It surely would come as a surprise to people that something "car-centric" could be celebrated, and even be considered worth preserving, in today's Minneapolis. This is, after all, a city with a new comprehensive plan that seeks to park auto dependency decisively in the past.
But such is the nature of historic preservation.
And so it is that a building on the edge of the Warehouse Historic District, but not part of it, and within the scope of a prospective Gateway Historic District, but not necessarily part of it, was given a reprieve from the wrecking ball by the city's Heritage Preservation Commission last week. Developers want to replace the building at 21 N. Washington Av. with a 27-story apartment tower to complement another they're constructing on the same block. City staff sought further study, and the members of the commission agreed.
The five-story building dates — here we're tempted to add the word "only" — to 1969, when Knutson Construction was charged with redeveloping what had once been the city's original downtown but had subsequently become its skid row. Knutson had run up against a tight deadline that informed its design choices, a consultant for the current developers noted during a public hearing on Tuesday. This particular property became its headquarters.
The "car-centric" description comes about because the building overhangs street-level parking, an of-the-era touch. To be clear, that isn't the only characteristic drawing current interest. A city staff report also cites "unique geometric patterns and depressions of alternating precast concrete panels and glazing." (On the other hand, City Council Member Steve Fletcher, who represents the area, said he will "need some convincing that there's something special about that building, because it's not obvious to my eye." Several people commenting on a Star Tribune article about the proposed demolition would probably agree. They declared the building just plain ugly.)
Beauty isn't the only standard for preservation, members of the Heritage Preservation Commission noted during Tuesday's hearing. In this case, other considerations include the degree of alteration to the original design (there are a lot more windows now) and context (modern construction has popped up around it). All of which are, like visual appeal, at least partly in the eye of the beholder.
In this case, there's also an irony: Response to the historical toll of Gateway-area demolitions helped bring about the city's current preservation laws. The Historic Preservation Commission was created in 1971. Its 10 members, appointed by the mayor and City Council, are to be people "with demonstrated interest, knowledge, ability or expertise in historic preservation, neighborhood revitalization, archaeology, urban planning, history or architecture."
Minneapolis has always tended to be a replace-and-move-on city, and some of its districts, like the Gateway, have been reinvented more than once. Even without demolition, it's not unusual to hear of architecture or artifacts under pressure. Two recent examples that come to mind are the musical-score mural on the side of the former Schmitt Music building downtown, which may eventually be obscured if an office tower replaces adjacent surface parking, and the Riverplace complex near St. Anthony Main that dates — here we'll say it — only to 1984 but reflects a style of that era. The complex is expected to undergo extensive renovations under new ownership.
Minneapolis recently mourned the loss of one of its great champions of the urban experience, Jay Walljasper, who died in December. Walljasper's conceptualization of what he termed "the commons" had many themes, but among them were "historic districts, and generous tax credits for saving scenic landscapes and landmark buildings."
The difficulty with preservation is the same as that which drags on other endeavors based on a vision: It promises collective dividends in some distant future but can pinch individual interests in the here and now. Sometimes the immediate interests are collective, too.
We have no stance on the former Knutson building other than to let the process play out. We're glad there is a process, and one fortified by an intellectual framework, as members of the Preservation Commission briefly elucidated during Tuesday's hearing. It probably wouldn't hurt for them to take every opportunity they can to expand public awareness of the standards they use.