Missing: Downtown Bloomington

Bloomington has had more than one contender for the title of city center ... but some still wish it had a bustling gathering place to call its own.

Back when roads were made of dirt and shoppers loaded their dry goods into the backs of wagons, downtown Bloomington consisted of a general store, a Grange hall and a town hall at the dusty intersection of Old Shakopee Road and Penn Avenue. Ever since, "downtown Bloomington" has been a matter of perception. Is it by City Hall, a few blocks from Old Town Hall? At the busy commercial intersection of 98th and Lyndale, where in 1993 a clock tower was erected to help build a sense of community? Or is it at the Mall of America, one of the nation's most visited tourist attractions?

Maybe it doesn't exist at all. That's the view of longtime resident Stu Walker, who paused as he was heading to his car in the clock tower parking lot. He smiled at the question.

"It's an inside joke, because there is no downtown Bloomington," he said. "I've been saying that for 35 years."

Bloomington officials want to change that with the carefully planned redevelopment of 150 acres that includes the Southtown shopping center, near the intersection of Interstates 494 and 35W. They hope the area -- by being close to transit and having a mix of multistory housing, shops, restaurants, offices and perhaps a park -- will become a destination for people who want to eat, shop and walk as well as those who want to live in a lively neighborhood.

"We've never really had a downtown in Bloomington," said City Council Member Steve Elkins. "If you asked someone to meet you in downtown Bloomington, where would you go? ... People are feeling there is no 'there' there. And we want a 'there' there.

"Suburban communities that have never had downtowns feel like they're missing things. There's a longing for places that can foster and help community."

Places to gather

Think of Excelsior & Grand in St. Louis Park or 50th and France in Edina. Grand Avenue in St. Paul. Linden Hills in Minneapolis.

Excelsior & Grand was built after dozens of community meetings in the 1990s showed St. Louis Park residents really wanted a downtown, said Mayor Jeff Jacobs.

"St. Louis Park is a small town ... with big-city amenities," Jacobs said. "Frankly, by the early 1990s, people felt that was slipping away. They wanted a place we can call a central community gathering place, and they wanted it on Excelsior Boulevard, which was getting long in the tooth."

Excelsior & Grand, a complex of housing, stores and green space, "has served exactly the function the community set out for it," Jacobs said. While it has attracted car and foot traffic, Jacobs said, it has not depressed property values as some critics worried it would. And apartments, condominiums and new businesses in the complex have boosted the city's tax base, he said.

But is Excelsior & Grand really a downtown? Webster's dictionary defines "downtown" as "the lower part or main business section of a city or town." That seems to raise the question of how a place like Bloomington, with its scattered commercial development, can ever really have a downtown.

Last week, when Linda Johnson of Moorhead was asked at the Mall of America where downtown Bloomington was, she looked around and said, "Right here." If it's not the mall, she said, "I could not tell you how to find downtown Bloomington."

Near the clock tower at 98th and Lyndale, Bloomington resident Vanessa Ramirez was hurrying her baby to a doctor's appointment. "I don't know where that's at," she said. "It sounds like Minneapolis to me."

Walking south down Lyndale toward the clock tower, Norma Malcolm pointed her thumb in the opposite direction and said downtown was that way, "because it's more popular with people."

At Southtown, Edina resident Rosemary Dean said it seemed like any downtown should be farther away from the freeways. "To me, a downtown is more of a special area that draws you to it because it's a destination," she said.

Exactly so, said Larry Lee, Bloomington's director of community development. He calls Bloomington a "multi-nodal city." In other words, it has many downtowns.

"For my generation, it might be 98th and Lyndale, but for my daughter, it's the Mall of America," Lee said. "It's generational, and it's geographic."

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