The long view on citys development history

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December 21, 2009
By: Iric Nathanson
Iric Nathanson
The new Minnesota Shubert Center, now taking shape at 5th and Hennepin, will soon attract throngs of theater-goers to one of Downtown’s most historic blocks.

The center is the result of a decade-long public-private partnership initiated in the late 1990s when the abandoned Shubert Theater was moved from its original location on 7th Street to its current site next to the Hennepin Center for the Arts.

This new project, spearheaded by the nonprofit group Art Space, is the most recent in a series of joint endeavors between the public and private sectors, aimed at revitalizing Minneapolis’s historic central business district.

These partnerships extend back to the 1950s when local business leaders organized Minneapolis’s Downtown Council. The Council was established just as Southdale, the country’s first fully enclosed indoor shopping center, was under development in what had been a suburban cornfield. Back then, city leaders realized that they needed to breathe new life into the city’s aging Downtown if it was to withstand the threat from a booming suburbia.  

Soon the Downtown Council found that it had allies in City Hall, where local planning and development officials realized that the city’s public and private sectors needed to work together to promote a common revitalization agenda.

By the late 1950s, both sectors had come together to advocate for the renewal of the city’s aging Gateway District, which had deteriorated into a shabby skid row. That effort led to the development of the Gateway Urban Renewal Project, the largest downtown renewal project in the country at that time. While Gateway had its share of critics who decried the slow pace of reconstruction and the destruction of the landmark Metropolitan Building, the federally funded project laid the foundation for future development.

Gateway was followed by two projects, spearheaded by the private sector that gained national acclaim for Minneapolis — the skyway system initiated in 1962 and the Nicollet Mall built in 1967.

Three years after the Mall was completed, the Minneapolis Planning Commission unveiled its long-range plan for Downtown: Metro Center ’85. This landmark planning study provided a blueprint that would guide development for the rest of the century. With amazing accuracy, Metro Center ’85 predicted future trends, including a major new residential development along the riverfront, a complex of parking ramps at the terminus of I-394 with skyway connections into the Downtown core, a civic center surrounding City Hall and a community college at Loring Park.

By the late 1970s, city leaders had made use of a new development tool, tax increment financing, to rebuild a prime piece of real estate in the heart of Downtown. Known as City Center, this mixed use project, completed in 1983, included a hotel, an office tower and retail center fronting on Nicollet Avenue.

By the 1990s, the focus of Downtown development shifted to Hennepin Avenue where the several of the city’s aging movie palaces were reborn as dramatic new theaters that retained their historic ambience.

As the decade closed, City Hall was embroiled in controversies over two key development projects, one on the Nicollet Mall, that would house a Target store, and the second on Hennepin, where a new entertainment center was scheduled to fill the space formerly occupied by a group of seedy bars on Block E.

For more than a half century, Downtown development has withstood the controversies that have swirled around some of its high profile projects. It’s true that some projects, most notably Block E, have faltered, at least temporarily, in the face of difficult economic conditions. But, over the long-term, this city has used its development tools effectively to build a strong urban core that continues to serve as the economic anchor for this entire region.

Today, during these difficult economic times, Downtown might be facing a much bleaker future if those longstanding public-private partnerships had not succeeded in changing the course of history here in Minneapolis.

Iric Nathanson is the author of  “Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century: The Growth of an American City,” published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.