Malls fail in downtown Minneapolis, here’s why the Dayton’s project might succeed

November 3, 2017 GMT

The history of downtown shopping malls is the same tale told over and over, like a movie that continues to be remade with the hopes of a happy ending — except no one changes the script.

They’re announced with optimistic press conferences and renderings of busy spaces bustling with people. They open with a ribbon cutting, and, for a while, there’s a crush of curious customers.

In a year, a few stores stumble and shutter. Five years later, a new marketing effort is launched, new tenants are secured. Millions of dollars later: Well, it’s not entirely deserted over lunch hour.

Then the tenants slip away, and the storefronts have FOR LEASE signs, and pictures of people shopping instead of actual people shopping. If there’s one store left, you hate to go in and give them false hope.

Final phase: The mall is turned into something else, and everyone feels guilty relief. This time, we think, we’ve learned our lesson.

Which brings us to the new Dayton’s project.

This time, it really might work, if only because people have been complaining about the loss of Dayton’s for so many years they’ll feel compelled to put their money where their moans were. We hope.

Before we consider how this new downtown shopping center might avoid the fate of its predecessors, let’s take a tour of past Minneapolis malls.

Loeb Arcade

5th Street and Hennepin Avenue

Built in 1914, the Loeb was one of many arcades that dotted downtowns across the country. Styled after late malls popular in Europe in the late 18th century, these indoor shopping centers often featured rows of shops stacked several stories high. They catered to the wealthy and fashionable. But the Loeb had no royalty to serve; its stores were middle-class.

It started out gleaming white, but the soot of the city sullied its alabaster facade, and the interior became dingy and dated. Largely forgotten now, it was razed in 1967 for parking. Nothing has been built on the site since.

City Center

6th Street and Hennepin Avenue

An entire block of eclectic structures — old theaters, dimestores, cafes — was leveled for this massive redevelopment project, which was supposed to revitalize downtown. Finished in 1983, it included an enormous office tower, a mirrored hotel and a narrow mall anchored by Donaldsons, a venerable name in local retail.

The problem? From the outside it looked like something built by an occupying army. Donaldsons was bought by Carson Pirie Scott, replacing a historical name with a logo from Chicago. And stores began to be shuttered. The food court was popular (people do like to eat), but by the early 2000s, the retail portion felt spare and lonely. A redesign brightened the space, which is mostly offices now.

The Conservatory

8th Street and Nicollet Mall

The Conservatory out-Galleria’d Edina’s Galleria shopping mall. It was beautiful, filled with light and clad in enough marble to redo St. Peter’s in Rome. It also incorporated some of the old buildings on the block instead of knocking them down. It was filled with upscale tenants and more than 200 plants and trees, which gave it a lush, tropical look. But it suffered from a confusing interior design; you wanted to leave a trail of string or crumbs to find your way out. After a year, the $70 million project was starting to lose tenants, and the office space was still vacant. Oh, and there was that stock market crash, too. Bad time for high-end retail.

No one could resuscitate it. It was sold for half a million dollars, demolished in 1998, and replaced with the U.S. Bancorp Center.

Gaviidae Common

6th Street and Nicollet Mall

One of the most exuberant retail spaces, the Cesar Pelli-designed shopping area built in 1989 boasted a sky-blue roof trimmed with gold, a giant gaviidae (that’s loon to the rest of us) jutting out over a fountain. This will bring more life to downtown, everyone thought.

And so they built another mall, Gaviidae Common II, next door. The style was different — more Russian Constructivist ’80s upscale swank — and it had a food court designed to make you think of the State Fair.

The loss of Neiman Marcus in 2013 took the wind out of the place, but it had been gasping for years.

The original mall is being made over to accommodate a YMCA. The Gaviidae II part has been converted to offices. There are still some stores, but the idea of a bustling shopping center that would draw people from miles around, that’s a dead dream.

Block E

Hennepin Avenue, between 6th and 7th streets

Block E was once notorious, known mostly for its dive bars and porn theaters, not the Diamond Exchange or the World and the Shubert theaters. When the block was redeveloped, the Shubert was jacked up and moved a few blocks. Everything else fell for a retail complex.

Opened in 2001, it was supposed to look like a fun place, but it ended up looking fake and banal. Now it’s a Mayo Clinic satellite. From Hooters to health care.

Will the Dayton’s project be the one that breaks the curse?

Only if it’s aimed squarely at people who live and work downtown. Because people will come from elsewhere to see it, just like they came to see all the rest. Once.

And unless it’s got something they want or need, they’ll go back to shopping at the Dales. Or online.

James Lileks • 612-673-7858 • @Lileks