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.

14 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Development Proposals

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Eleven is beautiful, but I don’t think we should completely sneeze at the Thrivent project. 7-8 floors (?) is still well above precedent for that immediate area. Higher would be nice, but I think it’s worth remembering that not every building needs to be — or should be — a landmark. Having a consistently built out grid of functional but unexceptional buildings allows more spectacular landmarks like Norwest/WF Center and Eleven to stand out.

    I also worry about the fact that these surface lots are a diminishing resources, and the development engine will slow significantly when they run out. But the block after block after block of 4-6 story apartment buildings in the North Loop worry me more than this.

    1. Matt EckholmMatt Eckholm Post author

      That’s fair. I think a more apples to apples comparison would have been between Eleven and the UP Nicollet “iconic” development, but these were the two proposed the same meeting to draw contrast between.

      I do think it’s worth asking – what about the Thrivent design makes it need to be stand alone, and not built on top of the ramp they insist needs to be built?

  2. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    Oh my god, I am deeply pained by the reference to Robert Stern as an “A-List” architect. Famous yes, but A-List in the way that Michael Bay is an A-List director. His overarching style is one of vague, fleeting popular appeal, with little bold ideas or impact, even within his intended historical niche.

    RASMA builds two types of buildings: historical knockoffs and modern skyscrapers. The Comcast Center in Philadelphia, which I can see from the window of my office as I write this, is maybe his firm’s best building, although the street level isn’t good, which is a rather large demerit. But his new Museum of the American Revolution, also in Philadelphia, is an awful pastiche of historical forms, like a retro ballpark gone too far, the Citi Field of museums.

    I don’t mind the Eleven’s design, it looks at least so far like they’ve done a decent job in avoiding the uncanny valley of false history that Stern is known for. But Minneapolis can, and has, done better than Stern.

    1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

      Just to clarify, not all of RAMSA’s work is bad, and there are far worse architects out there of every school. But fawning over his firm’s work as building “monuments for cities” is probably something even he would disagree with. Their calling card is anodyne buildings for unimaginative rich people, and this is right in line with that oeuvre.

      1. Matt EckholmMatt Eckholm Post author

        To extend the film director analogy, imagine living in a town with a one screen theater that has had Jerry Maguire playing for five years straight. If they suddenly switch it to Transformers, Transformers is going to look pretty damn good.

    2. Dan

      I guess I don’t agree that ‘innovative’ buildings are necessarily better for cities than a building that adheres to classical design principles(which almost always are built at pedestrian scale on the street level) . Though I will agree that museum of the american revolution is poorly done! However, a number of the other RAMSA projects have been quite well proportioned. What are some other classically-focused firms that design buildings as large as RAMSA but do it better?

      I think there’s danger in endlessly chasing architectural innovation, its the name in which far too many spaces have been created that are hostile to pedestrians, difficult to maintain, and of fleeting beauty as tastes change.

      Also, a building developed for the wealthiest of tenants is no less or more so whether it is a classically inspired Stern design or glass & steel.

  3. Zakcq Lockrem

    The thing for me is less about the city-building part of this, but that Thrivant is a Fortune 500. Even as a non-profit you think they’d be a little more concerned with their corporate image and willing to pursue better design.

  4. Jack

    Great article, Matt. I agree that the Eleven project is much more interesting than Thrivent.

    @Zakcq Lockrem: I know, right? It’s like they’re not even trying.

  5. Justin

    I would like to argue further about this article and the comments/replies. Hopefully, some/all of you will be at the “Neighbors for More Neighbors” thing tonight. Cheers for caring about the built environment.

  6. Monte Castleman

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I like Thrivent even if it’s not an architectural masterpiece like the Met building or even the Southdale Libraray. Eleven to me just looks like a mishmash of art deco and Brutalism. Because of this I also don’t think it’s the cities place to mandate what the city council personally considers beautiful. I think the current trend to slap three or more different dissimilar finishes on (as supposedly mandated by some cities) is extremely ugly

    As for the form, it’s obvious Thrivent wanted to both downsize and keep their distinct own space (since they didn’t lease extra space in their own building, build a bigger new building like some people here suggested, or just find a few floors to lease in an existing building.) Given that would it have been better for them to move into new digs on the I-494 strip and sell their downtown property to someone who might eventually build something taller?

  7. Kate

    I agree with your points about the lack of density on the Thrivent site however I can’t disagree with you more on the aesthetics. RAMSA’s project is a bunch of styles thrown together to make something that looks just historic enough to make people think it’s good architecture. HGA’s project is clean and modern and personally, I prefer this style to the Eleven project. I don’t think this shows Thrivent’s lack of concern about adding to the city fabric, rather it shows that aesthetics are subjective and not everyone wants pseudo-historical buildings that aren’t a reflection of the age we live in.

  8. Jack

    I like that the Eleven design opted for a stone exterior, which gives the project a sense of permanence. As for the design, does the wheel have to be re-invented every time a new building goes up? The Thrivent plan is breaking no architectural boundaries. You could say it is pseudo mid 20th-century modern, an aesthetic that is currently popular. It also looks like something that will be torn down in a few years for something bigger and better.

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