Patience can be a virtue after all. A quarter-century has passed since the old Nicollet Hotel was torn down, and during all that time a full block in the historic heart of Minneapolis was left a blank eyesore, a sad expanse of crumbling asphalt used mainly to park cars and store buses. Three times in the early 2000s the city tried and failed to jump-start development on the site, but now, finally, a solution seems at hand. Over the next six weeks, officials from City Hall and United Properties LLC, winners of a competition for developing the wedge-shaped block at the north end of Nicollet Mall, are expected to finalize a deal to produce:
• A slender, 36-story luxury residential tower with 300 apartments and 182 hotel rooms rising above a stylish pedestal that would include street-level retail shops as well as a lobby and meeting rooms for the metro area’s first Canopy by Hilton, a new hotel brand aimed at young, upscale travelers.
• A public green space that would include a fountain (in summer) and a fire pit and ice skating track (in winter), plus a connection to the beautiful but underused Cancer Survivors Park just across the street.
• A path for the city’s first modern streetcar line, which would pass diagonally across the green space and beneath a corner of the glassy tower.
For years, this page had urged the city to make this block a public park, both to stimulate adjacent development and to provide a green pedestrian connection between the downtown core and the Mississippi riverfront. City Council Member Lisa Goodman disagreed, arguing that — given an improving real estate market — a private developer could meet all of the city’s goals for green space while also producing a sizable building that would add vitality and tax base to the site. Looks like she was right about that.
“This is the best of both worlds,” said Council Member Jacob Frey, who, along with United Properties vice president Bill Katter, emphasized that negotiations are now just beginning. Both expect council approval by April. Neither the projected value of the development nor the price that United Properties will pay for the city-owned land has been disclosed.
Whatever the details, it’s important for the final design to offer an exceptional piece of architecture to match the historic prominence of the site. At this point, the project’s main shortcoming is that it lacks the height to become a truly iconic presence on the city skyline. Adding a dozen floors of condos has been suggested, but for that to happen a state law that discourages condo construction might have to be changed.
In any case, dramatic lighting should add needed impact to the site, which lies at the intersection of three major avenues — Nicollet, Hennepin and Washington — and marks the center of the once-teeming Gateway District. From the 1880s to the mid-1950s, the Gateway was the city’s front porch and transportation hub. For much of that span it was also a notorious skid row lined with seedy bars, flophouses, pawnshops, burlesque theaters, charity missions and shabby office buildings. A sociologist of the day described the Gateway’s denizens as “tramps, criminals, imposters, confidence men, chronic beggars, wanderers and vagrants.”
By the late ’50s, frustrated city leaders decided to solve the district’s social problems by tearing down its buildings. With federal help, a massive “urban renewal” project leveled 200 historic structures on 25 city blocks. It was the biggest mistake the city ever made. What should have become a gem of a historic district turned into an embarrassment. One or two notable buildings rose from the rubble, but for 50 years, much of the Gateway languished as surface parking. Only recently, with the revival of the Mill District on one side and the North Loop on the other, has a new Gateway begun to emerge. Ordinarily, a residential/hotel tower wouldn’t warrant so much attention, but this one carries with it a rich history of frustration — and patience.