March 12, 2024

Whose Downtown?

An editorial in this weekend's Star Tribune reminds me just how desperately Minneapolis would like to outgrow its po-dunk britches and be considered a real city, on par with one of those you might find on the coast. But not only does our population preclude such a title, but so does the collective mentality of those who call the Twin Cities home. It's the very way that people here conceptualize of a city that convinces me we'll never be one.

The editorial, Nicollet tower/Toward a 24-hour city, champions the new 50-story condo going in at 10th Street and Nicollet. According to the editorial, the rise of 345 new housing units smack dab in the middle of downtown along the pedestrianized Nicollet Mall, symbolizes Minneapolis' transformation into a real city. Apparently, a real city is one in which residents can walk from home to work, shops and entertainment:

Although the residential population has been growing for decades, mostly on the periphery, the big surge has come recently. This building would put 345 new homes smack on Nicollet Mall, thus reducing the distance between home, work, shopping and entertainment to pretty much zero.

The editorial makes the claim that dense downtown residential housing somehow magically transforms the city into a 24-hour hotspot:

Minneapolis is evolving more rapidly than expected toward the 24-hour model: cities where people are thriving without driving. Or at least not driving very much.

Now, you'd have to be blind not to have noticed all the condo units going up in downtown Minneapolis and its environs. Over the past few years, the Twin Cities has been adding about 1,000 new units of condo housing each year, for a total of 3,500 since 2000. Every time I pick up a copy of Skyway News, I hear about another block or building 'going condo'. Is it going to be the Foshay Tower? More mills along the river? A new unit rising from the ruins near the public library? Yes, yes, and yes. And we haven't even reached the peak of it yet. It's estimated that 11,000 new units will be added to the Twin Cities market in the next couple of years, with the peak year being 2006 or 2007.

Of course, this sort of growth doesn't come without some pains. Most recently, the tenants forced out of the Sexton Building in Elliot Park didn't go quietly when they were forced out so their building could be turned into luxury condos and office space, breaking windows and doors and leaving behind anti-gentrification graffiti. It's an indication that the neighborhood's identity is changing--and probably not for the better. What was once a rather ignored part of the downtown map (and one that thrived by remaining under the radar) is being discovered by those with dollar signs in their eyes. At the moment, current tenants who could afford the hood's cheap rent but not the monthly payments on a $500,000 loft, are getting the shaft.

That's gentrification for you. As a city changes, developers constantly look for cheap land to make a buttload of money off of. For me personally, a glut of high-priced lofts isn't the catalyst this city needs to transform it in a glittering metropolis, as the Star Tribune editorial suggests. I spend a lot of time in the Mill District, between downtown Minneapolis and the river, because I work over there. While the hundreds of new condos over there are putting to good use what was before empty (yet stunning) old mill buildings, there's no buzz on the street, no real sense of a neighborhood emerging. You don't see any more people out on those streets (or on the balconies of the condos, for that matter), the new housing hasn't attracted any new and interesting retail shops (the fact that Big Brain comics moved over there has more to do with how dangerous downtown has become for independently-owned shops than any sort of trend among high-priced loft dwellers for comic books and graphic art), and there's certainly nothing to do around there after seven pm. Mill City is a ghost town--just like it's always been.

I'd argue that a thriving downtown relies on heterogeneity and necessity. Will an Eliot Park full of upper middle class condo-owners keep The Band Box in business or will they drive out of their underground heated parking spots to the nearest Noodles & Co. and then cheer when the neighborhood diner and city treasure closes only to be replaced by a Chipotle? As downtown housing trends to the upscale, so do the retail shops. City Market closes, and a couple of Lunds move into the area instead. And the Star Tribune editorial would like us to believe that all these people moving into downtown are going to be giving up their cars, but that's not the case, especially since Metro Transit is proposing a 10% cut in service and a $.25 across the board fare hike for the summer in order to cope with relentless budget costs. You can have all the condos you want, but without viable public transportation, you're no bigger than a Duluth or a Mankato. According to the editorial, the situation isn't all rosy, one problem being

the city's inability to finance the attractive walkways, landscaping, street lighting and transit needed to connect new residents and shops. Those amenities, expected of all great downtowns, are vital to producing a fresher mix of "lifestyle" retailing, a mix that may eventually emerge given downtown's 160,000 workers and its rapidly growing residential base. Lund's decision to build two urban-style supermarkets is a good start. All things considered, Minneapolis is in an enviable position among American cities.
My conception of a vibrant and attractive downtown isn't one in which all the walkways are pretty and all the burnt-out lightbulbs have been changed. Frankly, I fear a downtown ruled by citizens who won't descend from their towers unless these conditions are met. In fact, one of the reasons why I avoid Nicollet Mall is precisely because all the character has been landscaped away and replaced by ugly stone sculptures and bus shelters that play classical music to keep the ruffians away. Just as I cried when Jitters coffeeshop was kicked off of Nicollet Mall to make way for the Target Corp building, so too do I feel the positive in the presence of a 50-story condominium at 10th and Nicollet is totally outweighed by the negative of the businesses it will displace--chief among them one of the few independent record stores left in Minneapolis, Let It Be.

I've been thinking a lot about downtowns recently, because I just spent two weeks in Buenos Aires, one of the largest metropolises in the Western hemisphere. I couldn't help but be amazed at how people there utilized their public spaces. The streets were strewn with rotting garbage, terrorized by loud, polluting buses, and the crumbling facades of buildings were covered in political stencil graffiti. And yet, folks there loved their city spaces and took advantage of them--windows of cafes, restaurants, and homes opened up onto the street, stoops were populated with folks drinking beer and talking to their neighbors out walking dogs, kids were running rampant down the avenues. Not to the mention the parks--which, at three in the morning on a hot night, would be chock full of kids hanging out, drinking, playing guitar, having a good time. Part of it is the climate, of course...Minneapolis has few sultry nights. But part of it was necessity--without cars or underground parking lots to store them, they had to walk. Without air conditioning, they had to have their windows and balconies open onto the street. And without a Big Brother set of regulatory rules regarding what one can and cannot do in public, corners were tagged--not by gang signs but by political slogans, kids brought liters of beer to the park to drink with their friends, and folks made sandwiches and other foods in their private kitchens to sell to the public on the street.

An attractive downtown to me is one that's a little edgy--dirty, rough around the edges. Safe, but not without a hint of danger. One which can support an upscale bar on a busy intersection but also independents and artists and those who don't make enough money for the suburbs. A great downtown always evades some of the efforts to control it. A great downtown is one with possibility. I don't see any more possibility in downtown Minneapolis--only guarantees: higher prices, more franchises, less options. If it hasn't happened already, it won't be long before downtown Minneapolis resembles it's suburban neighbors--a Maple Grove or Eden Prairie you can walk to.

Posted by jason at March 12, 2024 04:55 PM
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