A Tale of Two Development Proposals

At the March 6th Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association, two renderings of future Minneapolis developments were unveiled.

One of these renderings was the long awaited new Thrivent Headquarters – a half block development that will be accompanied with paired developments on the remaining half block. Similar to the fantastic Kraus-Anderson HQ redevelopment, in methodology at least. Aesthetically, the less said the better. But hey, as some of us say when a local developer unveils a bulky, ugly building that will still add vibrancy and street level engagement to a neighborhood, “It’s better than a surface parking lot.”

It’s okay

The other rendering was for Eleven, a 39-story condo tower that looks like a child of the Carlyle building and Wells Fargo Center, while also being an estranged cousin of the Foshay.


They almost look like they were proposed to be built in completely different cities. So how did that happen?

Both of these projects are being brought to us by local developers (Thrivent developing their own new HQ, and Ryan Co./Luigi Bernardi developing Eleven), so it’s not like we can attribute the stark difference in quality to an outside group trying to make a statement as they enter a new market. But it’s really not that complicated – just look at the architectural firms they’ve chosen to design their respective projects.

Eleven is the work of the renowned architecture firm Robert A.M. Stern Architecture, whose portfolio of work includes a collection of Central Park skyscrapers, One Bennett Park in Chicago, and Comcast Center in Philadelphia (hey, nobody bats 1000). Even the firm’s non-skyscraper projects have pedigree, like the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, and Disney’s planned community, Celebration, Florida. Point being, this is a firm that builds monuments for cities, not just buildings.

The Thrivent proposal was designed by Minneapolis firm HGA, who have designed a large portfolio of suburban campuses, college wings, libraries, and other mid-rise buildings that arrange cubes and colors to create facades.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the kinds of buildings that HGA is primarily known for – depending on the project, some of them are really striking. If you’re into new takes on mid-century Modernism, they’re your firm. And at any other DMNA meeting, this would have been a pleasant proposal. Sure, someone could make the case that it’s pretty dumb of Thrivent to build a 5-8 story building on this lot instead of building it on top of the parking garage they’re pretending is an apartment building next to their old headquarters. But the potential for the rest of the block (being developed by Sherman) is still there – nobody’s building a block sized box!

But “better than a surface parking lot” doesn’t ring as true when someone else brings an A-list architect to town. When the developer goes above the bare minimum the city codifies and wants to make a meaningful addition to the city’s skyline. The Eleven proposal isn’t perfect by any means; its ultra-luxury status comes with two parking spaces per unit, which is being waved away as “possible extra Guthrie parking” instead of being scrutinized properly. Ultimately, both towers will add to the Downtown Minneapolis population, adding to the vibrancy of the city. But only one of them is a truly exciting project. It’s probably a stretch to compare the difference to that of Wells Fargo Center (designed by César Pelli) and 33 South Sixth (bizarrely designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, maybe we’d like it more if it was a glass box like One World Trade Center?), but in the long run, who knows?

I know the aesthetics of architecture aren’t exactly at the top of the priority list when it comes to what we’re hoping for in building a city for the future. And when it’s a matter of smaller apartment complexes, I don’t think we should be denying permits over cookie-cutter designs. But when it comes to our downtown neighborhoods, and some of the most valuable real estate in Minnesota, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to apply a higher standard. These are the buildings future generations might end up defending as historical representations of Minneapolis in the 2010s – which one is more likely to be deemed worth preserving?

Believe it or not, we’re starting to run out of surface parking lots and brownfield sites in Downtown Minneapolis on which to build denser and meet our city’s growth goals. A 40-story apartment proposal was pulled nearly as quickly as it was proposed due to the building’s construction being a difficult and expensive proposition. Do we really want to fill up the remaining lots with mid-rise boxes (or high rise boxes for that matter), or would we rather see developers put in more than the bare minimum of effort when they propose what will be a semi-permanent addition to our city?

Matt Eckholm

About Matt Eckholm

Matt is a filmmaker who played Sim City once as a kid and then was doomed to have the least interesting anecdotes to share at parties forever. He serves on the Saint Louis Park Planning Commission, and has always wanted to name a pet 'Boondoggle' to teasingly reference in biography sections.