City deserves more than

The Minneapolis City Council will officially begin deliberations today on the fate of downtown’s Block E. Even after over a decade of debate, the most prominent proposal is still to develop the block into an “urban entertainment complex.” Unfortunately, supporters of this proposal have a naive understanding of the proper use of this land and an idealistic understanding of the viability of such a complex. Although initially a less exciting proposal, creating a park from the vacant lots would be much more beneficial to the livability of the downtown area — and eventually the entire city.
Block E is located between First Avenue North and Hennepin Avenue, bordered by North Sixth Street and North Seventh Street in downtown. The current proposal includes the construction of a 17-screen movie theatre, a 22-story hotel, ‘entertainment-oriented’ retail stores, and several sports and theme restaurants. The proposal’s total cost is estimated to be $134 million, with $39 million financed by the public through taxes or the sale of bonds. Committees in the City Council will debate the block’s future for the next week and a half, and the full council will finally vote on March 3.
Unfortunately, the proposal has several flaws that make its development unsuitable for the site. Originally envisioned in the late 1980s, several aspects have become outdated, as some have been realized during the past decade in other developments. The cost to the public — at nearly $40 million — is also far too expensive. Additionally, everything envisioned as part of the project could be built elsewhere in downtown, thereby allowing the land to be used for a more site-specific project.
The proposal’s most important flaw is with its design, however. As an enclosed “urban industrial complex,” the development would only be temporarily appealing and would soon probably be outdated, like Galtier Plaza in downtown St. Paul and even many suburban establishments. Destinations like bars, restaurants and clubs are only popular according to trends and fashions, which are transitory. As a single unit comprised of contemporary sports and theme bars, the businesses would not have the flexibility to change as do independently located establishments, which can be more easily replaced to better reflect current tastes, or even completely redeveloped into other businesses. And the fact that the stores and restaurants will be developed within a mall-type setting will actually discourage pedestrian traffic in downtown, as the complex becomes the destination, not the city.
The ideal use of the land, although initially unexciting, would be as an urban park. Its location — between Target Center and City Center, next to Minneapolis’ most popular nightclub, First Avenue, and adjacent to the warehouse district — would make it a natural central gathering space, which the city does not offer. Festivals, cultural events and holiday celebrations could proceed around the park, as could protests and demonstrations.
Although the complex might create an increase in commercial activity in downtown, this could be developed in one of downtown’s many other neglected neighborhoods. If the City Council is sincere about increasing the livability — both economic and otherwise — of downtown, it should attempt to make it livable for residents, not an amusement park for visitors.