Uptown might be coming back, but not in the way you'd expect
The intersection of Lake Street and Hennepin Avenue was quiet one recent Friday morning.
Several inches of newly fallen snow blanketed the traditionally busy thoroughfare, the epicenter of Minneapolis' Uptown neighborhood. But the stillness had less to do with the weather and more with the multiple empty storefronts.
A faded glitzy sign was all that was left of fusion restaurant Chino Latino. A poster on nearby Williams Uptown Pub & Peanut Bar gave a simple, sad goodbye. The once prominent sign above the former Calhoun Square retail center, once home to popular eateries such as Famous Dave's and Sushi Tango, remained bare. Graffiti marked some windows on the block. Plywood blocked many others.
For more than a decade before the pandemic, Uptown was an entertainment hot spot, known for late-night bars, flashy restaurants and big-name stores. Even further back, Uptown was a hub for artistic culture, immortalized in Prince's 1980 song, "Uptown."
Now, many of the district's once-busiest stretches are uninhabited.
Yet there are signs of new life. The Uptown Theatre, an institution for more than 100 years, will reopen in May after rock venue the Green Room debuted in January. Several small businesses have opened in the last year, like New Uptown Cafe. And there are more housing options, including the seven-story, 143-unit the Bohen, which opened a little more than two blocks from Lake and Hennepin last month.
With even more housing on the horizon, the next evolution of Uptown could center on service-based retail, like gyms and day cares, as well as small, locally owned businesses that bigger brands used to price out of the area.
"What we are looking at is the re-emergence of Uptown ... with grassroots music and art and activities and things to do. The cool things that could make Uptown kind of weird and wonderful again," said Jill Osiecki, director of the Uptown Association and a local artist. "I think there's a need for that."
Now where I come from
Uptown has served as a bustling commercial corridor of Minneapolis for years, offering some of the best shops and restaurants outside of downtown.
From the 1920s through the '70s, neighborhood businesses such as Abdallah Candies, the Rainbow Cafe, Lunds & Byerlys (formerly called Hove's) and the Granada and Uptown theaters anchored the area.
During the '80s and onward, Uptown developed an identity as a more eclectic haven for counterculture, thanks to its theater and music scene as well as the growth of local artists and the Uptown Art Fair. The Replacements played the Uptown Bar & Cafe. Teenagers, nicknamed the "McPunks," hung out at McDonald's outdoor patio.
Prince even ran a short-lived store in the neighborhood. Unique retailers such as the Cheapo record store and new and used book outlet Magers & Quinn Booksellers also began to call Uptown home.
But the early '90s also signaled the arrival of corporations and national retailers.
Stores like the Gap opened, seeking visibility in hip, urban neighborhoods. For more than 20 years, other stores arrived for fashion (American Apparel, Victoria's Secret, Urban Outfitters, H&M), outdoor clothing (Columbia Sportswear, Arc'teryx, the North Face, Timberland) and home furnishings (Design Within Reach, CB2, Jonathan Adler).
At the same time, a rush of modern apartment buildings brought in an influx of young professionals. For a while, the area thrived.
But questions of Uptown's sustainability surfaced long before the pandemic emptied the area.
In the late '90s and early 2000s, Uptown started to lose its luster, said Thatcher Imboden, a former Twin Cities development project manager who co-authored a history book on Uptown.
"Some of this corporate retail that was coming in was speculating that Uptown was going to perform like they maybe had seen in some other markets," said Imboden, who formerly served as president of the Uptown Association but now lives in Seattle. "For the most part, most of those corporate retailers that came in in the 2000s never really got to their retail sales that they needed."
Retail patterns changed with people opting to visit suburban malls out of convenience, Imboden said. Online shopping also boomed. Plus liquor laws and Minneapolis' business parking requirements loosened, meaning Uptown was no longer one of the few places outside of downtown to go for a stiff drink, and businesses didn't need dedicated parking space to open in other parts of the city, he said.
"It really drove a lot of [local] entrepreneurs into less expensive real estate," he said.
Jeff Herman owns several Uptown buildings, including the old Apple and Columbia Sportswear stores, and has helped broker numerous deals bringing in retailers like the North Face and MAC Cosmetics. While Uptown previously flourished because of its uniqueness, the area began struggling to differentiate itself.
"They weren't cutting-edge anymore," Herman said. "They didn't offer something that people would come to as a destination."
In the 2010s, there was a steady train of national chains leaving the area, an exodus the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020 riots heightened. The latter, coming in the wake of George Floyd's murder, left many south Minneapolis businesses damaged.
Even Minneapolis conglomerate Target Corp. announced this month it would close its small Uptown store because of poor patronage.
Local landmarks have also struggled, like Williams and Stella's Fish Cafe & Prestige Oyster Bar, which both recently shuttered.
Some departing retailers, like home-goods store Patina, have cited growing public safety issues as a reason for closing. In February, a shooting wounded two men inside newly opened eatery the Breakfast Klub. In the fall, Gabriel "Dino" Mendoza died from a gunshot while working security at the neighboring Fire House Uptown.
Earlier this month, the Uptown Transit Station indoor waiting area at 29th Street and Hennepin Avenue was one of a handful closed because Metro Transit said it couldn't keep up with property damage, litter and "other unwanted behaviors." The space should reopen later this year with security officers.
"It's tough when you have a lot of vacant spaces, and there's not a lot of eyes and ears on the street," Herman said.
Ann Kim, acclaimed chef and owner of Uptown restaurant Sooki & Mimi, felt every departure, no matter the reason.
"There were many times I wanted to quit and walk away, especially as I witnessed a domino effect of major retailers and restaurants fall around me," Kim said. "But I'm not a quitter, and I'll be damned if I'm the last one standing."
That's where I want to be
Many remaining businesses are determined to stay. One reason for the hopeful outlook is Uptown's location, said Aaron Meyers, a broker for real estate firm Element who focuses on retail and office space in Uptown.
"Uptown has some of the best consumer demographics in the metro," Meyers said. "The proximity to the lakes, the proximity to downtown. The proximity served by car and transit and bike traffic. ... This area has so much going for it."
Uptown has lost some of its bohemian vibe, something advocates want to re-cultivate, Osiecki said. Many want to see more local businesses as well as retailers that offer everyday services to residents beyond just entertainment. That's possible now with lower rents, Herman said.
Longtime Uptown resident Laura Bremseth, 33, recalled coming to Uptown for the nightlife when she was in college, since it was "the cool, hip place to go for clubs and bars and everything." Now a mother, Bremseth would like to see more child-care options in the area and a small, independent grocery store.
"There's so much to be said for being able to get everything that you need in your neighborhood," she said, as she took a break from working out one morning at the Totally Committed Resource Center.
Tyler Phillips opened Totally Committed near Lagoon and Hennepin avenues in November. The space offers personal and small-group training, massage therapy, youth programming and more.
"With all of the new apartments going up, I saw this as a perfect opportunity to provide the people around here with something that they can utilize," Phillips said. "Obviously, we like entertainment and stuff like that. But we want to balance it out."
A large piece of Uptown's revitalization still in the works is Seven Points retail complex. Chicago-based developer Northpond Partners has partnered with local Doran Cos. to develop a $150 million apartment building at 31st Street and Hennepin Avenue. Plans also include a large, affordable apartment complex next door.
Sam Ankin, managing principal of Northpond, said the thesis is to take down existing empty retail to add residences, restaurants, bars, retailers and daily-need services such as a grocer that people can visit beyond just Friday and Saturday nights.
Northpond hopes to break ground on the residential portion of the project this spring and tapped Kim to consult on potential tenants for the retail center.
"It's going to take some serious creativity, innovation and an underdog mentality to get Uptown back," Kim said. "We need a community of courageous leaders and thinkers who believe in the soul of Uptown."