The Developing Thrivent Building Story

Thrivent office building, Minneapolis

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?

Hennepin County

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.

While financially unwise, this wouldn’t be illegal to build

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.

Conclusion

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.

I mean, this is definitely a joke, but it’s a lot better than what’s there now.

 

Update

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.

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33 Responses to The Developing Thrivent Building Story

  1. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman September 6, 2017 at 8:29 am #

    Does it really take 129 different properties to house the core functions of a county government? On one level I’m glad they’re looking to save money, but maybe they should get rid of government waste and bloat instead of buying a building to house it.

    • Justin Doescher September 6, 2017 at 10:18 am #

      So…..fire a bunch of people? What is your definition of “waste and bloat?”

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke September 6, 2017 at 10:38 am #

      County government does a lot of stuff, mostly social services.

      • Justin Doescher September 6, 2017 at 10:48 am #

        Yes, I know a few people who did that work for the county.

    • Dana DeMaster
      Dana DeMaster September 6, 2017 at 1:56 pm #

      I work for a county, but not Hennepin so I can’t speak to their particular situation. I do know, however, that demand for county services is skyrocketing. Social services, in particular have seen large increases. Changes to child protection laws have resulted in historic increases in the work and Hennepin has hired more than 100 more child protection workers. That also requires more support staff, more county attorneys, and others like people to manage foster care and other out-of-home placements.

      We’ve also seen huge increases in services for the elderly and disabled, which demographically speaking will continue to increase. MnChoices is an assessment for long-term care and long-term disability services. This area has seen a huge increase in raw numbers of people and the complexity of care and case management required.

      Another large area of growth is Medical Assistance. Since the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid (insurance for low-income folks) Expansion many more people are eligible and applying for MA. My county has hired about 20 people to handle these increases.

      Further, counties have taken a more thorough response to homelessness, which falls squarely on counties rather than the city or state. Homelessness is increasing and county staff have been required to manage contracts and other tasks related to supportive housing.

      Counties do a lot. It’s just that lots of it is behind the scenes stuff the public doesn’t see until they need services.

      I suspect for Hennepin many of these increases came piecemeal so they rented property as needed and now have reached the point where those spaces are no longer enough.

  2. Max Hailperin
    Max Hailperin September 6, 2017 at 8:30 am #

    Thanks for all the work you put into this educational and thought-provoking post. May I ask for just a bit more? Would you please share with us the source for the information that “the Thrivent [at the time Lutheran Brotherhood] building was initially designed to be twinned”?

    • Marc September 6, 2017 at 9:26 am #

      I’ve been hearing the “twin building” story many times over the years, but I could never find a source.

    • Matt Eckholm
      Matt Eckholm September 6, 2017 at 1:08 pm #

      I’m seeing that it might be a long believed rumor vs fact. I’m going to go digging to settle it once and for all.

      • Max Hailperin
        Max Hailperin September 6, 2017 at 1:52 pm #

        Looking through the old building permits, it doesn’t look like the area where the parking lot now is was vacant at the time the building was built, perhaps somewhat reducing the plausibility of the twin scenario.

        • Matt Eckholm
          Matt Eckholm September 6, 2017 at 9:12 pm #

          It looks like there was some major drama between then Lutheran Brotherhood and a building with tenants that refused to vacate as construction began. Like almost out of an 80s movie with an evil developer villain. I’ll write a sequel (prequel?) post about it soon. But the original plans for the site left the parking lot a plaza with the intention of using it as an expansion site if the need arose.

          • Rosa September 8, 2017 at 11:24 pm #

            ooh i want to see that post.

            That said, no matter how disappointing, ANY building is better than that parking lot.

  3. Cameron Conway
    Cameron Conway September 6, 2017 at 9:42 am #

    So in the scenario where Thrivent develops a new HQ, why is there less of a chance that this would end up a mixed use project similar to Kraus-Anderson?

    Also, has Thrivent explicitly gone on record that they won’t build their headquarters as a second hand? I can’t imagine why they would, after selling the original to Hennepin County, but one can dream!

  4. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller September 6, 2017 at 9:55 am #

    Those apartments sure seem like a great opportunity for an “inclusionary” project. Make it bigger and make it part affordable and part market rate and you can tell yourself you did something good.

  5. Alex Schieferdecker
    Alex Schieferdecker September 6, 2017 at 10:08 am #

    Great summary. If Hennepin County moves in, can we start a GoFundMe to replace every window in the Thrivent Building with something that is NOT horrible red tinted glass? Also love the mural idea.

    But more seriously, the idea of County consolidation is, as you explained, really exciting and potentially game changing. The county is sitting on (to be blunt) an array of dumpy buildings that could be replaced. Getting the juvenile detention center replaced would be the biggest coup of all. If the Commons park is to have a real “Central Park” feel, it needs to be ringed by tall buildings. The northern wall is mostly taken care of, the stadium covers the east, and western side is covered by the city hall and the lower apartment building. But the south side, with the JDC building and the Armory, is woefully inadequate. The Armory won’t go away, but the JDC and adjacent parking lot are perfect candidates for a pair of residential towers.

  6. David Markle
    David Markle September 6, 2017 at 11:22 am #

    A small personal regret: Thrivent used to have some lovely crab apple trees at the edges of the sidewalks around the large corporate parking lot to the eastern side of the present building. Those apples–the largest and tastiest crabs I’ve ever seen–mostly went to waste, although I (Illegally??) harvested a few bags. Thrivent must have found them a nuisance, because they tore them out.

    • Monte Castleman
      Monte Castleman September 6, 2017 at 12:16 pm #

      Compared to say an oak or maple, crabapple trees don’t tend to live a long time and they’re vulnerable to all kinds of pests. If they were original to the building they probably reached the end of their expected life. I have one I planted in 1990 that’s definately on it’s way out.

      • David Markle
        David Markle September 7, 2017 at 11:02 am #

        The trees were very healthy when Thrivent removed them.

  7. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke September 6, 2017 at 12:23 pm #

    via Jeffrey Adams on Facebook:

    “In 1983 I toured this building (it was Lutheran brotherhood then). An interesting feature 34 years ago is they had a robotic mail system. An autonomous “droid” following a sensor track beneath the carpet would stop and deliver mail to each of the cubes. Kind of neat back at a time before email.”

  8. Rex Anderson September 6, 2017 at 2:14 pm #

    In defense of Thrivent they built an iconic, bold building they’re currently in and the old Lutheran Brotherhood HQ was a modernist gem as well. Why do you think they would build the new building that would resemble Golden Valley?

    • Matt Eckholm
      Matt Eckholm September 6, 2017 at 2:59 pm #

      My opinion is based on a few things:

      – Both of their previous buildings were built by Lutheran Brotherhood, not the company currently organized as Thrivent Financial. It can’t be assumed that the same company forces that culminated in iconic buildings before are still present today.

      – Local development firms have seemed almost stubbornly opposed to building anything close to “iconic”, even with a generous definition of the word. That’s not really the fault of the architects or developers, but instead companies who are more concerned about ROI than the legacy their construction leaves with the city. I mean, it’s their business, their land, blah blah freedom and property blah blah don’t tell land owners what to do. But the end result is really boring buildings.

      – Rumor mill: in the forums it’s indicated by people with contacts at the company that Thrivent is looking to downsize

      • Joey Senkyr
        Joey Senkyr September 6, 2017 at 5:33 pm #

        Similar example: Fifth Street Towers and Capella Tower are both bold designs, and Capella is arguably iconic. They were both developed by Opus in the late 80s, but that history didn’t manage to carry over to the residential towers Opus is building on Nicollet today.

  9. Henry Gowin September 7, 2017 at 12:10 pm #

    That building has to be the ugliest of any in the downtown area — and I’m referring to the front, not the concrete block side. Rip it down and start over.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke September 7, 2017 at 12:39 pm #

      there are a lot of ugly buildings downtown though!

  10. Scott September 9, 2017 at 10:39 am #

    Interesting article. Hennepin County is planning to spend $11.5 million to purchase 332 parking stalls in the proposed ramp presumably making that project feasible. I question whether new stalls for County workers are “needed” considering all the existing parking facilities like the Hennepin County Government Center, HCMC ramps, Jerry Haaf ramp, Gateway, Vikings Stadium, etc. Seems like that amount of taxpayer dollars could be better spent elsewhere.

  11. Dan Choma September 11, 2017 at 5:12 pm #

    Although I know this is a little off topic as we are talking about architecture here, I wanna share a bit of the history of The Lutheran Brotherhood for those who don’t know.

    http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/lutheran-brotherhood-history/

    I think that this building is historic for MN, but not necessarily for its architecture but rather for the sources of the income that built it.

    The Lutheran Brotherhood sold insurance exclusively to a Lutheran religious community. In the 80s and 90s they expanded to mutual funds.

    Lutherans are rated as the 2nd least diverse church community in America. They are by the most recent count 99% white, usually German or Norwegian in heritage.

    This building is interesting, but I can’t help but look at it and think “wow, nearly a half a half century after the civil rights act and that bank *still* only loans money to white people.” To me, it’s a hidden monument to racism and its history is one that I wish we discussed more openly as this fiscal institution is in my opinion a very large reason why people of color in this city make less and have access to less resources than people of western and Northern European heritage.

    My feed blew up a month ago about racism in VA. This is racism right here in MN. Any conversation about the Lutheran Brotherhood needs to include a note that they only loaned money to white people for nearly 100 years just like any conversation about R Kelly must include the disclaimer than he raped nearly 30 underaged women.

    • Dan choma September 11, 2017 at 5:16 pm #

      Citation on Church diversity:
      http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/27/the-most-and-least-racially-diverse-u-s-religious-groups/

      • Dan choma September 11, 2017 at 5:17 pm #

        My numbers were off, Lutherans are between 95-96% white.

    • Cobo rodreges September 12, 2017 at 11:36 am #

      it isn’t racist to belong to a church that’s mostly white. It’s not a conspericy, it just happens due to history and demographics.

      Aren’t like 99% of American hindus of south Asian descent?

      Please find something more productive to feel offended about.

      • Dan Choma September 13, 2017 at 6:26 am #

        It’s not racist to belong to a Church. This is a life insurance and mutual fund company, though, not a church. Aggregating capital only amoung a single culturally hegemonic church is problematic to me.

    • Max Hailperin
      Max Hailperin September 13, 2017 at 6:40 am #

      I’m not going to wade into the values questions of whether the situation is a good or bad one, but it seems that those of you who *are* debating it might want to start with a sound, up-to-date factual foundation. The source that Dan cited in his initial post regarding Lutheran Brotherhood’s history is from 2000 and so is rather out of date. In 2001, Lutheran Brotherhood merged with Aid Association for Lutherans (AAL), which the 2000 piece listed among their main competitors. That doesn’t directly impact the values questions, though it does connect with the headquarters building issues more broadly, as it explains why Thrivent has dual headquarters in Minneapolis and Appleton, Wisconsin. More significantly for what y’all are discussing, in March 2013, the membership of Thrivent voted to open it up to members of all Christian denominations, not just Lutherans. So, for example a member of the 99%-black National Baptist Convention or 94%-black American Methodist Episcopal Church would now be welcome to join Thrivent and avail themselves of its services. As would one of the many Latino Catholics. Etc.

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