. One pleasant autumn morning that freewheeling spirit of adventure led me to stroll down Lasalle Avenue instead. This was a mistake.

It got me thinking, though, about how many different ways it’s possible to screw up an urban street, and if there was any place in the Twin Cities that displayed as many of them as the five or so blocks of Lasalle between the Greenway and 8th Street.

The worst street in downtown Minneapolis?

The worst street in downtown Minneapolis?

Things don’t actually start out looking all that bad, thanks to what I’d guess are the two oldest buildings on the stretch:

12th & Lasalle

12th & Lasalle

On the left we have the old McPhail Center, which sadly still sits empty. Not to stray too far off topic, but the McPhail Center was responsible for this suburban kid’s first unsupervised (well, aside from friend, classmate and fellow contributor Justin Foell) trips into downtown as teenager. I wish I had a better recollection of what this area was like back then, but sadly I don’t, aside from knowing there is a whole lot more to the St. Thomas Minneapolis campus now than there was then.

On the right is the old Continental Hotel, built in 1910 and a pretty cool example of preservation and re-use of a classic old building as transitional housing for the formerly homeless. I guess maybe my n0t-exactly-sure-what-urbanist-means heart might half-jokingly long for it to be mixed use, but hey, it’s built right up to the sidewalk and looks pretty nice, so I’m not complaining. Especially considering what lies ahead.

But before we get there, let’s turn and take a look the other direction, looking south on Lasalle:

Lasalle looking south from 12th

Lasalle looking south from 12th

Condos, a wide desolate road, and, eventually a tunnel. My wife won’t walk with me down this stretch, as she finds the tunnel under the Loring Greenway unpleasant. I can’t say she’s wrong, but given how great I think the Greenway is, maybe it’s worth the cost. Regardless, what we see here is the people who live in these buildings sequestered away from the street. That’s probably nice for them, but it’s not so nice for activity along this block.

Turning our attention back to the old McPhail Center:

The old McPhail Center

The old McPhail Center

I wish I had some time to do some research on this building’s history, but alas, we’ll have to make do. The facade interests me, though, in that there appear to have originally (or at least at some time in the past) been multiple entrances along Lasalle. Does that mean there was pre-McPhail retail? Could there be some in the future? My less creative side thinks this building (with quite a bit of loving restoration) would make a great home for a firm of 75 or so lawyers, but maybe that’s because it vaguely reminds of the old London office of Slaughter & May (no that’s not a reference you should get and no the resemblance isn’t that strong).

This photo also gives us a peek at yet another of Lasalle’s urban treasures: a surface parking lot. What wonders lay ahead?

St. Thomas Minneapolis Campus, part 1

St. Thomas Minneapolis Campus, part 1

Up next is the first Lasalle-facing stretch of St. Thomas’ Minneapolis campus, covering the entire block between 11th and 10th. I think this stretch is the business school. And my, isn’t that a nice looking building, with lasting classic stone architecture and a distinct style? Perfect, right?

Um, no. Notice how the only door on this stretch is all the way down there on the corner? The other side of this building faces a pleasant little courtyard with a statue and, I think no less than three ways to get in and out of the buildings. On this side, facing the city, there are none. Just a long wall with plantings to keep anyone on foot from getting too close. But hey, at least there are windows (which I think are mostly obscured).

Maybe things are better on the other side of the street?

The back of Target Corp.

The back of Target Corp.

Nope. My photography could maybe be better here, but I don’t think there is a single in-use entrance for people on this entire block either. The cars and delivery trucks can sure get in and out, but if you’re on foot, sorry, please go around the block. The “street” is really just an alley for the cars that can’t drive down Nicollet to use.

This is car territory

This is car territory

Speaking of which, as we move to the next block, we’ve got more blank walls, another garage access, and for all you elevated walkway lovers out there, a skyway. I think there is something more than appropriate about the lingering exhaust I caught on a cold winter’s day.

But I need to be a bit more fair to whoever designed the main building in the foreground. Again, my photography shows its limits, but that sure looks like the intent was for some sort of retail to occupy the corner on the right. There are similar empty “storefronts” running up the 10th Street side of that building as well. Given how pleasant it is to walk along here, it’s strange that these aren’t filled with small retailers.

Looking a bit further up the block, I guess someone thought some red awnings would really liven up the blank wall of the Target store’s loading dock?

Car storage!

Car storage!

Things are getting a little long here, but no catalog of bad urban street features would be complete without a stand alone parking structure. Thankfully, Lasalle does not disappoint. This is a particularly unpleasant one, in my view, because it really is nothing but stacked car storage. Also, my memory says there was a stabbing here not that long ago too. Fun.

The end.

The end.

Finally, we can finish at the only logical place. On the list of things you want for an urban street, isn’t ending in a blank wall pretty high up?

I don’t know if Lasalle Avenue is the worst street in downtown Minneapolis, but it sure is a bad one.

Adam Miller

About Adam Miller

Adam Miller works downtown and lives in South Minneapolis. He's an avid user of the city's bike paths, sidewalks and skyways. He's not entirely certain he knows what the word "urbanist" means.

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29 thoughts on “Lasalle Avenue: Downtown Minneapolis’ Worst Street

  1. Phil

    While I agree that walking on LaSalle is pretty depressing, I think you may be a bit harsh on a few points.

    St. Thomas ain’t all that bad. Not every street can be lined with little boutiques, and if you’re going to give the Continental Hotel a pass for not having an active streetscape, I’d say St. Thomas does a pretty good job of making it slightly more walkable.

    That parking ramp on 9th and LaSalle is a little treasure. One of the first parking ramps built in downtown, this thing only takes up a quarter block. Let’s appreciate it for its clean mid-century style and open airiness, and realize that it’s a classic example of early automobilism in downtown.

    Now, let’s try and get some street trees and pedestrian scaled lighting. And how about a 4-3 lane conversion with a couple bike lanes? A stairway up to the Loring Greenway would be tops, in conjunction with enhanced lighting and maybe some murals under that tunnel.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      The Continental is only part of a block. St. Thomas is a block and a half with exactly one entrance.

      But yes, that doesn’t make it terrible. It looks nice. It’s just that it was built to orient to the interior courtyard, not the street. It’s completely understandable why they wanted to do that (although the courtyard does not seem to get much use either), but it’s not particularly good for the street and/or the city.

      But, ack!!!! No, a parking structure is never, ever a treasure.

      I like your suggestions, though.

    2. Wayne

      “Let’s appreciate it for its clean mid-century style and open airiness, and realize that it’s a classic example of early automobilism in downtown.”

      No. Let’s not. Let’s tear it down as one of classic examples of terrible mistakes to come. I’d take a million of the insignificant gateway buildings that were torn down over this piece of garbage.

      1. Phil

        Parking ramps are an important part of downtown’s history. People wanted to tear down 60 year old structures in the 1950s also. Take another look at the openness and airness of the ramp. Look at its clean lines and modern utilitarianism. It’s not a Gateway Rampesque monstrosity. It’s a lightweight, quarter block, structure that actually did a good job of fitting in with the scale an massing of it’s (former) neighbors.

        I know this is a widely hated ramp, but it’s sometimes important to see the beauty in what’s ugly.

        (Also, I just found this interesting link:
        If you scroll down a bit, the LaSalle ramp makes an appearance and the site states that “the exterior wall is non-existent, unquestionably revealing the function. All of the support beams are inset, giving the cantilevered slabs the same floating illusion”)

        1. Wayne

          I’m sorry but you will never EVER convince me that a parking ramp is somehow historic and worthy of preservation. Are highway ramps historic? No. They’re the basest form of infrastructure. If you need to re-align it you just tear it down (and probably a few dozen houses) and build a new one. A parking lot or ramp is nothing but storage for cars. Just because they can be prettied up doesn’t make them worthy of preservation.

          Or maybe we could declare the rest of downtown east ‘historic parking lots that demonstrate the mid-century commitment to automobiles over the urban form’ and stop building anything there for fear of disturbing ‘history.’

          Just because something is old does NOT make it worth keeping. maybe we could still have railroads crisscrossing the city and yards next to the river. Do you think the rail yards should have been preserved too, since they were indicative of the way railroads and milling built the city?

          1. Phil

            Forgotten Chicago puts it much better than I can. A couple choice quotes that can also apply to Minneapolis:

            “Contrary to municipal parking garages built in most other North American cities, which are for the most part undistinguished (with notable exceptions), Chicago erected Modernist monuments to the automobile. Rather than hide vehicles behind a classically inspired facade, as was often the case prior, Chicago’s municipal garages put the vehicle on display.”

            “The fact that all of Chicago’s municipal garages were done by local ‘name’ architects is telling. It is difficult to envision such an undertaking today, where the automobile is derided (but still used heavily), and parking garage design has come full circle to where cars are often concealed in, under, or on the first few levels of a building.

            In the context of rising oil prices and a trend towards environmentalism, one must bear in mind that automobiles once were a source of pride and a symbol of freedom for a great number of Americans. Chicago’s municipal garages weren’t slapped together out of necessity or built as cheaply as possible. Nor did they exist solely to maximize revenues for a private owner. These were civic monuments to the automobile, serving what was perceived as the public good.”

            Disclosure: I’m probably just as anti-driving as you, but I can still appreciate thoughtfully designed automobile infrastructure.

        2. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

          If by “important” you mean the means by which we did much to destroy the city as a city, then yes.

          This, or any parking garage, is not a structure that is going to grow quaint or valuable if age. There is no obvious reuse it can be put to. When the last stand-alone ramp is gone, no one will miss them or fail to be able to image what they were like (they’re just like the mixed use ones that will have replaced them, aside from small design details).

          And I actually just walked by it a bit ago. Wouldn’t call it clean or airy. I’d call it stripped down and minimal. I suppose that’s a bit better than a walled-off cement bunker, but only slightly.

  2. Kevin

    I have a similar walk into work, and I definitely agree with you about that stretch of Lasalle. I’ve come to think of it as the “butt” of both Nicollet and Hennepin. Tied for next worst street, in my opinion, is 11th west of Nicollet, where zillions of drivers make a mad dash for 394 each afternoon.

    A stairway up to the Greenway would definitely be long overdue!

  3. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    A view of Lasalle’s terminating vista, Dayton’s, long ago. “The newer block closed a vista along Lasalle Avenue. It began as a two-story parking garage which eventually formed a base for the tall store building.”

    Looks like this Dayton’s superblock extension to LaSalle was completed in the 1950s, and I think the Dayton-Raddisson ramp was built around the same time (late 1950s). This photo was taken before the aforementioned parking ramp was built on SW corner of 9th/LaSalle. Anyone heard of that Sneller Music Co that existed before the Highland Bank building?

  4. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    Except for some changes to the St. Thomas campus, doesn’t look like LaSalle has changed at all in 30 years.

    As for Dayton’s, I fondly recall going up to their Christmas display on the 8th floor every year as a kid.

  5. Norski99

    McPhail Center was for me too my first reason to come downtown, on my own as a teenager — along with Dayton’s Department store. Sorry to see the former has changed for the worse and the latter has not changed for the better!

  6. Matt Brillhart

    To flog a dead horse even further, I wish LaSalle/Blaisdell would have been further considered as a “3C-2” sub-option for SWLRT. It may have encountered less opposition and probably lower costs than the main “3-C” alternative that considered running the line on/under Nicollet. An open-cut tunnel and portals might have been tolerable in sections of Blaisdell/LaSalle where they would not have along Nicollet (both Eat Street and downtown).

    No matter what happens with SWLRT and Nicollet Streetcar, I think LaSalle remains an excellent “back street” to Hennepin & Lyndale and is a good candidate for carrying surface rail and/or tunnel portals.

    1. Matt Brillhart

      I guess what I’m saying is:

      Maybe instead of a slow Nicollet Streetcar that gets stuck behind cars and buses, we should be building an actual *RAPID* transit system, of which a backbone could built along the Blaisdell/LaSalle corridor, including sections of both surface and subway.

      This “back street” section of LaSalle between 12th and 8th would seemingly be an ideal area to locate a tunnel portal. The subway could resurface near the foot of the Hennepin Avenue bridge (or perhaps as part of the Nicollet Hotel block development) and return to surface operation.

      I guess it isn’t really a re-hash of SWLRT at all, but rather an alternative to a stupid, slow streetcar line that gets stuck behind other vehicles.

      1. Wayne

        This is a great idea. I’d rather see it under a street like Nicollet or Lyndale, but I know that will never happen here so this is a really good cheaper alternative. But we’re too committed to trains in the woods at this point, so there’s little hope of anything sensible like this.

  7. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

    There would be some really tall buildings (Multifoods tower in particular) to go under in the direction of the river, which I’d assume would mean a very deep tunnel to be below the foundations (just a guess).

    In the other direction, would you have it underground all the way to the 94 trench (or beyond)? One option would seem like having it resurface on the existing downslope between 12th and the Greenway overpass, but Lasalle gets a little tight with parking on both sides of the street from Grant to 94.

    1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

      The ca. 1990 studies accounted for both the Wells Fargo and Multifoods towers as they both were built in the 1980s. The baseline alignment was under Marquette through downtown instead of being west of the Mall. Most of the building impacts would have been north of 4th St, depending on the subalignment chosen.

    2. Wayne

      It’s definitely possible to fit transit into a building’s basement. When they moved the northern part of the green line from an elevated structure to a tunnel in Boston they put it through the basement of north station/fleet center and some underground parking. I feel like people here (not you, just people in general from things I’ve read) discount engineering problems as ‘impossible’ in too many cases when it’s just ‘more expensive.’ Any time someone talks about tunneling around downtown utilities and sewers it suddenly becomes some impossible task that could never be done for less than a trillion dollars. After seeing most of the Big Dig construction come to fruition, I can safely say that tunneling through/over/around anything is possible.

  8. Scott

    LaSalle between 8th and 12th Streets will be completely reconstructed later this year with the City-approved layout pretty much leave it ‘as is’. The attitude seemed to be that LaSalle is a necessary ‘alley’ to move and store cars. The street itself will be rebuilt and utilities moved. Sidewalks will not be widened or spruced up with streetscape elements and driveways crossing the sidewalks will not be altereed. There will be a few bump-outs at corners and a two-block, one-way bike lane, however. This is another missed opportunity as streets are only reconstructed every 50-60 years.

    1. Joe T

      A good question is if we are to have large retail, offices and residential buildings, where should the deliveries, parking, garbages and moving docks be located? Yes, LaSalle sucks, but it is what allows Nicollet and adjacent side streets to be active and wholly pleasant. I remember working on a development challenge last year, and the team had to accept that the building needed a back. There had to be a place to put these. One or two of these can ruin a buildings side, if we have 5 for the building shoulder sacrifice 1 side or 3?

      I wonder if we should have to see our waste, see what we use, but in conventional theory one side being inactive is the best. Should every building make this its back? That’s really the question.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

        The issue on Lasalle isn’t garbage trucks and deliveries, or really even parking.

        There is no reason that both Nicollet and Lasalle can’t be designed to be acceptable to pedestrians.

        Also, the 10th and 11th street sides of these buildings aren’t exactly good either.

  9. Keith Morris

    I like riding down LaSalle because it’s convenient and I get to bypass all that ugliness much faster by bike, which is a reoccurring perk when riding Downtown. Once under the tunnel you get the closed King and I site and then perhaps the greatest juxtaposition of urban gentrification and low rent suburbanization with a luxury tower next to a strip mall with an SA, liquor store, sex shop, and a solid but rather expensive Vietnamese restaurant. And the street becomes one-way and while I haven’t been honked at I’ve had motorists passing while partially in my lane. Needs more sharrows or better yet, a buffered bike lane in lieu of an extraneous lane where traffic never gets backed up.

  10. Janne

    I have no quibble with the substance of your post, but I have two factual additions.

    1) The Continental Hotel is PERMANENT housing for formerly homeless individuals. I think it has been as long as Aeon has owned it.

    2) I *think* St. Thomas acquired the McPhail building when they built on the rest of that block, and they totally obscured all the windows (as shown). McPhail moved over by the river into a new building. [Note: All the St. Thomas windows are always totally obscured. Gah, that whole stretch if horrible!]

  11. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

    Thanks for the correction on the Continental.

    I also think St. Thomas acquired the McPhail building. I wonder if they have plans for it.

  12. Richard

    The MacPhail building looks the way it does because, when it was built, the school’s leaders wanted a backup plan in the case their investment failed, and they had to repurpose the building for re-use. The prevailing opinion was that retail on the first floor and offices above was the best way to do that.

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