In many ways, the Mall of America will always be Robert Hoffman’s legacy.
Hoffman, a savvy lawyer and onetime Bloomington City Council member, was best known for crafting the deals that brought the megamall to life. When powerful opponents and infighting threatened to bring it down in the 1980s, he was the one who kept it together.
“A lot of people would tell you it wouldn’t have happened without him,” said Jim Erickson, a friend and colleague for more than 40 years.
Hoffman, who died July 29 at age 85, was widely viewed as one of the major forces behind the Twin Cities’ largest land developments, including the Mall of America and Target Center. He was also co-founder of one of Minnesota’s most influential law firms, Larkin, Hoffman, Daly & Lindgren.
But it was his role in a small legal battle, over a zoning permit for a controversial church in Chanhassen, that seemed to capture him best, according to his eldest son, Michael Hoffman.
It was 1989, and the city planning commission was grilling his father about the intentions of a religious group, Eckankar, that wanted to build a church in Chanhassen. “He essentially said, ‘Look, I’m a Catholic, and I’m old enough to remember a time when Catholics were discriminated against, and I hope that’s not what you’re doing here.’ ” His father won the argument, Michael Hoffman said, and the city issued the permit. Just last week, when he Googled his father’s name, he came across the transcript. “I was proud of it,” he said.
Robert Hoffman, who was born in Minneapolis, married his wife, Lulu, on the same day he graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1955. Three years later, he and Jim Larkin started a two-man law practice that eventually grew into one of Minnesota’s largest firms, with more than 70 attorneys.
“You could just see this kind of brilliance,” said Bill Griffith, now president of Larkin, Hoffman, who joined the firm as Hoffman’s associate in 1988. At the time, he said, the Mall of America was just a proposal facing a wall of resistance from the retailing community and “most of downtown Minneapolis.”
Hoffman, who represented the developers, was intent on wearing down the opposition. He kept saying, “This is going to get done; it’s going to get approved. We need to come back at it,” Griffith said. “It was great for clients because he never really gave up on a project or a problem.”
Hoffman was known for his ability to wage battles on both sides of an issue. As a politician, he once pledged to restrict highway billboards “in the interest of safety and beauty.” Later, as a lawyer for an advertising firm, he successfully lobbied Bloomington to allow more billboards along Interstate 494.
He was on the Bloomington City Council for 14 years — then later sued the city at least five times on behalf of clients, once threatening to put the council in jail over a permit dispute.
Yet his skills as a dealmaker won admiration from supporters and critics alike. “He had a good ability to present complicated facts in a simple, practical fashion,” said Michael Hoffman, of Eagan.
Hoffman, who served on the Metropolitan Council for seven years, continued to practice law into his 80s, mostly working from his home office. “He couldn’t retire,” said Erickson, his former law partner. “His clients wouldn’t let him.”
He died of a brain aneurysm after suffering a fall at his home in Mendota Heights, according to his son.
Hoffman is survived by his wife of 59 years, Lulu Hoffman; eight children and 16 grandchildren. A funeral mass will be said at 5 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 14, at St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Bloomington.