As of right now, Thrivent Financial owns a collection of surface parking lots and one uniquely shaped 18-story tower in Downtown Minneapolis. For what seems like ages, their tower loomed over a vacant corridor of the city where even surface parking was off limits, contracted only to the employees of Thrivent Financial. But following the construction of US Bank Stadium, the Commons, and other developments in the surrounding area, the financial company recently purchased its lots and, over the past few weeks, slowly began to release more information about its plans for them.
First came the news that the lot immediately adjacent to the current Thrivent building would be replaced with a parking ramp, wrapped in a small collection of apartments. Naturally, this was disappointing not just because it would be one more stubby building occupying some of the only land in the city zoned for the densest construction, but because the Thrivent building was initially designed to be twinned. The two buildings would have created praying hands, which would have been neat, but more importantly, building two would have covered up that God-awful towering concrete wall that was intended to be blocked. But the silver lining was that a ramp would ensure Thrivent’s parking needs would be met, so they could give up the remaining lots for development.
This was followed by a second design of the ramp/apartment combo, now with a taller apartment building covering more of the parking ramp. This was only slightly less disappointing than the original plan, since we’d still be stuck looking at that monolith of concrete for decades. Again, though, eyes on the prize. An entire block of surface parking in Minneapolis was on the chopping block! Big picture!
Then on August 29th, Thrivent announced that they were looking at developing the lot into a new headquarters building. And that Hennepin County was looking to purchase the original Thrivent building in order to downsize their office rentals and consolidate staff. As the Thrivent building sits next to the Hennepin County Government Center, this does make sense. But the chances that the block-sized surface parking would be transformed into a development similar to the much lauded (and for good reason) Kraus-Anderson headquarters project are now reduced, and the backup hope that a tower would be built tall enough to block that monstrosity of a concrete wall with it.
That’s the story so far. Where do we go from here?
The City of Minneapolis is building a new tower for office consolidation, so it doesn’t surprise me that some at Hennepin County might have been looking for a similar solution. According to the Star Tribune article on the story, Hennepin County has leases with 129 properties. For the same reasons as Minneapolis’ consolidation, bringing operations to a central location would be more efficient for the county.
If the county can use this new building as a means to sell off other downtown real estate or end leases on office space, it could be a net-gain not just for the county, but also Minneapolis. One property named specifically by County Administrator David Hough as up for vacation and sale, the Family Justice Center, is located a block from the Nicollet Avenue light rail station and located directly adjacent to several new apartment and office buildings, though this might not have as dramatic of an effect on downtown as one might hope. While I’d love to see the Hennepin County Sheriff Warrant Division building go to make way for better streetscapes between Government Plaza and the Commons, I doubt we’ll be seeing a pre-trial detention center moving into the Thrivent building. Or the juvenile detention center.* But as for other properties, since Hennepin County and the Commissioners making these consolidation decisions will be public officials, there’s opportunity for people who want to see better use of county properties in Minneapolis to voice their opinions.
Ultimately, this is probably the best use this building could see. In my wildest urbanist fantasies I could dream of a unicorn property owner punching holes in the half blocks of concrete along the building to add street retail to this vacant corridor, but I know it won’t happen. I don’t even know if that’s possible with the way the building is constructed. At least if it’s a government building, there’s a chance the walls will be painted. And if we can demolish smaller, similarly concrete and austere Hennepin County buildings by consolidating their space, I think the city can live with that.
*Seriously, Hennepin is sitting on a gold mine with these properties, if they don’t move because of this development, they should find another reason.
The New Ramp
The current plan by Thrivent is to sell the lot next to their headquarters to Interstate Parking, who would develop the ramp and apartments. Honestly, I wish literally anyone else was handling this. I understand Thrivent wants to look out for their employees so that they don’t lose what they’ve taken as a given for decades, but it sucks for the city. Even with apartments and retail hiding the ramp, it’s still not using the land to its best potential. And given that there are few restrictions placed on the sorts of development that can be built on B4S-2 zoning, there’s little room for the City of Minneapolis to force a better development out of Interstate.
In an ideal world, Thrivent would work with a development partner to build the ramp themselves and top it off with affordable housing. It’s something a company like Thrivent, who describes themselves as using their financial resources “as a tool – for serving God, your family and your community” would be uniquely qualified to oversee. Actions would certainly speak louder than words in this case.
The New Thrivent HQ
We’re at the part of the story yet to be written. Thrivent announced an interest in building a new HQ, and so there are no plans publicly available. But similar to the situation with the parking ramp across the street, the lack of restrictions on B4S-2 zoning is a double-edged sword. It’ll let you build the next IDS Tower, but it’ll also let you build a two story box across the entire lot and call it a day.
With 525,000 square feet of space in their current tower, it’s unlikely that Thrivent would come back with plans for a two story box. And even if they built another 18 story building like the one they currently have, they could build it on a smaller footprint if they don’t try and build a kooky design that will inevitably be left twin-less. But even as I call the current Thrivent building ‘kooky’, it’s still one of the most striking and unique buildings in Minneapolis. That’s something I doubt we’ll see from a new Thrivent building. We’ll be lucky if it doesn’t look like it belongs in Golden Valley, and probably make “it’s better than a surface parking lot” rationalizations when it inevitably looks like a variation on the new Wells Fargo towers nearby.
But if that does happen, it would be disappointing to look two blocks south at the Kraus-Anderson development and see what can be done with a (nearly) empty block. We’re running out of those, which is great, but I’d rather we build something on the remaining ones that becomes a beloved part of the skyline, not something we cross our fingers will be replaced with something better once we run out of brownfield sites.
I’d love to be wrong.
As we learn more about the plans, things will undoubtedly change. The ramp proposal is currently undergoing tweaking to meet Planning Commission recommendations, Hennepin County could ultimately decide not to purchase the current Thrivent building, and it’s possible (though improbable) that Thrivent could instead double down on their Appleton, WI headquarters and leave an even bigger issue for the city to deal with.
Out of everything though, the biggest win could come from Hennepin purchasing Thrivent. I’m not talking about the consolidation, or the reuse of an aging office building. I’m talking about Hennepin County having the opportunity to take a detriment to our city and make it into something positive.
Hennepin County, if they buy the Thrivent building, could commission a mural to cover up that titanic concrete wall.
Since publishing, I received some questions about the claim that the Thrivent Building was “designed to be twinned” and that the intention was to create a set of praying hands out of the two buildings. From Star Tribune archives, I found the original article announcing the plans for the building from March 2nd, 1979.
While making no mention of praying hands, Arley Bjella, the chairman of what was then called Lutheran Brotherhood, indicated that the half block adjacent to the building would be kept open for possible expansion the future. “If we need to, we can just duplicate the building on the other half of the block,” he was quoted in the article. “We don’t want to find ourselves in the same position as far as expansion space 20 years from now.”
This is corroborated by Planning Commission memorandum on the Thrivent Financial’s parking ramp proposal, in which one of the questions is “In addition, the smaller proposed structure will keep the blank eastern wall of the existing Thrivent Building exposed for decades to come, when it was likely intended to be masked by a future taller building than what is currently proposed.” There was at least the idea that the Thrivent Building would receive a twin in the future.
Unfortunately, I think a definitive answer on whether the building was specifically designed to be twinned or whether Lutheran Brotherhood simply didn’t want to design a second building lies in Minneapolis meeting archives, not Star Tribune archives. However, I did discover a significant amount of drama surrounding the construction of the original Thrivent Building, which deserves a post in its own right.