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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.