Restoring Riverside Plaza

A $132 million renovation to the apartment complex could be just what the neighborhood needs.


Standing taller than a person, white candy-cane shaped metal pipes form an intricate centerpiece in the heart of a series of apartment complexes on the west bank of the Mississippi called Riverside Plaza.
The late Ralph Rapson, a world-renowned architect, can be seen standing among the pipes of varying heights in an undated photo. But Rapson, a Minnesota native and architect of the old Guthrie Theater, isnâÄôt smiling as he leans on his cane, looking down at the camera as he poses for a picture.
On Monday, among a massive overhaul renovation project that will total $132 million, the same white candy canes still stood there, next to a clock tower whose clock stopped working at exactly 11:05.
The utopian city-within-a-city that Rapson envisioned for Riverside Plaza still remains as a school nesting near the plaza with a Halal grocery store âÄî a store approved by Islamic law âÄî sitting kitty-corner to the K-8 charter school.
Now the area surrounded by the towers is a maze, as the entire place is waist-deep in a two-year renovation project that will leave very little unscathed.
The panels will be repainted, the mechanical system revamped, the charter school expanded, each apartment remodeled and the addition of a new safety center will bring more eyes and ears to the community notorious for its crime.
But the deterioration of the long and complex history of crime has given the Riverside Plaza the nickname âÄúGhetto in the Sky.âÄù
 âÄúWe need safety,âÄù said Enuye Faneta, owner of Cedar-Riverside Liquor Store, as an ominous Louisville Slugger bat stood in plain sight behind the counter.
Faneta is well known in the Cedar-Riverside community. As the owner of three businesses in the neighborhood, crime directly affects her customer base, she said.
Back at the plaza, a mere two blocks away from the store, a sign on a door leading downstairs to the garage reads âÄúUn-safe.âÄù The strong smell of urine is noticeable down another flight of stairs.
Ever since it was built in 1973, RapsonâÄôs dream of a self-sufficient series of highrises has been fading as fast as the multicolored panels that make the complex an eyesore from miles away.
To add insult to injury, the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood was used as a backdrop for a short, fictional film on the lives of children living in a war torn, urban environment. The movie, âÄúAnaâÄôs Playground,âÄù was made by a local filmmaker, and was one of 10 finalists for an Academy Award in the live action short category this past year.
Students try to avoid the mammoth structure like it was a war zone, but the series of buildings sits conveniently on the other side of the border from the University of MinnesotaâÄôs West Bank directly separating us from the nearest Taco Bell.
As the future looks brighter for the community, Faneta looks forward to the completion of the renovations.
But itâÄôs hard to imagine that even an influx of a hundred million dollars can fix the deteriorating Riverside Plaza.
What was once the vision for a utopian community, the Plaza is now nothing more than a statue representing how things are easier said than done.
The renovation is years overdue; it is the first major renovation of its kind in the complexâÄôs 38-year history. But if it succeeds in achieving RapsonâÄôs original vision the second time around, the plaza will finally get to live up to its potential while putting its unsettling history in the past.