Uptown Looks Up From the Bottom
Uptown has led several different lives in the last half-century, and they often ended abruptly and disruptively. But nobody remembers an Uptown that looks like Uptown today. The block and a half from the Uptown Theatre to the former Suburban World Theatre has so few operating businesses that they can be counted on one hand. And more are leaving: Kitchen Window recently closed, while CB2 is not renewing its lease.
Uptown’s current problems are both external and self-inflicted. First, Covid shuttered the commercial district, then looting and vandalism that followed George Floyd’s murder found its terminus in Uptown. A year later, the police killing of Winston Smith in the Seven Points parking ramp gave birth to a violent protest encampment that lasted for a summer.
But those events were the coup de grâce. Uptown was already struggling, despite the addition of thousands of units of housing over the last two decades. Uptown’s pivot to national retailers and restaurants proved a failure, and the large spaces built to attract them proved difficult to re-lease as they departed. And a raucous nightclub scene that found a home in the neighborhood created a polarizing presence that repelled as many as it attracted.
“It’s like the 1970s now, when things were really tough,” says longtime Uptown developer Stuart Ackerberg. “People want to be where there’s a good energy. That needs to be reestablished.”
Today, Uptown is a study in contrasts. “Demography has never been stronger,” says Ackerberg. “We’ve got amazing housing stock.” Yet the area’s commercial base is on life support. So a small group of influential local property owners hired former Minneapolis economic development director David Frank to develop a resuscitation plan.
Frank says safety, street activation, parking, and economic sustainability are the priorities, and he needs the advocacy of City Hall to achieve some of them.
Activating Uptown is a function of solving the other challenges: perceived safety, quality of amenities, and access. City government has a role, Frank insists. “The city’s hands-off posture to Uptown has been neglectful.”
Particular enmity is directed at former City Council President Lisa Bender, who represented the neighborhood from 2014-21. “[She] singlehandedly destroyed Uptown,” says Jeff Herman, who owns seven Uptown buildings totaling approximately 50,000 square feet. “She didn’t care about business, became locked in a power struggle with the mayor, and gave up on her ward.”
Local property owners have stepped in to fill the breach left by the depleted Minneapolis Police. Area property owners partnered We Push for Peace (WPP), a community engagement organization founded by Minneapolis resident Tray Pollard and staffed largely by people of color. “[It] is very effective. Very good at deescalating. Fearless,” says Ackerberg. Herman says violent crime is down substantially since WPP began its patrols.
In 2019, the city eliminated auto parking on Hennepin between Lake and 31st streets to provide greater space for bikes. The impact was immediate. “Loss of street parking decimated foot traffic,” says Herman.
The city is contemplating similar changes to Hennepin between Lake and Franklin. The plan has Hennepin/Uptown businesses up in arms, and 100 of them recently penned a letter to Mayor Frey among other officials, demanding the city pause and reevaluate the implementation of the proposed plan, which is not scheduled to be actually built out for two years.
“We need the city to take ownership, understand the impact of its decisions,” says Ackerberg. “If they are reckless and do to the rest of Hennepin what they did [on] 31st to Lake, I don’t know what’s going to happen. We can’t afford more collateral damage.” They are looking to Mayor Jacob Frey to block what they see as otherwise a fait accompli driven by a policy agenda implemented by the previous city council that was indifferent to small business.
But nothing good can happen in Uptown until businesses return, perhaps the most vexing of the problems.
“Retail has changed,” says Ackerberg. “We need smaller spaces” —showrooms, not superstores. The current building code requires at least two stories, he says, “but two-level doesn’t work for retailers; they won’t rent.” The combination of wrong-sized spaces, inflated tax valuations, and outsourcing of city services (policing, trash, etc.) drives rents to levels that only national tenants can afford.
So “the next phase is about righting the business mix,” says Herman. The new model for Uptown, say the landlords, is a tenant mix designed to appeal to nearby residents, not exclusively visitors from other parts of town. “We’re looking for neighborhood-first uses that generate daily visits,” says Sam Ankin, managing principal of Northpond Partners, the Chicago-based developer that is preparing to redevelop Seven Points.
But the cost of doing business in Uptown makes that a problem. “The economic model of Uptown can’t right itself without tax reforms,” insists Herman. He says taxes and landlord services approach up to $20 per square foot of rent, resulting in rents of $40 per square foot, which is untenable for small business.
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As a result, landlords at the Uptown Theatre and the ex-The North Face space are pivoting to create businesses in their currently unleasable spaces.
On the horizon is an announcement from Northpond about dramatic changes to Seven Points. “We want to add density, multifamily residential, we want to make it interactive to the streets,” says Ankin.
The key, landowners say, is the attention and advocacy of a Mayor Jacob Frey, now reelected with enhanced powers. “You fix Uptown by the mayor taking an active role and speaking for business,” says Herman.
“I tell [Frey] to ‘play big,’” says Ackerberg. “He’s got an amazing opportunity.”
Attempts to reach Frey over six weeks were unsuccessful. A mayoral spokesperson expressed Frey’s support for an ongoing role for WPP in Uptown but was otherwise non-committal on the tax and parking questions Uptown’s building owners raised.
1960s-1970s: The working-class era
Taverns and bowling alleys. Not a regional destination.
1980s: The Calhoun Square era
The punk years. The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Uptown Theatre.
1990s: The “Updale” era
The arrival of national retail. The epicenter of beauty—Aveda, Horst, and protégés.
2000s: The outdoors era
The North Face, Timberland, and others arrive to serve outdoorsy lake aficionados. New housing along the Greenway attracts home furnishings retailers such as Jonathan Adler, Design Within Reach, and CB2. Apple’s arrival in 2010 signals the pinnacle and the end of this era.
2010s: The entertainment era
Nightclubs arrive with a college-age clientele. National retailers sour on Uptown. The Uptown Theatre closes.
2020s: Uptown next
Seven Points redevelops.
Two Challenged Blocks
Uptown was losing tenants before Covid and social unrest, but those accelerants have left its streets windswept and empty, especially the core blocks on Hennepin Avenue.
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This story will appear in the print edition of TCB’s February/March 2022 issue.