Monday, March 9, 2009

Calhoun Square: Good or Bad?

Now that work on Calhoun Square is visibly moving forward, it’s perhaps a good time to take a moment to look backwards. More specifically, back to the late 1970s when Calhoun Square was first envisioned, and the early 1980s, when it became a reality. Like it or not, most people will readily acknowledge that the opening of Calhoun Square was a turning point in the neighborhood’s history. Did Calhoun Square “kill the soul of Uptown,” (as one local argues in the Uptown Small Area Plan) or did the urban mall give the commercial district a figurative kick in the pants, reenergizing the neighborhood for the benefit of all?

First, some history. Depending on your point of view, Uptown in the 1970s was either a run-down crime-ridden dump, or it was the exciting center of local and even regional artistic and bohemian life. For others it was a combination of the two; a little rundown around the edges, perhaps, but still a vibrant, affordable, and desirable place to live. You could even argue that the extra layer of urban grit gave it the authenticity so often lacking in modern suburbs or in overly sanitized malls.

The Hennepin-Lake intersection had been the center of the neighborhood’s commercial district for decades. Businesses in the area included a bowling alley, the Rainbow Café (a regional draw), and stores ranging from the Uptown Bookstore to the Save-Mart store. An elementary school, Calhoun School, was located adjacent to the business district, approximately where Calhoun Square’s parking lot now stands. The school was closed and demolished in the mid-1970s, opening up land and ultimately paving the way for Calhoun Square’s eventual construction.

Even after Calhoun Square was gone, the Calhoun Square footprint had businesses and other buildings still standing. After a long and controversial public debate, the Minneapolis City Council voted to designate the Hennepin-Lake district as “blighted,” allowing both the use of eminent domain as well as tax increment financing. While some in the neighborhood were supportive, others dubbed the project “Updale.” In many ways this is the battle still raging, although not necessarily focused on Calhoun Square at the moment; the modern updated argument centers on modern luxury condo buildings and chain stores, but the basic concerns about gentrification, change, suburbanization, and yuppification remain the same.

Calhoun Square finally opened in 1983. The urban mall incorporated both old and new buildings. Five buildings originally were located on the site; two were razed for the project, while the remaining three were gutted. The mall’s stores included a mix of both longtime neighborhood businesses as well as new ventures. Although a mall, Calhoun Square’s independent retail stores were a far cry from the standard shopping outlets at the ‘Dales. The mall quickly became an anchor in the neighborhood, and did successfully draw shoppers from across the region.

So, did Calhoun Square squash the spirit of Uptown? Was it the best or the worst thing to happen to the neighborhood? In many ways, I think it was a little of both. Uptown pre-Calhoun Square was an active commercial district, but we’ll never know how well it would have survived the 1980s or 1990s without Calhoun Square. Calhoun Square did energize the neighborhood, and did bring in many new amenities. Large interior malls may not be the fashion now, but in a cold Minnesota winter (or even during the worst days of a hot Minnesota summer) it can be nice to have some indoor shopping options, too. Back in the 1980s the central atrium was actually pretty nice; there were fountains and plants and benches, and there did seem to be a genuine attempt to make the common space feel like it belonged to the community. On the other hand, Uptown’s “revitalization” meant that some longtime businesses got pushed out. A neighborhood shopping district once again became a regional destination; this meant more options for locals, but in return it meant a loss of that smaller, neighborhood feel.

Ultimately what I want out of the neighborhood is a vibrant, urban neighborhood, one in which I can do all my daily and special occasion shopping and living, only leaving the neighborhood because I choose to and not because I have to. I’m too young to have many memories of a pre-Calhoun Square Uptown; I don’t have an answer as to whether or not Calhoun Square was good or bad for the neighborhood. Ultimately I don’t know believe that anyone does. It changed the neighborhood, without a doubt, but things would have changed whether or not Calhoun Square was in the picture. Calhoun Square was only one pressure point of change – a large one, admittedly – on the neighborhood. It would be unfair to forget about larger city and even national economic and cultural trends that also shaped life at the local level. Would that bohemian artistic vibe survived the materialistic ‘80s? We’ll never know for sure.

Calhoun Square of today is a very different place than the Calhoun Square of the 1980s. It’s quieter now, with fewer independent stores and a lot more vacant spaces. The new construction has and will change things dramatically yet again, and it remains to be seen whether or not the outcome will be positive or negative for the neighborhood.

Regardless of one’s opinion about Calhoun Square, past or present, I think most people will agree that it is very important to Uptown as a whole that Calhoun Square survive, and ideally thrive. Love it or hate it, the reality is that the Uptown that existed prior to 1983 is long gone, and it isn’t coming back. The best we can do is to support Calhoun Square in its new form. Shop in its stores. Eat at its restaurants. Don’t forget about the rest of Uptown, of course, but do try to keep your money local. Don’t like chain stores? Focus your buying power on the independents. There’s no way to know whether the neighborhood will thrive or wither in the years to come, but having a big empty albatross sitting at our busiest intersection is the fastest way to encourage failure. Good luck, Calhoun Square, for all our sake.


  1. My main criticism of Calhoun Square is the overwhelming concentration of restaurant and retail, with no residential or office. Such limited variation in uses is unhealthy for the neighborhood and results in congestion during some periods of the day and deadness during others.

    Calhoun Square also has some design issues--namely the lack of streetfront entrances to the stores. The garish sign also takes away from the charm of the Uptown Theater sign I think

    Both of these criticisms are addressed in the CS redevelopment master plan (except the sign part), so Im happy with that.