Lileks: What's next for Block Empty? Think small - think State Fair

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 2, 2012 - 11:05 PM
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The Block E retail-entertainment complex fell victim to the difficult economy, poor design and poor marketing, city leaders say.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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This may be a bad subject for a column, because you don't care about Block E. That's obvious.

The stories don't say, "Too many customers, constant din of cash registers: How to fix Block E?"

No, it's a big, hollow folly, and it only makes the news when another tenant expires, usually from loneliness. Or when another plan to save it falls through.

It's usually described as "troubled," when it should be called "hell-cursed by Shabeb-zolab, Babylonian patron god of retail." Or it may be referred to as "struggling," which is true in the sense that a man up to his hairline in quicksand is "struggling."

The most accurate term, when you consider the nice restaurants on the ground floor and the quantity of tumbleweeds blowing around upstairs, is "Dead from the ankles up."

Recent developments: It's going to lose all its movie theaters, bringing the number of downtown movie theaters from 15 to zero in one stroke. And it's probably not going to be a casino. I mean, not any more of a casino than it already is from the city's perspective. (Hey there, City of Minneapolis, you've been playing that thing all day. Just walk away, dude. No! I've put $39 million into this. It's gonna pay off soon!)

Total cost was $132 million -- for a place that had a Chili's and a Mrs. Fields Cookies.

Seriously, cookies? Ninety-six percent of Americans are never more than 7 feet away from cookies at any given time, and they thought people would drive downtown, and pay to park, to buy cookies?

Maybe if they were magic yard-wide cookies that gave you X-ray vision and some other superpower, like the ability to find your way out of the Block E stairwell without ending up on the 12th floor of the hotel lobby next door. Maybe.

But no one in Eden Prairie is bothered by a nagging suspicion that there might be something special about those downtown cookies.

Don't mean to dwell on the negative; the failure of Block E probably put an iron spike through the heart of the Big Downtown Shopping Thing idea. Next time someone proposes one of those, 50 people should show up for the City Council meeting, stare at the council members, say nothing, and make a great show of eating Mrs. Fields cookies. Slowly.

We didn't learn our lesson from City Center, which has the charm of a Nazi bunker on the cliffs of Normandy. But this might do it.

What's next? That's the question.

Demolition? Expensive, unless you ask for volunteers. Some night as the bars are emptying out downtown, pass out sledgehammers and Red Bull, and that thing would be rubble by dawn.

Or jack it up like the Shubert Theater and haul it somewhere else. Slip the driver a twenty and tell him it doesn't necessarily have to get where it's going, if you know what I mean. If it ends up in a ditch off Hwy. 10 by Motley, and they can figure out what to do with it.

Or make it an Indoor Smoke-A-Rama. People can smoke indoors, if they pay $5. Yes, it's sinful. A Lung Brothel, if you wish. But it'll get people in the place again.

One proposal says it should be turned into office space, wrapped with big ads, turned into an enormous marquee. I wish them well. Many companies shop around for corporate HQs and ask the real estate brokers, "Say, you have anything without windows? And also the stink of death baked into its very girders?"

But if I had my druthers, I'd think small. Open it up to cash-poor entrepreneurs. Rent-free for half a year. Permits, inspection, all that stuff? On the house. Step back and watch it fill up with all sorts of amazing shops. First-come, first-served. If you think there's a market for Mister Fields Cookies, go for it.

A kaleidoscope of ever-shifting shops -- a tequila kiosk next to an artisanal sea-salt seller next to a spin-art booth. Heck, give it all a State Fair flair, with hog exhibits and feed-bag French fry stands and a guy hawking chamois. No rules. Stand back. Let 'er go.

No, we wouldn't get rent money or taxes. So why should the city subsidize a lot of small crazy ideas? you ask.

Because subsidizing the big crazy ones doesn't work out to the citizens' advantage, that's why.

It's amusing to hear St. Paul talk about getting something out of the stadium tango; one idea floating about involves "loan forgiveness" for the Wild's arena.

Forgiveness. It's a beautiful concept. But it would be nice if, now and then, someone simply said "sorry."

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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