The Hennepin Avenue shuffle

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April 26, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott

// Is the recent real estate churn on one of Downtown’s most important streets cause for alarm, or just business as usual? //

March came in like a lion for Hennepin Avenue.

With the back-to-back news last month of GameWorks’ sudden closure (March 29) and of Block E Hooters filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection (March 31), not to mention the shuttering of steak-and-sushi joint Zake (March 18) after only one year in the 533 Hennepin Ave. restaurant space ... well, it’s been a bumpy spring for Downtown’s main thoroughfare.

But the news hasn’t all been negative. Local developer Bob Lux triggered some hopeful excitement with his commitment to purchase most of Block E, announced April 8. Kieran’s Irish Pub is chugging along nicely in its new location. First Avenue celebrated its 40th anniversary April 3, announcing plans to open its much-anticipated burger joint the Depot, in May. And the Hennepin Theater Trust has beefed up its Broadway offerings this year from 11 weeks to 18, banking on an influx of visitors in 2010 to the core of Downtown.

And then there’s that whole new ballpark thing — which may actually prove to be the only fresh element in an old Hennepin Avenue equation.

The street’s vibrancy has been in question for years. Search any local newspaper’s archives, and you’re bound to find headlines about Block E troubles, high-profile vacancies, retail woes and restaurant closings. (The Downtown Journal ran an Oct. 2005 business article with the lead, “Restaurants are falling like dominoes near the 600 block of Hennepin Ave.”) So how concerned should we be over this spring’s shakeups?

“Businesses have a life cycle, and sometimes it’s just a very short lifecycle,” said Tom Hoch, president and CEO of the Hennepin Theater Trust. Hoch has been professionally engaged with Hennepin Avenue for decades, working with the State, Orpheum and Pantages since the 1980s and serving a six-year stint on the Minneapolis Community Development Agency. “Is Hennepin dying? The answer is no. I’m not particularly concerned.”

Hoch — and many other observers — point out that some of the recent negative news has had little to do with the street itself. GameWorks was struggling as a nationwide chain, closing six other locations in addition to the Minneapolis one. Hooters suffered from longstanding financial problems; the bar had allegedly been behind on its rent for at least a year and a half. And restaurants are always a risky investment in the current economy, especially when they are asked to fill large spaces like the one at 533 Hennepin Ave.

But when buildings sit vacant on Downtown’s main drag, everyone notices. And that means owners of Hennepin properties should be held more accountable, according to Hoch. Especially delinquent spaces like 705 Hennepin Ave., next to the former Chevys Fresh Mex, which he says “has been vacant since I’ve been on Hennepin.” Chevys itself has been empty since 2007.

“I think we as a community need to say, ‘That’s not acceptable. You need to aggressively market your properties. You sit on our major thoroughfare Downtown, and we think it’s unacceptable.’”

Appearances matter to Hoch, who views beautifying Hennepin Avenue as essential in attracting more residents Downtown. And more residents, he says, is the key to sustained vitality. Hoch lauds the Downtown Improvement District ambassadors for creating a safer, cleaner environment, and he’s currently working on a plan to bring more greenery to Hennepin Avenue.

“What the city really, really needs to focus on is how we are going to get more housing in the Downtown core,” he said. “The riverfront is not the Downtown core. Loring Park is not the Downtown core. [Higher residency] is the thing that will create that 24/7 vibrancy down here. They will be the ones to hold Hennepin to high expectations.”

When asked what he might like to see emerge on Hennepin Avenue, Hoch says “art galleries.” He remembers the weekend gallery crawls in the late 1980s that routinely brought crowds of pedestrians to places like the Wyman Building.

“Art galleries now are scattered all over town,” he said. “It’s really hard for tourists — convention goers for example, or weekend visitors to a ballgame — to take advantage of those. They’d have to rent a car, figure out where everything is. What if we could figure out a way to concentrate more galleries Downtown?”

Interior designer Jim Smart agrees that getting people to move Downtown is vital. But he sees a root problem that lies deeper than the physical appearance of the street’s buildings, or even the appropriateness of their tenants. Smart would like to see circulation encouraged through the use of more common sense design, especially for Block E.

“You can’t get to the Graves Hotel from Hennepin Avenue,” he said. “How ridiculous is that? This is supremely bad design.”

Smart is enthusiastic about Lux’s future role in Block E, saying that “having a local owner for that facility is going to make a huge difference. It looks silly from the outside. Lux will have to get some talent in there to make that outside look like something besides a cheap, fake Las Vegas.”

But Smart does welcome the new two-way traffic on the thoroughfare, arguing it brings a potential for a more “main street feel.” He added that the GameWorks closure is probably good news, too, as it clears the way for a more dynamic business to come in.

“If anyone has an idea and a few bucks, now’s the time to do it,” he said.

What he’d really like to see Downtown?

“Lunds really needs to come down here,” he said, hinting at Lux’s long-proposed plan to build a grocery store on the parking lot currently on Hennepin Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets. And he considers Target Field “the game changer,” the thing that will help Downtown “flourish.”

Add the ballpark, then, to the list of Minneapolis landmarks that Hennepin Avenue should thematically connect, but doesn’t.

“We need to figure out the connection between the Walker and the sculpture garden and to the riverfront,” said Hoch. “I love Nicollet Mall. But Nicollet Mall doesn’t connect the Walker to Loring Park to the Basilica to our spectacular riverfront. The city needs to get a plan in place for that and then to really work that plan.

“Imagine the difference that would make.”

What would you like to see on Hennepin?
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