In 1956, Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen hoped that Southdale would become an American alternative to the “terror of the automobile” — a district with housing, a medical center, schools and offices just a short walk away. Southdale’s “Garden Court of Perpetual Spring” would host chamber concerts and other cultural events.

Instead, much to Gruen’s chagrin, Southdale set the American prototype for three decades of enclosed, inward-looking shopping malls.

And then, in 1992, came the biggest of them all — the Mall of America.

While many smaller malls (Brookdale, Apache Plaza) have closed, the Mall of America has thrived for 24 years as a retail and entertainment destination — a hybrid theme park, winter escape and indoor adventure with almost no outward views.

Inside, retail design architects Jerde Partnership gave the MOA brilliant sightlines, with views along the four retail “avenues” and between the three levels. You could see many stores at once. And as in casinos, bars and nightclubs, the outdoors and even the time of day were intentionally kept out of sight.

Bookended by easy-to-use but giant parking ramps, the Mall of America’s exterior has always resembled a fortress — hardly the civic paradise that Gruen imagined. Yet, because the interior experience mattered most, its owners have continually invested in renovations.

The teal-colored mall of 20 years ago is now much lighter and transparent. With the latest remodeling, there are more skylights over the original avenues and subtle LED lighting everywhere. Old metal railings have been replaced with sleek glass panels and there is much less visual clutter.

Emptied of many kiosks, the avenues now flow among stores with polished white tile surfaces punctuated by sleek boat-shaped planters and green lily-pad-shaped seating. If it weren’t for the din of noise, these stream-like passages seem almost serene when viewed from above.

Thanks to this continuing interior evolution, new stores and, now, hotels, the MOA has survived Sept. 11, the Great Recession and Amazon. But an entirely new kind of change is on the way. Although much derided by the design community for its phony urbanity and sanitized public space, the mall may soon become part of the transit-rich urban center that Gruen envisioned for Southdale.

The walls come down

In coming years, the biggest changes will be on the outside, on the nondescript, 670-acre area currently at its doorstep. This area, bounded by Interstate 494 and the Minnesota River, is called the South Loop by Bloomington planners.

Connecting thousands of potential new hotel rooms, apartments and offices, the South Loop’s Lindau Lane is planned as a new kind of Main Street and a pedestrian link with major employers, such as HealthPartners to the east.

The mall will slowly open up as its transit center and light rail stop is extended with a storefront presence on 24th Avenue. Lindau Lane also will extend through several blocks of “supportive retail,” such as restaurants and meeting spaces that complement the MOA’s stores and serve airport travelers.

Planning for this district actually began in the 1980s, with the closing of Met Stadium and the development of the Mall of America on its footprint. In the early 2000s, engineers for the Blue Line light rail sited four transit stops within the district. The city and local property owners also saw the promise of the South Loop as a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood.

In 2007, the city commissioned noted Philadelphia-based planning firm Wallace, Roberts &Todd to prepare a South Loop District Plan. It calls for mid-rise restaurant and office/hotel development to the east of the MOA between 24th and 28th avenues, where the airport’s proximity limits height and residential uses.

Green and inclusive?

The South Loop will be tied together with “green streets” and extensive boulevard plantings. New apartments and condominiums will be concentrated east of 30th Avenue near the Bloomington Central Station light rail stop.

The stop will anchor the new Central Station Park, which is bounded by the elegant Reflections condominiums on the south and the new 303-room Hyatt Regency Hotel to the north. The park is just a hint of what’s to come in the next 20 years.

Now under construction just east of the Hyatt is the first phase of IndiGO apartments, which will have about 400 units, including eight affordable units. A second phase of roughly the same size is planned for the east side of the park.

Bloomington anticipates that up to 65 percent of its new development could take place in the South Loop in the next 50 years. And, nationwide, planners are creating “green” walking environments in older suburbs like Bloomington.

But social diversity and inclusion are harder to guarantee. Will Bloomington succeed in attracting affordable housing for the mall’s many relatively low-paid retail and service workers? Will the South Loop become home to a wide variety of people of all ages, backgrounds and economic levels?

Bloomington’s South Loop planning offers a world of opportunities for opening up the MOA and for its neighborhood. The question remains: Can the South Loop avoid creating new walls of its own?

 

Frank Edgerton Martin lives in Minneapolis and writes about design.