The Midtown Exchange: Almost Ten Years Later

Can you believe it? Has it been that long?

Indubitably, it has been nearly 10 years since the Midtown Exchange was redeveloped in the old Sears building. I was there, with a very pregnant wife, for the grand opening in June 2006, and today my wife works there at Allina’s headquarters office, and we take our two kids there frequently to enjoy the offerings of the Midtown Global Market. (I love Manny’s Tortas.) Nine years on, the Midtown Exchange is a success from a number of perspectives, including urban design, and is loved by many.

Tower and upper levels of the Midtown Exchange

Tower and upper levels of the Midtown Exchange


While architecture review is a very important part of our understanding of cities, most reviews focus on the building and are written when the project is fresh, possibly even before completion. This approach is fine for reviewing materials, structure and even context, but I’m more interested in how buildings are used, viewed, approached, loved, and how they evolve. Thus, 10 years is a pretty good timeframe to break a building in, see how it ages, what sticks and what goes away, and how it settles in to the urban context. (This series unofficially began last year with a review of West River Commons, which led to a spirited conversation on this site.) So look at this as less of an architecture review and more of an urban design, public space and people review of the Midtown Exchange nearly a decade on.

The Building in Context

mpls sears store 1928 A little overview. Originally built in the 1920s, the old Sears department store was located along the north side of Lake Street between Elliot and 10th Avenues and south of a freight railroad line (today’s Midtown Greenway), was a focal point for Lake Street shopping in the decades prior to closing in 1994. The redevelopment, completed in 2006, is a public/private partnership between Ryan Companies and the City of Minneapolis, with a number of additional partners, and has certainly remained a focal point in many ways.

Midtown Global Market on opening day 2006 (it looks fundamentally the same today)

Midtown Global Market on opening day 2006 (it looks fundamentally the same today)


The anchor, or primary tenant, is the Midtown Global Market, which occupies the southerly end of the ground floor, with frontage and entrances on Lake Street, Elliot and 10th Avenues. Allina Health has its headquarters in the north wing of the building, with more than 1,000 employees on several floors. Sherman Associates developed both the affordable apartments located on the upper floors of the south end of the building and the condominium units in the tower. Hennepin County operates a service center on the lower level. Across 10th Avenue is the parking structure for the project, which is wrapped by affordable condominiums developed by Project for Pride in Living. A Sheraton Hotel is located in the parking lot on the west side of the project, along Chicago Avenue and the greenway.

West entrance of Midtown Exchange (Elliot/Chicago Avenue side)

West entrance of Midtown Exchange (Elliot/Chicago Avenue side)


Readers may have already gleaned that I’m a huge fan of the Midtown Global Market, which is basically an indoor public market featuring mostly restaurants, with some gift shops and small grocers. It is essentially one large room with few permanent walls but many aisles of tenants. While most restaurants have little to no exclusive seating, a large common area in the middle features tables and a stage. Although the market is a pretty major attraction for south Minneapolis, the presence of more than 1,000 employees across the ground floor concourse is the primary driver for the Global Market’s performance and occupancy over the years. The lunch rush is very important, and the market is edging towards a subsidy-free existence.

The Layout

Midtown Greenway frontage (2006) - note Sheraton patio and greenway bike parking and access

Midtown Greenway frontage (2006) – note Sheraton patio and greenway bike parking and access


The physical layout of the Midtown Exchange works well. An east/west concourse runs at ground level through the building. Out the east entrance of the concourse and across 10th Avenue is the parking ramp, and out the west entrance is access to Elliot and Chicago Avenues, some metered surface parking and an off street bus station served by the high-frequency 5 and 21 lines. The Global Market has strong frontage on Lake Street (urbanists should use this door), although most visitors and residents enter via the concourse, particularly from the parking ramp. Cyclists arriving from the Midtown Greenway can choose between parking on the greenway and walking up an exterior stairway on the Elliot Avenue side, or a circular ramp near 10th Avenue. Overall, regardless of whether people arrive by car, transit, bicycle or on foot, or what entrance they use, arrival at the Midtown Exchange is dignified.

10th Avenue entrance and public space (Google Street View)

10th Avenue entrance and public space (Google Street View)


The location, access and circulation of the concourse provides is critical to the success of the project overall and the Global Market in particular. When the project was being designed, there was a notion that 10th Avenue to the east would be closed to traffic and the parking ramp would be connected to the building via skyway, providing Allina employees with a secure second floor entrance, and opening up the space between the two for use as an outdoor plaza.

10th Avenue crosswalk - note pedestrian just cleared the crosswalk after vehicle stopped for him; it works! (Google Street View)

10th Avenue crosswalk – note pedestrian just cleared the crosswalk after vehicle stopped for him; it works! (Google Street View)


Luckily, as a result of the brief time Michael Lander was on the project team, a more sensible urban approach was taken, calling for a narrowed 10th Avenue and simple pedestrian crosswalk, still leaving plenty of public space outside the east entrance for gathering, sitting, and parking bicycles. Drivers routinely stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, and the narrow street succeeds in reminding most drivers to keep it under 20 MPH. The public space by the east door/concourse entrance is informal and understated but successful primarily because it gets foot traffic to and from the parking ramp, populating the space in a way that a skyway would have prevented. With entrances to Allina, the Global Market and the housing all at ground level in the concourse, the vast majority of people entering the Midtown Exchange do so in the same general vicinity, encouraging informal interactions.

Midtown Global Market Elliot Avenue frontage (opening day 2006)

Midtown Global Market Elliot Avenue frontage (opening day 2006)


Public space and frontage all around the Midtown Exchange is successful with few exceptions. Kudos for wrapping the large parking ramp with housing, although there could have been more walk-out entrances. On the other hand, the Sheraton’s main entrance faces south to the a parking lot. Worse, the side of the Sheraton facing Chicago Avenue, while having windows and a door, it is nonetheless a locked door and the resulting frontage does not engage the street the way other typical retailers do. In many ways, the main front entrance with a porte-cochere and all the activity it brings, despite additional curb cuts, would have made more sense.

Close-up of architectural detail

Close-up of architectural detail

But give credit to the Sheraton for placing their outdoor dining and patio facing the greenway. Allina also has a patio at the greenway level, across from a bike shop, Freewheel Bike, These three places provide eyes on the street (greenway) as well as essentially front doors on all four sides of the Midtown Exchange.

While the Midtown Exchange is a very good example of preservation, one slightly insane outcome of the project was the opinion that, in addition to the building, the parking lot in front was also historically significant. OK, that is completely insane. As a result, we have surface parking in front of the building. So historic.

Photos 014

Extreme close-up of architectural detail


Almost a decade later, the Midtown Exchange is a good neighbor and a broadly successful project. This project was enormously complicated, and the pieces fit well together in their urban context and the building retains or improves its urban integrity on all sides. Allina deserves a ton of credit for agreeing to base its headquarters there. The Midtown Global Market is as strong as ever, and deserves an entire post of its own. Most of all, this the Midtown Exchange is a good neighbor and serves the public realm well.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.

mpls sears store parking lot

The “historic” parking lot of Sears, c 1928.



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

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33 thoughts on “The Midtown Exchange: Almost Ten Years Later

  1. Sean Hayford Oleary

    Wait, I’m actually unclear if you’re sarcastic about the parking lot being designated “historic”. Is that seriously why it’s there?

    As far as surface parking lots go, though, that one’s not awful. It provides space for the Chicago-Lake transit center (although that is cumbersome to transit routing), and there’s very little noticeable frontage of the lot on either Chicago or Lake St. It’s really only noticeable from the private portion of Elliot Ave.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Yes. The parking lot was deemed historic.

      Splitting hairs, here, the drive lane that the transit center occupies isn’t surface parking. It also lines up with the main west door and the tower – a true “terminating vista.” There is some value to that.

      Ten years down the line, it is pretty silly to have preserved surface parking. It’s really outlandish.

      1. Matty LangMatty Lang

        The original plan was to have infill development on the parking lot. I can’t find any renderings on google, but I remember seeing them with the transit station bookended by new buildings. I believe the model that was in the condo sales room also included buildings on the parking lots. I do miss living there.

        I couldn’t believe it when the parking lot was deemed historic, I think, because it was the first surface parking lot in the state. So historic. Such history. Wow.

      2. Evan RobertsEvan

        To be fair the parking lot was kind of historic. The 1920s saw the first significant design of buildings and properties that incorporated parking lots as a feature.

        I agree that it illuminates the problems we have with historic preservation in this city (country?).

  2. Paul Strebe

    Great piece. I remember going to the store in the very early 90s before it closed. Then, in about 1993 or so, I had a chance to explore the upper floors with the maintenance man. It was very eerie riding the service elevator and looking out on floor after floor of aisles full of empty bins that were used to fill mail orders for the upper Midwest. Great to see it turned into something that’s full of life.

    1. Rosa

      I lived over near there when it was empty & fenced off, which made for even more terrible evening walking or waiting for the 5.

      But we did get to go to a great Frank Theater show inside the building while it was otherwise empty, that was pretty awesome.

      And ever since it’s been finished, it’s been so great. Some of my favorite restaurants & small grocers have come & gone but they’ve always been replaced by great things.

      It’s too bad there are so many big institutional buildings along Lake in that general area – they’re a big block to Lake being great for pedestrians & bus riders all the way from Chicago to Cedar.

  3. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    Nice piece.

    As a side note, can any of us imagine a building like this being built in a S Minneapolis neighborhood of mostly single family homes today? Look at that picture! Big, greedy, national chain? Check. Huge block development? Check. Significant bulk at 12 stories (higher than 4)? Check. Yet here we are, almost 100 years later and this thing is a huge positive for the neighborhood and city at large.

    1. Peter Bajurny

      Yeah I noticed that too. Full block development is obviously 100% all the time bad, except when the long lens of history has determined it’s good.

      Although I say this as someone that’s not the hugest fan of full block development, but if they stuck a 12 story tower in the middle of some of these full block projects I’d be a lot more supportive of them.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        And most importantly, all four sides have good frontage at Midtown Exchange, whereas elsewhere along Lake Street, Kmart and Target for example only have frontage on one side facing a parking lot, never mind the grid. One story or 12, good frontage on all sides is super-critical, and context matters. Historic preservation is one thing, but starting from scratch means no excuse for bad frontage. But we’ve learned that lesson, right?

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          Yes, exactly. I was going to make the point that frontage and setbacks above the (2nd to 6th, depending on context) matter immensely. This site did it well, and proves that a large, hulking, full-block development can work very well. It should be a shining example to those worried 4-6 story structures will ruin neighborhoods.

          1. Sean Hayford Oleary

            I agree with this — Foshay also does a good job of centering the tower over a much lower base. (Although in downtown today, taller street frontage probably isn’t a bad thing either.)

            Even Norwest Center does this for its 6th St frontage.

    2. Sean Hayford Oleary

      This point is interesting. I’m always curious how much other buildings could be repurposed if we cared about them. The Richfield/Windom Cub is a good example of a big chain (if not national) with a hulking building in a largely single-family neighborhood. Would we ever try to preserve that Cub in 50-100 years?

      The conventional story seems to be that buildings like the Sears/Midtown building were quality and worth preserving, while modern big boxes are mostly disposable junk. In reality, I think most of them are probably perfectly reusable, it’s just that we have so little affection for them, there’s no interest in doing so.

    3. Peter Bajurny

      I wonder if you could do some research here. Present “proposals” to a panel of test subjects and judge their reactions. Your proposals would all be existing well loved buildings, but obfuscated so the panel would think they were new novel proposals.

      What would we think about some of our beloved landmarks if they were proposed today, without the weight of history behind them?

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        I had actually been conjuring up a survey that’s more in-depth than the traditional real-estate “would you prefer a single family home on a 1/4 acre lot or an apartment.”

        The first would be a max-diff analysis with comparisons between all sorts of buildings & their features. Size, frontage design (porches, doors, etc), scale, whatnot. We’d group different features and be able to show people they (and others) answered in favor of X > Y, Z > Q through their hundreds of responses.

        It would be interesting to use Google Earth rendered buildings as though it were a project proposal and get feedback in the same way.

  4. jeffk

    I love the Global Market, but it would be nice if a couple of the larger tenants – such as the Rabbit Hole or the brewery – had doors directly on to Lake Street. The neighborhood also lacks a proper bar, but that’s another story.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Jeff, wouldn’t it be nice? I suppose five doors for the Sears department store (one facing Lake, two each facing 10th and Elliot) was enough, and trying to get new doors through the historic preservation project could have proved difficult. Whether the development team tried or not I don’t know.

      1. Peter Bajurny

        The brewery (I’m assuming there’s only one, otherwise I mean the one in the SE corner of the building) does have their own doors, but they open up to the vestibule rather than the street. But ultimately I don’t think it’s that much a problem, you still have direct access to brewery, and regardless there’s plenty of activity by the windows to get eyes on the street.

      1. jeffk

        For some reason I always exclude hotel bars but perhaps that’s not fair. I would love a nice NE-style dive around there.

        1. Rosa

          I think the alley behind Chi Lake liquors filled that niche, back in the day (I used to live a block south of there).

          But more seriously…there are plenty of dives farther east and west along Lake. Were they deliberately driven out of Chi-Lake? Maybe in the same push that put in the workforce center & some of the social service org offices?

          1. Wayne

            I think it’s funny how bars are an institution in richer areas and a scourge on poorer ones. No one fights to save dive bars in a poor area, but don’t you dare touch Nye’s!

            1. Matty LangMatty Lang

              Sunny’s Bar used to exist next to Robert’s Shoes on Chicago Ave. I found a couple of old Minneapolis Issues Forum threads about it. This one includes a nice history of Sunny’s by Wizard Marks:


              This one includes a nice story from the view of the studio apartment overlooking the back entrance to Sunny’s:


    1. Wayne

      When I rode the 21 I could walk from around Chi-Lake to uptown faster than a (always very off schedule) bus would show up. When walking halfway across town takes less time than it takes for a ‘high frequency’ bus to even arrive, your transit system has a problem.

      1. Rosa

        Yeah but at night that can be just awful. I’ve been mistaken for a prostitute twice, walking along Lake because I was close to home and no bus came while I felt like walking. (By people driving vehicles, both times – I’ve never had a problem with other pedestrians along Lake). Like I said farther up, the big institutional buildingsare just huge empty islands of darkness after 5pm.

  5. Matty LangMatty Lang

    The parking garage gets a failing grade when it comes to accommodating bicycles. The parking for the condo units is underground, but there are no bike racks in the parking stalls like is now common in new residential developments.

    Even worse is the made the garage door so that you need to be in a car in order to get it to open. If you stand there on foot or on a bike and swipe your card it will not open. The weight of a car is required for it to work.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Bummer how such recent projects barely five years old or barely more didn’t foresee the demand for bike facilities.

      I wonder how common the garage door opening mechanism is? I encountered it once at a long-term stay hotel.

  6. Janne

    I noticed the short-sightedness about biking even at the opening. There was no where near enough bike parking, and as for dignified, crossing from the greenway to the stairs required wading through snow banks or mud, depending on season. Also walking through the dumpster area of the Sheraton. On, and no signage so it was very confusing.

    Happily, they’ve built a paver connector between the stairs and the Greenway, added a bit more bike parking, signage, and done their best to shift the dumpsters to being stored up against the hotel rather than blocking the grand pedestrian connection from the Greenway.

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