Guy behind Calhoun Square still thinks big

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 28, 2012 - 8:45 PM

Ray Harris

Go ahead, live in Lake Wobegon if you'd like. But developer Ray Harris -- the man behind Calhoun Square, among other things -- would like you to consider moving to his latest project:

Wynott.

It's not a residential complex; he did that in Loring Park in 1978. It's not a huge rehab, like his early attempt to redevelop the Lake Street Sears behemoth.

It doesn't actually exist, to be honest, but it's not supposed to.

If you're confused, consult "Welcome to Wynott," Harris' new book on how we can dynamite our old ideas and make things work again in the process.

"It's abut 50 years of observations in the real world, about why we resist change. Everything from education to transportation to housing -- it's obsolete and unaffordable.

"So I have this hypothetical place called Wynott, where everything's done in a sensible way. Where seniors don't have to retire at 65. Where kids start school at 3 instead of 6. There are things they're doing better elsewhere in the world. Why not here?"

Hold on there, fella. Minnesotans like to think we have this civilization thing pretty well figured out up here. We're a forward-looking people, right?

"We're resistant to change unless things get bad fast or there's an opportunity to make a lot of money."

Speaking of which: "When I did Calhoun Square," he said, "people didn't want to take the chance; they wanted it all to stay the same. Greenway Gables, the townhouses I did in Loring Park -- it was the first owner-occupied real estate project downtown. They said no one will ever pay money to live in that horrible Loring Park! I put up a sign and sold all of them overnight."

Harris' roots in the city go way back -- "My father was on the Park Board with Theodore Wirth in 1915," he said -- and he's always been keen on the urban experience, even when it seemed like a dead old mode eclipsed by Progress.

"When we turned into an automobile society and everything went to the suburbs and Southdale, I said I'm going to develop in the city. Everyone left and I was dumb enough to stay here. But the cycle has come back; people want what cities have. Suburbs are designed to separate people, and cities bring them together.

"If I'm elected benevolent dictator," he chuckled, "here's the way it works: Skyways are connected to the street level, and they have the sort of retail for people who live and work downtown. We have 35,000 people living downtown now -- it's time to bring retail back, because they'd spend money if the retail was there."

Harris predicts as more people move back to the city, the second-ring suburbs will empty out. "No one will be living there. Those houses will be torn down. Same with shopping centers."

Compact cities and no Southdale? 2040 sounds a lot like 1940, but with Internet.

("Wynott" is available from Beavers' Pond Press and on Amazon.com.)

JAMES LILEKS

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