It was a good year for architecture: No one razed 10 blocks to build brutal concrete housing. No one put up a stubby tower covered with mirrored glass. No star of European architecture swanned into town and sold us something that looked like a busted Rubik’s Cube and we were all obliged to admire. If the year had a theme, it was the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.
Here are some wishes for Minneapolis for 2016.
Downtown East will figure out how to liven up the backside. So far, so good. The twin towers are done. To paraphrase critic Paul Goldberger’s observation on the World Trade Center, it’s a good thing there are two of them; one would have been boring. We’ll have to wait until the brick is up on the Edition apartments to see how they look, but they do add a human-scaled hubbub that makes the space more lively. The apartments on the north end have the unfortunate effect of walling off the Commons park, but perhaps the way they contain the space will give it a cozier appeal. If they’d gone with half the footprint and twice the height, the park would reveal itself as you approached, like the Grand Army Plaza reveals Central Park in New York.
It’s the backside of the Wells Fargo towers that’s a tossup. The 3rd Street view has a different mood than the park side — not exactly like the East Berlin side of the wall, but close. It has old brick warehouses converted to housing, and despite the presence of the little playground at the People Serving People building, it’s rather dour. No retail. A small fire station. The blocky unforgivable Metro Transit ramp up the street. There’s nothing going on. Move along.
Two new buildings are coming to change the mood: There’s the upcoming Radisson Red hotel behind the south tower, and Ryan company’s HQ behind the other. They’ll be about the same height. It’s much preferable to parking ramps or parking lots, but it’ll still feel like the backside of the building.
We hope it doesn’t feel like Afterthought Plaza.
A different style of apartment buildings. The city’s been lucky: The boom in apartments coincided with a clean, airy style that will date well. Every era has a style: sedate, three-story, long brick buildings in the ’20s, featureless Human Storage Facilities in the ’50s and ’60s, vulgar dullards in the ’70s with huge, pointless mansard roofs. The new crop, at their worst, look like someone pasted huge wooden pieces on the sides like pieces of crossword puzzles. The big blocks of flats by the U range from utilitarian to garish, but like the structures along Washington Avenue, there’s an underlining sameness you can’t quite define.
Wish for 2016: new materials, new colors. Surprise us.
Some action on the Ritz Block. Opus owns the site on Nicollet and 4th, and the project is still in the pipeline, despite the lack of recent news. Renderings of the project show a residential tower rising from parking-ramp podium that adds no music to the street, just a dial tone. It’s probably too much to ask for an eclectic facade along Nicollet to remind us of the area’s early retail history, but when you add the frosty front of the library across the street, it’s not shaping up as a pedestrian-scaled block.
As long as we’re dreaming: Think small. The downtown core is still dotted with surface parking lots, and on behalf of everyone who drives to work, thank heavens you can find a spot to stow your car. Some people want to make autos unwelcome downtown, because everyone should use transit or bike. But everyone can’t, or won’t. Even if you waved a wand and made the streetcars reappear.
Canny long-term planning might envision an enormous parking ramp on the periphery of downtown — and encourage the re-use of every small-scale lot now devoted to cars. Ten-story apartment buildings on every lot? No. As lower Washington Avenue demonstrates, you can have lots of housing without having an energetic streetscape. You end up with places where people go home to sleep after work. Urban vitality requires lots of places for people to go.
So a re-imagined downtown wouldn’t have just big impressive taxpayers or towers of apartments with astringent names like Marq IV. A perfect downtown would have modest blocks of three-story structures with useful stores for the people who live downtown. Retail on the ground floor, offices and humble housing above.
That’s what downtown was, once. You can say that era is gone, and can’t be recaptured — the streetcars are gone, and no one depends on downtown for their retail needs. True. Downtown will never be able to compete with the suburbs — or even the local retail nodes that offer clever little stores and restaurants. But when you look at the old photos of downtown before the planners commanded the wrecking balls to swing, you’re looking at a place where no one lived. Almost 40,000 people live downtown now.
Build big, yes, but think small. It’s not the apartment building’s logo or the neon on the roof that makes people feel like they’re living in a neighborhood. It’s the glow of the sign of the corner store.