Dire news stories about downtown vacancies and shrinking tax revenue in Minneapolis have produced two trains of thought: Figure out a way to bring workers back or reinvent downtown, in part by converting office buildings to residences.
Perhaps the answer is both. But we need to do something brash. To save the city, perhaps it's time to do something drastic about the most unsightly part of the center of the city.
City Center, the multi-use project between 6th and 7th streets and Nicollet and Hennepin avenues, was the summation of the contemporary ideas about downtown revitalization in 1979, the year ground was broken on the building.
It's easy to see what was intended: a huge office tower, a new hotel that would immediately become the most important place to stay, a new home for a venerable department store, Donaldson's, and a three-story mall — with all the comforts and conveniences of the suburbs — to serve the downtown crowds.
At lunchtime, the elevators in the 52-story 33 South Sixth tower would deliver an army of office workers to the mall, where they could dine in the bright, airy food court, pick up a book at B. Dalton's, finger the silk of a tie or pick up a waffle iron, maybe even play a few rounds of pinball at the Aladdin's Castle arcade.
It was a bold idea, but it was a go-big-or-go-home plan, echoing the 1910 quote of architect Daniel Burnham: "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood."
Besides, the block on which City Center rose was made up of small commercial buildings from the early decades of the 20th century — variety stores like Kresge's and Grants. Down-market, jumbled and dumpy, remnants of the time when people took streetcars downtown to shop and stock up.
The stretch on 7th Street once had an old movie theater, but it burned in 1965. The most significant buildings on the block were the Radisson's ungainly addition, a boring white elephant, and the aged Dyckman hotel on 6th Street, which was imploded in 1979.
On the Hennepin Avenue side was a motley collection of stores of no distinction. The Gopher Theater had a glorious marquee, but losing that red-and-gold animated beaut was a small price to pay for the most dynamic, audacious, city-in-a-city project that Minneapolis had seen since the IDS Center opened in 1973.
City Center failed — economically or aesthetically, and maybe both.
Donaldson's was sold, rebranded and then shuttered in the department-store industry contraction and consolidation. The mall has been largely empty for a long time. The triangular glass wedge of the Minneapolis Marriott City Center works, because it's not a box.
The tower produced a lot of revenue in rent and taxes for a long time, but it's a dour, dun-hued dullard. The Hennepin side is a parking ramp, because of course that's what you build to line an entertainment district.
The whole thing turned into a soul-sucking black hole.
But it can be redeemed. Here's how.
First, tear down the Donaldson's portion on Nicollet, and make a park along the lines of Rockefeller Center. A skating rink in the winter, a pond in the clement months. Build a glass-walled restaurant looking down on the skaters or fountains. Opening up the wall of buildings along Nicollet would open up the block and create a new nexus around which downtown revolved.
Second, cover the parking ramp on Hennepin with enormous video displays, like Times Square. Sell Coke and Nike, sure, but also play Prince videos, movies of Twin Cities summer scenes in the dead of winter. Showcase the content of local videographers, or highlights and coming attractions from Hennepin Avenue theaters.
Third, rent out City Center's mall to pop-up stores and indie merchants at rock-bottom rent. Little wine bars, boutique stores, pinball arcades, humble brewpubs, a nook for whiskey-tasting. A hardware store with the basics. Things people downtown need.
Fourth, spruce up the 33 South Sixth tower. Paint it some audacious hue — crimson red, cerulean blue, bright orange, lemony yellow. Or all four, one per side. Create an instant landmark.
Run a shuttle bus from the North Loop and the Washington Avenue residential towers to the new, improved City Center, so it becomes a community hub for downtown residents.
Alas, none of this will happen.
The failure of the beliefs that created City Center and other downtown destination centers — Gaviidae Common, Block E (now Mayo Clinic Square) — has poisoned the very idea of big-block redevelopments with substantial retail and entertainment components.
But downtown is changing. And a reimagined City Center that serves the locals (and didn't look like a squat Bastille) isn't an audacious plan. It's just a plan — an ordinary, plausible plan. Sometimes they stir the blood, too.