When Minneapolis City Council member Jacob Frey gazes upon the city’s riverfront post office, here’s what he doesn’t see: A blocks-long, New Deal-era monolith that has effectively separated downtown Minneapolis from the Mississippi River for more than 80 years.
OK, that’s exactly what he sees.
But for Frey, the 1934 landmark (which was designed by Leon Arnal of Magney and Tusler, the same French architect responsible for the Foshay Tower), also inspires a lemons-into-lemonade reimagining. Why not, he wonders, convert the post office (“a very good art deco building in a very bad place,” writes Larry Millett in the “AIA Guide to the Twin Cities”) into a teeming hub for food lovers?
Picture this: a marketplace filled with retail outlets for Minnesota’s burgeoning small-batch food producers. An assortment of greengrocers, butchers, fish mongers, bakers and confectioners. Restaurants, along with affordable space to serve as a restaurant launchpad. Venues to showcase locally made beer, wine and spirits. The scenarios are endless.
Frey, whose downtown ward includes the post office, recently put the question to his Facebook followers. He was deluged with responses, most of them overwhelmingly positive.
“This is all very preliminary, but you have to have the vision before you have the execution,” he said. “Imagining the possibilities is the first step in the direction that we need to go. The building is astounding, and it could be used for a wide array of possibilities beyond snail mail.”
Placing food at the heart of a re-imagined post office was for Frey a no-brainer.
“One major piece we lack downtown is a multicultural, multifaceted market,” he said. “Here in Minneapolis, we have so many unbelievable cultures cooking unbelievable food. A permanent taste of Minneapolis, in the post office, could really bring people together.”
It’s not as if there’s a paucity of successful examples. The Midtown Global Market in south Minneapolis is one model. San Francisco’s sparkling Ferry Building Marketplace, an artisanal food palace inside a revived waterfront landmark, is another. Or Seattle’s Pike Place Market, a magnet for locals and tourists alike.
As a law student in Philadelphia, Frey logged plenty of hours inside that city’s extraordinary Reading Terminal Market.
“It’s the kitchen table for the city,” he said. “It’s where cultures connect, and where no one feels excluded. You’d see executives in three-piece suits sitting next to high schoolers in sweats, eating pastrami sandwiches. Why can’t we have that here?”
That raises more questions than answers. For starters, who or what would develop and operate such an enterprise? Oh, and then there’s this teeny problem: the U.S. Postal Service isn’t going anywhere.
At least not yet. Sure, there’s plenty of talk — and there has been, off and on, for decades — that the agency is eyeing more efficient real estate (trucks long ago replaced the rail lines that once fed the mail operation). But anything definitive, uttered by anyone with a “spokesperson” in their job title at the USPS? It hasn’t happened.
“The post office has been a wonderful neighbor,” said Frey. “It’s not like we want to boot them out without their permission. They have to voluntarily choose to relocate their facilities.”
Still, the hopeful among us only have to look to downtown St. Paul. Five years ago, the USPS exited its vast Kellogg Blvd. complex — another riverfront pile of golden Mankato-Kasota stone, also primarily from the 1930s — and the 17-story building is now being converted by Exeter Realty Group into a $100 million-plus apartment/hotel complex called Custom House.
“It took 15 years to bring that project to fruition,” said Frey. “Which is why we should be talking about the Minneapolis post office now.”
Here’s how early along Frey is in this process: Despite its richly appointed public spaces — the block-long, bronze-, marble- and terrazzo-sheathed lobby is an under-the-radar stunner — he’s never stepped foot inside the mammoth three-building complex, which has the floor space-equivalent of roughly 26 football fields.
“I’m getting a tour, soon,” he said.
But this much he does know: A sensitive 1991 addition features a remarkable riverfront terrace and ground-level arcade, woefully underused assets that are brimming with public-realm possibilities. The former could be the city’s most coveted open-air patio — the views must be spectacular — and the latter could be home to a farmers market, a beer garden or any of a number of other lively food-and-drink-related uses.
Another bonus of all this “visioning,” and a longtime wish for those concerned with urban design: The presumed demise of the disastrous 1970s horror that is the post office’s six-story parking ramp, an urban wart wedged between the building and the Hennepin Avenue suspension bridge.
Imagine that going away (although here in Teardownapolis, parking ramps only seem to go up, and rarely come down), allowing the thin sliver of Gateway Park to spill through the site, creating a new and much-needed front door to the Mississippi.
That prospect alone is worth all the dreaming in the world.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib