Most of Minnesota’s enclosed shopping malls were built during the 1960s and early ’70s, following the example set by Southdale Center, which had opened in 1956. Those who frequented these suburban and regional hubs — to shop or just hang out — probably thought them permanent features of the landscape.
But the model’s prime was relatively brief. It was challenged first — in an ironic contradiction — by big-box stores and New Urbanism. Then by the convenience of online shopping. Anchor tenants evolved and vanished. Some of the nation’s roughly 1,200 malls were shuttered, leaving their host cities with ghost structures and parking lots gone to seed. Malls that survive, including Southdale, have struggled with vacancies.
Libraries, on the other hand, have been around for millennia.
Which brings us to the decision by the Hennepin County library system to move its Southdale location a few blocks to the northwest into space vacated by one of the Southdale mall’s anchors, Herberger’s, after that retailer’s parent company went bankrupt. Simon Property Group, the mall’s developer, will pay to demolish the Herberger’s building and replace it with an exterior frame for a library comparable in size to the existing one. It will assist the county with as-yet-undetermined costs to biblioform the interior. The project, which is expected to be completed by 2022 with no interruption of library access, is symbiotic. In addition to modernizing the library’s amenities and providing visitors with better transit connections, it will bring the mall, in a sense, full circle.
Southdale Center’s Viennese architect, Victor Gruen, had not intended to become the putative father of American suburban sprawl. He’d hoped to provide an antidote, more like the gathering spots he remembered from Europe. His original vision for Southdale included a medical center, schools and residences.
Sixty years later, that vision is closer to being realized, though on a vaster scale in the Southdale vicinity. The area is rife with redevelopment, and corners of parking lots have blossomed with multistory housing. The city of Edina has worked to make passage friendlier for pedestrians.
That evolution is one reason for the library’s move — its current site along York Avenue is in high demand — but, additionally, the love-it-or-hate-it modernist structure that has housed the library since 1973 has been deemed outdated. In choosing the mall, the library system will forgo the cost of building a replacement facility, estimated at nearly $50 million, on part of the existing site. Instead, in addition to its finishing costs at the new location, it will pay rent starting at a little more than half a million dollars per year.
Janet Mills, the county’s interim library director, told the Star Tribune that the new facility will look like a library from the outside and will include curbside dropoff areas for visitors and books, in addition to reserved parking. The county service center with which the library once shared space on York Avenue has already moved to the mall, in a functional space that looks like a service center. (Unrelated to the county’s activities, but relevant to the mall’s multipurpose ambitions: A Life Time fitness facility is to open this year in space vacated by another anchor, J.C. Penney.)
Further information about the goals and timeline of the library project is available at an open house 10 a.m. June 8 in the former service center adjacent to the current library at 7001 York Av. S., or online at tinyurl.com/library-southdale.