Eastgate: bold modern design or 'Soldoutdale?'

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December 13, 2004 // UPDATED 4:53 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Glassy condo-retail complex stirs design debate about what should be in an historic district

While many East Bankers are gushing about the futuristic glassy retail and housing complex proposed for the new Eastgate shopping center, the contemporary design has also drawn detractors.

The city's Planning Commission recently approved the mixed-use project proposed for Central and University avenues.

The clearance gives the developers -- Northeast-based Hillcrest Development and St. Paul's Exeter Realty -- a green light to raze the Eastgate strip mall early next year and replace it with two shiny buildings. First, a nine-story retail/condo tower will rise on University Avenue, followed by a five-story building on Central Avenue.

At street level, the new Eastgate will feature 45,000 square feet of retail, including a 15,000-to-18,000-square-foot Lunds grocery facing University. Condos will be on the buildings' upper levels.

The upscale grocery has received universal praise, but the project's modernistic, glassy skin has not.

Critics say the architecture would stick out like a sore thumb amid older, quaint buildings in the historic Old St. Anthony area. The new Eastgate would go up near the pale yellow Ard Godrey House, 28 University Ave. SE, in Chute Square Park -- the oldest wood frame house remaining in the city.

John Eckley, president of the Old St. Anthony Association and owner of City Salvage, an eclectic antique restoration business at 505 1st Ave. NE, has the harshest words for the design.

"This architecture belongs in Apple Valley, and that is why I don't live there," wrote Eckley in an e-mail to the neighborhood. "It seems the only concern of this committee was to get a corporate grocery store, a corporate video store and a corporate coffee shop regardless of the existing business and neighborhood values. Maybe a name for our 'new' 150-year-old area should be 'Soldoutdale.'"

Eckley -- who says the retail center is "the centerpiece of our neighborhood" -- said he'd like to see the architects incorporate architectural details that complement the area's brick-and-limestone buildings.

Alvin Easter, a Marcy-Holmes neighborhood resident, expressed similar thoughts in an e-mail to Skyway News, urging the developer against building a "Bloomington knock-off."

"The glass-box design proposed for the Eastgate shopping mall site might please a person looking for one of those bland, sterile office parks that litter our suburban highways," Easter wrote. "However, this design does not fit into the Eastgate neighborhood that still has, to some extent, a comfortably urban quality growing out of its long and varied history."

Some East Bankers who question Eastgate's design are quick to add their overall support of the project.

Terry Keegan, owner of the Keegan's Irish Pub, 16 University Ave. NE, said, "I think it's too avant-garde for this neighborhood. I'd rather see more brick and mortar than glass and steel. I like the whole project -- I'm very much in favor of the project -- I just don't like the appearance."

Keegan said he preferred the design of the building he's in. "That's the style that I like for this neighborhood -- it's more traditional. It's less than three years old, but it looks like it's been here for 100 years. That's how the neighborhood should look," he said.

Matthew Spector, president of the Marquette Townhomes, 221 Bank St., worries about the practical impact of a tall glassy structure, noting that it might serve as a giant sound reflector.

Spector, who is thrilled about the new Lunds, said he would also like to see the architects incorporate more stonework at street level and set the building farther back from the sidewalk than currently proposed. He also expressed concern that the proposal moved too quickly through the city's process.

The developers note they consulted with neighborhood leaders for four months before going before the city's Planning Commission in November.

One of Eastgate's developers, Exeter Realty owner and founder Jim Stoplestad said it would be "impossible" to come up with a design that pleases everybody; he believes design critics represent a "minority" view in the neighborhood.

"Based on the experience we've had in the past, you can never please everybody. We've even trotted out very traditional designs for projects in the past that you would think no one would have an objection to and even those generate controversy. So I think it's impossible to escape comments by people, and they're right to express their opinions."

One of Exeter Realty's most high-profile developments is on St. Paul's Grand Avenue near the Victoria Street intersection. The developer owns five mini-malls near the corner, according to a recent article in the Pioneer Press. About a fifth of the 40 tenants are national chains, according to the article. The mostly three-story malls feature traditional architecture with brick facades.

Fellow developers side with Stoplestad, and make their own aesthetic case.

David Frank, a project manager with Schafer Richardson, a residential developer based in the neighborhood at 615 1st Ave. NE, believes trying to build new buildings in a faux-historic fashion "detracts from the older buildings."

Said Frank, "I think making new buildings pretend to be old isn't the right solution and that it makes a passerby question which buildings are old."

Dan Hunt, one of the developers behind the neighborhood's Village at St. Anthony Falls project, also backed the contemporary design.

"I'm always in awe when people go out and do something different. Looks like it's going to be a great building," he said, adding that buyers are hungry for condos with extensive glass.

Margaret McDonald, owner of the new East Bank business Let's Cook, 330 E. Hennepin Ave., is among those who embrace current plans for the new Eastgate.

"Whatever design brings more people to the neighborhood is what it should be," McDonald said.

Other project supporters note that the neighborhood has no power to control designs -- particularly when the developers are not seeking city subsidies or variances, as in Eastgate's case.

Victor Grambsch, chair of the Nicollet Island/East Bank Neighborhood Association, says residents and business owners "can have influence" if they work with the developers early on in the city-approval process.

"I favor the modern glassy design, and I think that the general opinion is basically 'modernist,' although there is clearly a wide spectrum of opinion about the design," Grambsch said. "We the 'people' have no power to stop offensive building designs from being built, especially if there is no city money and no extreme zoning variances required."

Gab Jabbour, owner of West Photo, 21 University Ave. NE, supports the project despite some initial concerns about the project's proposed height.

Jabbour has been active in efforts to attract new residential and commercial development to the neighborhood.

"I think we should just be happy about it," he said.