Preserving Nothing at 200 Central Avenue

This is why I hate historic preservation:

…the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission on Tuesday voted in favor of allowing a developer to demolish two buildings but denied a request to build a 40-story condo tower across the Mississippi River from downtown.

Okay, hate is too strong of a word. I don’t hate it. I just think it’s often misapplied, and this is a good example of how. But that’s still an insane sentence. Read it again.

This was a vote to preserve literally nothing. Literally. They are fine with tearing down the buildings. It’s the nothing that’s left afterward that must be preserved. That’s insane.

What’s even more insane is that it’s probably the correct decision, given how this process works. This site is within a designated historic district. The guidelines for this district – no doubt written in the misty past by the wisest of sages – say that you can’t have buildings taller than 8 stories in this area (see Sec. 10.7). So that’s it. Case closed.

Obligatory Metropolitan Building image (source: Minnesota Historical Society)

But why? Maybe the Strib knows:

The decision comes at a time of heightened concerns about how development is affecting a part of the city that is dominated by turn-of-the-century houses and storefronts, and a handful of high-rise condo and apartment buildings built in the 1980s.

Let’s leave aside that I’m really not sure where the nearest turn-of-the-century house is (you can’t count the the 1847 Ard Godfrey House in the park next door), there are some older store fronts a few blocks away. They’re lovely and wonderful and they definitely should be preserved!

But they aren’t adjacent to this property. Right next door is a parking ramp. Across the street is one of those existing high-rise buildings (condos, not apartments). Across the other street are rows of townhouses built in the 1990s. A half block away is decade-old condo building and grocery store.

[Click to enlarge] Building ages surrounding proposed tower site. Only the adjacent Pillsbury Library building (1914) dates from the historic period of significance. Everything else is much newer…or nothing

In short, once the buildings on this site, whose demolition has been approved, are gone there is very little in the immediate area that shares the characteristics that are supposed to make up this historic area. If it ever existed on this parcel, it’s already gone. But apparently we must preserve its memory, because historic district.

So what happens now? Well, one option is for the developers to scale this project back, meaning fewer people can live here, fewer built-in customers for area businesses, marginally more expensive housing in the area, and less property tax revenue for the city, etc. Yay! A victory for preservation!

Or the developers will quickly file an appeal of the HPC decision and the city allows them to build it anyway. Let’s hope for that.

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.

44 thoughts on “Preserving Nothing at 200 Central Avenue

  1. Morgan

    While I 100% agree with you regarding this decision please don’t blame historic preservation. It’s sort of like saying you hate basketball because the Timberwolves.

    But yeah, I am very sympathetic to historic district preservation and design review in general and I think that that is a great site for a tower. There is literally like nothing near it! No shadowing, no nothing.

    Yeah, maybe those parcels shouldn’t be in the district anyway. It really isn’t very contiguous.

      1. Morgan

        Oh yeah, how? The Timberwolves have been horrible for years. Does that make basketball horrible?

        1. mplsjaromir

          Because no one has every said “I don’t like basketball because of the Timberwolves.” You made up that so you could take a cheap shot.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      I like protecting cool old stuff, and when that’s what preservation is doing, I’m all for it.

      Unfortunately, it can go way beyond that, as it did here.

    2. Angela

      I agree with you, Morgan. I was looking at a report from a Minneapolis City Planner from July 31, 2014 and it sounded like although there wasn’t interest in saving the buildings, there were plans to document them, per this: “latus is in the early stages of developing an architecturally significant mixed-use high-rise residential project on the Development Site. Neighborhood feedback has consistently encouraged
      us to create a “Gateway” property, an architecturally significant tower designed to set the stage as traffic flows into the Marcy Holmes and Nicollet Island-East Bank neighborhoods. Alatus has conducted four separate neighborhood informational sessions, collectively attended by over 150 people, to gather input on the proposed development. We have been encouraged to strongly consider the demolition of the Washburn-McReavy Funeral Chapel and the St. Anthony Athletic Club as it is currently positioned where the base of the proposed tower and adjacent public plaza
      and solarium would be located. While the existing property is considered a contributing building, very little interest has been shown in saving it for historical purposes. Instead there is a desire to properly document the buildings, retain any meaningful artifacts or specific components, and proceed with the development as generally shown, subject to further changes.” The report is here:

  2. Emily MetcalfeEmily Metcalfe

    Nice post, Adam. This is a topic that I don’t know much about at all, but I am interested in learning about how historic designations impact development. I have heard the term “predatory development” in the context of historic preservation. Can any commenter here enlighten me as it what that means?

  3. Tod

    Well put. Maybe you could actually put the address of the property in question somewhere in the story? Other than that glaring lack of information, the article was very interesting.

  4. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

    Thinking about it some more, to me, those townhouses are much less consistent (subjectively) with the historical form than a quarter-block tower.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

        I don’t think they’re bad architecture (although I’m not really qualified to opine), and they’re from well after 2000. They just aren’t at all early Minneapolis.

          1. Morgan

            Yeah, you’re right. They’re not that bad. I would bet that their brick material is a by-product of the historic district regulations though.

            Also, I think that if that site was developed post 2000 that it would be multifamily.

  5. Claire VanderEykClaire VanderEyk

    I guess, what it comes down to is how one views historic preservation. I think you believe it is being used to widely, but I think your view of preservation is too narrow. I am a preservationist, not because I care deeply about one particular building – or I have some nostalgia attached to one particular style of architecture, but because I believe it is an important part to thoughtful city development. In the context of this situation, preservation is not just about the Washburn-McReavy Funeral Chapel (which this fails to mention that the HPC requested the developer take six months to explore moving the building), it is about a neighborhood and how we (as residents and patrons of the area) want to see it develop. I’m really sick of hearing preservation painted in shades of NIMBY watercolors, as if that is all it is and nothing more. Preservationists have very few tools at their disposal when it comes to situations like this, we are often not invited to the for forethought discussions of the future of our cities. And as a result are forced to lean on historic district guidelines and preservation commission meetings that often come after the proposal has been all but completely developed. Sometimes, it seems, the only time “preservation” is mentioned on blogs like this, it is to complain about how it is somehow getting the way of development. Density has many redeeming qualities, but pretending like it is the cure to all the evils of city development smacks for urban renewal rhetoric to me.

    1. Emily MetcalfeEmily Metcalfe

      Hi, Claire, how do you see historic preservation fitting into the community planning process? When developers come to a neighborhood, would it help if neighborhoods already had historic preservation guidelines in their community plans? Does this language need to be strengthened in community plans?

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      It definitely comes down to how you view preservation, but I’m not sure I agree that preservationists don’t get plenty of say these days.

      I’m sorry, but it seems to me you’re saying that you want to be able to dictate what can be built in your neighborhood, but since you don’t have that power, you’ll “lean on” preservation. I hope that’s not right.

    3. Peter Bajurny

      Urban renewal in its most basic form is, I would say, clearing of buildings with no thought as to what will go in their place.

      And really that’s exactly what the HPC is pushing for here, so the HPC’s actions smack of urban renewal rhetoric here as well.

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          Would it at least be fair to say that, given the two decisions are actually legally separate, that a very undesirable outcome could happen? We’ve got dozens upon dozens of real examples of this across the city, pursued in the past by both public and private entities. I disagree that the criteria the HPC is actively “pushing” for is to have nothing on the lot, but that has historically been (and could potentially be) an unintended consequence of not linking the two decisions.

          1. Monte Castleman

            Yeah, just like the endangered species act encourages landowners to destroy habitat lest an endangered species be found on it and the government effectively seizing their property without compensation, I wonder if now the developer is going to knock down the buildings as fast as possible lest some future decision be that they can’t be (and with no compensation for the fact that they can no longer be redeveloped).

        2. Peter Bajurny

          I would say outcomes matter more than intentions, and regardless of the intention, the outcome here is clearly bad, right?

    4. Claire VanderEykClaire VanderEyk

      The problem, as I see it, is that preservation is too often pigeonholed as neighborhood organizations that are against any change in their community. That, simply, is not the case and this post is an exceptional example of that mischaracterization. City planners and council members get wind of proposed developments long before the rest of the community has an opportunity to weigh in – this is the way our system is set up. It is supposed to work because, in theory, the community elects council members to represent their interests. Unfortunately, particularly as it pertains to preservation, it often doesn’t work out that way – and we end up with these contentious battles. All the sudden developers and “urbanists” are pit against preservationists and the end result is often less desirable than what could have occurred if a holistic conversation about the future of our communities was had from the start. I think this starts and ends with the city’s staff and elected officials, they are the ones who should always be looking to the future and reflecting on the past when it comes to decisions such as this one – that is their job. Engaging preservation professionals early in this process would help – there are great organizations like the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota or Preserve Minneapolis as well as many private organizations that specialize in preservation consulting that can help facilitate these conversations. Most importantly, I would like to get away from the implication that preservation only matters to people when it is happening in their backyard. Preservation is about much more than saving one individual building, it is about ensuring that the places we create today will continue to be vital and dynamic communities long into the future. I’d ask that you reference a report done by Preservation Green Lab (a division of the National Trust for Historic Preservation) that puts empirical data behind the way preservation can support the economic vitality of a neighborhood.

      1. Joe T

        One thing to note is that the neighbors were engaged, maybe not the historic preservation community, but the neighborhood group was informed (and even voted in favor if I’m not mistaken…) There was debate on this for a while last year, and I’m struggling to find it, but neighbors have been debating if 40 floors is too much, if (since the tower is recessed into the block and a “pedestal” building of 4 floors would wrap around it) the project can keep with the nature of preserving the “feel” of the historic district, while also being taller than is allowed.

        1. Morgan

          40 floors does seem like a lot. Isn’t that taller than a lot of office buildings downtown? Just to compare, the East side building at 3rd and Washington is 13 stories. But just kinda eye-balling it, maybe both buildings would have the same FAR.

  6. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

    “This was a vote to preserve literally nothing. Literally. They are fine with tearing down the buildings. It’s the nothing that’s left afterward that must be preserved. That’s insane.”

    This isn’t…really what the HPC decided. Regardless of the merits of each, the two applications are separate. I don’t think framing it that way is fair to them.

    1. Peter Bajurny

      In the very technical sense that’s correct, but in the real world the two decisions are related. And I would think they should be related!

      Since this is historical preservation it needs an obligatory Metropolitan Building comparison. I would say the greatest crime of tearing down the Met wasn’t the act of tearing down the building, but it was that it was replaced with nothing. I don’t think the Met should have been torn only to be replaced by a parking lot. If it was torn down for something even grander I think (to me) the loss would not be as great.

      By comletely separating these two decisions, we’re saying that the criteria for demolition are the same if we’re tearing down the building and replacing it with a suburban Olive Garden or if we’re tearing it down and replacing it with a 40 story residential tower.

      To me, the “historicness” of a structure is a measure of degrees. Everything is historic. Every place has had something happen. The building with the staircase where I stubbed my toe for the 637th time in my life. That building has some history. Is it worth preserving for that alone? I would think not. It is historic, but far below a threshold that any reasonable person would say deserves protection.

      The only way these two decisions being made in a vacuum makes sense if there is no threshold of hisotoricness, if it is merely a binary condition. A building merely IS HISTORIC or IS NOT HISTORIC. No historic building is more historic than another, they are all equally important. No non-historic building is less historic than another, they are all equally unimportant. In that way it doesn’t matter what comes next, because there’s no difference in degrees. But if that’s the case, then this building was NOT HISTORIC and so what the hell was it doing in a historic district anyway?

      So legally, they’re separate decisions. I’m not sure a human is completely capable without biases of making these two decisions completely in a vacuum. Nor do I think there’s strong justification for why they should be two completely separate decisions, rather than decisions made in tandem.

      1. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

        Yeahhhh, but the “legally” part is kind of important–I’ve had the pleasure of voting for not one, not two, but ~three~ single story retail buildings with drive-throughs and surface parking lots in eight or so months as a Planning Commissioner. I didn’t want to do that, personally, but I did, because that’s our job–interpreting the current requirements and regulations and findings and policies, not what we’d maybe want to do in a perfect world. I mean…

        “By comletely separating these two decisions, we’re saying that the criteria for demolition are the same if we’re tearing down the building and replacing it with a suburban Olive Garden or if we’re tearing it down and replacing it with a 40 story residential tower.”

        The criteria are still the same.

        1. Peter Bajurny

          Yeah, they right now are the same, I think (and I think you agree with me) that they shouldn’t be the same.

          Some (definitely not you, and not really anybody here) will jump to defend a broken process if it results in the outcome they want, but man, the process is a little bit broken here.

          1. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

            A fair take–and I would hate to be one of those people who defends something in order to show off how smart they are about how complicated it is.

            But there’s a tendency, due to the short news cycle and our own short attention spans, to view all of these land use decisions across the city as the result of a given commission or the City’s Council’s personal thoughts about whether or not they liked the individual project, and that’s not really how the process goes or at least is supposed to go.

      2. Morgan

        I completely disagree here.

        1) the decisions are totally separate. Whether or not the funeral home contributes to the aesthetic of the district and should be saved has nothing to do with what comes next.

        2) the met comparison has no relevance. It’s OK that the funeral home has no aesthic merit and very little currently understood future use, so much so that it can be demolished. That was probably never the case with the Met. It was just going to be damn expensive to maintain.

        3) not everything is historic just like all art and music is not good. Just because you sing in the shower does not make you an artist, at least not a quality one. Some culture becomes cannonized due to its effect on society. This includes art, music, and yes, buildings.

        1. Monte Castleman

          There’s some sort of Godwin’s Law that the Met comes up in every thread about historical preservation in the Twin Cities whether or not it’s relevant. Besides the immediate issue that Sheraton refused to build they’re nice modern hotel unless it was gone, it fell victim to what I call the “Preservation Cycle”:

          Generation 1 Builds It
          Generation 2 Uses It
          Generation 3 Hates it and tears down as much of it as possible in favor of what’s in current fashion.
          Generation 4 tries to save the pieces left from Generation 3, and wonders what on earth possessed them to destroy so much.

          The Met met it’s demise at the very tail end of Phase 3, which is why it’s so dangerous to base decisions on historic preservation on what we personally like. Currently Mid-Century modern is in that phase- Witness the fight over Peavey plaza- the people trying to save it were kind of viewed as obstructionist nuts just like those trying to save an “ugly stone monster”. Witness how much people say they personally hate the Dayton’s Building. We’re getting a head start and trying to remove as much 1970s stuff as possible also. The Southdale library building is a goner.

          My high school Minnehaha Academy put a fake old looking cornices and brick veneer on part of their 1970s fine arts addition (which had some classic 1970s styling like abstact angles and exposed structural elements inside) and tore down the rest of it, and made the South Campus look older than the 1960s structure than it is too with a red brick veneer and smaller windows. I understand the classic 1970s styling of Orchestra Hall is gone.

          The time to decide what to preserve is before most of it is gone and we have to pick from what’s left.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      Each HPC member, like members of all city commissions, is an evil ingrate that deserves our condemnation 😉

      Yeah, the framing is intentionally a bit hyperbolic, but hopefully it’s clear that the criticism is of the process, which seems to force this outcome, and not the commissioners.

  7. David MarkleDavid Markle

    One of the greatest inconsistencies in Minneapolis’ record of historic preservation record must be the demolition of the original Guthrie Theater (historic, but hah, bathrooms too small!), surely one of Ralph Rapson’s best creations, versus preservation of his Riverside Plaza (Cedar Square West) complex (problematical, ugly and non-historic).

    Key to understanding this contradiction is to recognize the role of money and power. On the one hand, you have two empire-building arts institutions (the Walker and the Guthrie) eager to expand their physical domains. On the other, you have a city government’s favored owner- developer (Sherman Associates) who first acquired the property in a highly questionable insider process and can gain an unnecessary extra subsidy through preservation tax credits in an infrastructure rehab project that enables him to continue sucking money out of the largely rent-subsidized Riverside Plaza concentration of race and poverty for another twenty years–and to go on using the funds and income elsewhere.

  8. Nick

    I’m just hoping that we can catch a break and there is something historic about the Holiday station at 6th St SE & E Hennepin so they can’t take over that entire block (as planned). Seems like that area could use some positive HPC karma after the Nye’s and Washburn-McCreavy projects have been butchered.

  9. Doug Mack

    Preservationist here. A few things:

    (1) Those guidelines you dismiss as archaic—“no doubt written in the misty past by the wisest of sages”—were updated four years ago. Hardly ancient history. The historic district dates to the 1970s (it’s one of the oldest in the city). So there’s a longstanding legacy of preservation here, and a *very recent* updating of the guidelines for present-day development.

    BTW, those 2012 guidelines were directed in part by a City staff memorandum that anticipated the evolution of the East Bank area and stated that “in order to create and sustain economically successful places, it has become critical to evaluate and carefully consider how entire environments function as a diverse, but unified cultural landscape.” That’s the context here.

    (2) A big part of preservationists’ concern is precedent. Nothing like this has been permitted since those new guidelines were put in place. Allow a 40-story building here and you can say goodbye to the guidelines and, potentially, the historic district. This proposal is so far beyond the 8-story parameter that, if it’s approved, developers will see pretty much any size and shape of new construction as fair game. This is how historic districts disappear: chip, chip, chip.

    (3) I think you’re missing the key distinction between historic *properties* and historic *districts.* The HPC found that the structures themselves were not historic and therefore they could be torn down. That’s totally separate from the second question, which is: What new construction is appropriate in a historic district?

    The point of the second question is to keep the spotlight on the historic aspects of the district as a whole. It’s about not overshadowing the overall, collective historic character (I know, “character” is a problematic word…); it’s not about what’s going on with the next-door neighbors per se. (Oh, but the Pillsbury Library, next door, really is an important building and would be completely overwhelmed by a 40-story neighbor. It’s already a bit lost in its surroundings, so why *add* to that?)

    (4) Many of those newer, taller buildings you mention are *outside* the historic district. So *of course* they’re different sizes/eras/designs—they guidelines don’t apply to them. Yes, the precise location of the district line seems arbitrary (but was probably drawn with great consideration way back when), but … well, you’ve gotta draw the line somewhere. Here’s the map of the district:

    (5) Part of what preservationists object to is the disingenuousness of developers who essentially claim ignorance of guidelines. They present these grand plans and then act insulted when anyone objects, as though the guidelines were put in place to stop them. Nope. They’ve been in place for years. Stop pretending otherwise.

    (6) Around the city, there are all kinds of zoning laws and design parameters dictating what you can build where—there are restrictions everywhere and in historic districts, there are just a few more. So it goes. The district guidelines offer a decent amount of flexibility. Developers shouldn’t see the guidelines as stoplights so much as requirements for more imagination with their designs—you can build new things here, but you have to be a bit more creative about it, because this is a historically important area. Is that really too much to ask?

    (7) Preserve Minneapolis has a statement about this, addressing a lot of your concerns. See also the statement regarding Nye’s, a bit lower down on the same page; lots of similar issues at play.

    (I’m on the Preserve Minneapolis board, but my comments here are, of course, strictly my own.)

    1. Nick

      I can’t disagree with some of your points in theory, but for the fact that the neighbors end up with a building that is more hostile to the pedestrian scale and adjacent properties if the 8-story ceiling gets upheld. And it could end up being built by a much less thoughtful developer (reference: all the junk buildings around Dinkytown). So, I can see how it’s about making a deal with the devil you know rather than waiting for the one you don’t. I hope you understand that the outcome of the preservation fight could leave those of us who will live in the neighborhood for another 50 years (at least that’s the plan) something really awful.

      Don’t get me wrong, I see historic value in the riverfront. I’m just a little more pragmatic by acknowledging that the guidelines don’t describe the best building, they just describe the building that checks all the right boxes.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      1. I didn’t dismiss them as archaic. I mocked their purported authority. I do not think we should cede our decisions to a document of any age.

      2. You’ve confused precedent with slippery slope. Has any protected historic district ever disappeared?

      3. Yes, I understand that there were two questions and the commission handled both appropriately. But a potential outcome of those decisions is an empty lot. That’s not a win. And, frankly, it should be an outrage to preservationists. Instead, Preserve Minneapolis obsesses over height.

      4. I didn’t mention any towers except the one directly across the street (within the historic district) and Cobalt, if it even counts as a tower, which, yes, is outside the district. But since you bring it up, within the district there are also towers as 2nd St. SE & 3rd Ave. SE, Bank St. & Lourdes Pl. (or if you prefer facing Main St.) and NE 2nd St. & NE 1st Ave. Apparently they weren’t irresistible precedent (which is good!). The last two are by far the tallest on that side of the river. Right there in the district.

      6. Yes, and we should have fewer of them. Also, what this really boils down to is this particular spot should not be within the historic district. Perhaps it was included to bring the Pillsbury Library into the district, but regardless, this block (and for that matter, it’s immediate neighboring lots) does not share the characteristics that are supposed to make up the district. Given that the library is individually protected, it would make a lot of sense to allow the rest of this block to be a modern city.

  10. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Giving the full historic designation to Riverside Plaza was a precedent. I seem to recall that the complex’s quite recent (circa 1970) date of construction raised some eyebrows at the state level. Although I had known Rapson slightly and held him in high respect, I thought the award an abuse, and I became even more appalled at the state board meeting when I discovered that the board’s secretary had not forwarded my carefully prepared materials to the panelists.

  11. Monte Castleman

    The time to decide what’s worth saving isn’t after most of the prime examples have already been demolished. If we had waited another few decades chances are someone would come along and decide to demolish it and then we’d be looking at the bits and pieces of what’s left.

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