Reinventing Block E

The flawed Minneapolis complex needs a fix. Here: an immodest proposal.

THE ARCHITECTURE looks like Walt Disney run amuck in Vegas. The storefront windows are dark or blocked with posters. And just try walking from the Hennepin Avenue street entrance to the First Avenue side without getting lost: It can’t be done.

Even before Block E opened, in October 2002, the building’s design defects confounded urban critics. Add the constant challenges its tenants have faced from loitering and street crime and Block E seems to have become the block everyone loves to hate.

But crime and the perception of crime are precisely what led the city to level most of the block between Sixth and Seventh streets in 1988. And crime plagued the block while it stood empty for 14 years, waiting for a developer who could put together a plan attractive to both tenants and financial backers—and then get the city to approve it.

That developer, Dan McCaffery of Chicago-based McCaffery Interests, makes a valid point: Despite Minneapolis’s famed lack of street life, most of Block E’s establishments have survived and flourished while others on Hennepin have shut their doors. (Think Copeland’s, Olive Garden, T.G.I. Friday’s, and Chevys.)

Occupancy at the Graves 601 Hotel is at an astounding 72 percent, and its acclaimed restaurant, Cosmos, is having its best year ever, according to Benjamin Graves, president of Graves Hospitality.

A Block E latecomer, the restaurant Bellanotte, is so successful that its investors are opening R. Norman’s, a multilevel restaurant and nightclub in the Stimson Building across Seventh Street. On summer days and evenings, Bellanotte patrons enjoy noshing among the lush plantings on the corner of First Avenue and Sixth Street.

But while the First Avenue side of Block E projects a sense of safety, the Hennepin and Seventh Street sidewalks have been the site of panhandling, drug dealing, and worse. GameWorks keeps its street-level entry on the corner of Hennepin and Seventh Street locked most of the week, when the arcade is accessible only from the skyway-level lobby. On the other corner on Hennepin, Borders Books and Music wants out of its lease.

Could design changes cure Block E’s woes? Not necessarily. As McCaffery notes, the block’s trees are fuller than most downtown. The sidewalks are spotless. Neat wrought-iron fences enclose the flower beds. But beyond the streetscape, many agree, the place needs help.

We asked a handful of downtown denizens and savvy designers how they would rework Block E. Here are four ideas that captured our imaginations:

– The architecture should reflect its time and place—not some historical ideal.
– The interior should allow for easy navigation. A clear visual path smoothes the way.
– Essential goods and services attract people, and there’s nothing more vital than food.
– People love to watch people. Why not let them see the city in a glance?

Such ideas reflect design principals that should guide every civic project, including the Twins’ ballpark. Take a look, and imagine a better city—even if Block E never changes. MM

The Flaw

Too much Disney, not enough dazzle.

The fake stucco and carnival ornaments on the upper part of the exterior project an image that would look cheap even in Vegas.

The Fix

Redo the façade with pulsating color and sophisticated images.

Hey, it’s the 21st century, not the 19th. Block E should reflect our media-hip age, says Phillip Koski, one of Minneapolis’s hot young architects. The exterior should be electric, with dynamic moving signs and contemporary materials.

The Flaw

A labyrinthine layout—upstairs and down.

It’s impossible to walk through the building at street level, making the place confusing and, to many, intimidating.

The Fix

Carve out a courtyard.

Users should be able to come in one door and see how to exit the other side or reach the skyway level, says Minneapolis architect Julie Snow. We have a great model in the IDS Center’s Crystal Court—a pleasant space that’s easy to navigate. Restaurants and shops opening into a courtyard in Block E would create a sense of action, too.

The Flaw

Blank walls along Seventh Street.

Passersby on Seventh encounter darkened windows and a dearth of doors. The stretch feels deserted even when it’s crowded. But when the Twins’ ballpark opens in 2010, this block is expected to become a major pedestrian thoroughfare.

The Fix

Electrify the scene with video images.

Add a block-long video wall, where multiple screens show clips of current happenings—at the Guthrie, First Avenue, the Fine Line, and the ballpark. The visual scene might even reflect what’s going on along the street. People love to watch people, especially themselves. And the cams might help discourage crime.

The Flaw

A fortress feel on Hennepin.

Most of the windows are opaque or covered with posters. Life inside is cut off from life on the street.

The Fix

Make it a market.

Set up produce stands. Bring in Dean & Deluca or another upscale market. Block E is the perfect place for downtown commuters to pick up fresh or prepared food before they head home. A market would also pull in people who already live downtown, says Tom Hoch, president of the Hennepin Theatre Trust.

Linda Mack is a Minneapolis freelance writer and former architecture critic with the Star Tribune.

Linda Mack, longtime architecture critic for the Star Tribune, writes for national and regional magazines on architecture and design. She is the author of Madeline Island Summer Houses: An Intimate Journey, an armchair tour of 27 summer retreats on the historic Lake Superior island.