Riverside Plaza: More Than An “Ugly” Building

by Will O’Keefe, Administrative Assistant
November 16, 2010

Cedar Square West - Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

I’ll be the first to admit that Cedar Square West (aka Riverside Plaza) is not exactly warm and fuzzy. Modernism will probably never be my cup of tea, but we need to recognize that in 1961 the Metropolitan Building was also called an “ugly monstrosity.” The demolition of the Metropolitan Building proved to be the catalyst for the preservation movement in Minnesota.

We have seen time and again that there is not necessarily a clear path for preserving Modernism. But at the same time, this more recent architectural style provides some wonderful opportunities to show the breadth of historic preservation. Behind the imposing concrete structures with the colored panels is an important story to be told about the progression of modern architecture and urban planning. Cedar Square West is a fine example of the sometimes trying, but ultimately exciting future of our field. It is remarkably the vision for the project that has such significance in this case; Ralph Rapson brought together planners of all sorts to create the first “New Town in Town” planned community (a HUD program to help support mixed income housing options). Cedar Square West was intended to be a place that would bring people from all walks of life, to live together in a high-density community within downtown Minneapolis. Detractors decry it as “social engineering,” but there can be no question that this tendency in the urban planning field was a significant historical trend in U.S. post-war history.

Economic development is another touchpoint in the debate surrounding Cedar Square West. Our recently passed State Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit is a key component for this project moving forward; in fact $4-5 is returned to the economy—through payroll taxes, direct expenditures by the employed workers, and in additional capital investment—for every dollar in tax credits. Sherman Associates, the owner of Riverside Plaza, is spending $55 million to upgrade and rehabilitate the property. Without the possibility of tax credits it is unlikely that these repairs would have taken place. So while it is easy to argue that Rapson’s vision failed, we must also consider the role that Riverside Plaza now fulfills; for nearly 40 years, these buildings have provided consistent affordable housing options to tens of thousands of immigrants and other low-income residents. These upgrades will not only improve the living conditions of the current residents, but also for the residents to come over the next forty years.

Ultimately, the historic designation of Cedar Square West is about more than whether or not it meets our standards for what is “good” architecture. This project is a job-creator in a time when we can all agree that more jobs are a positive thing, and it will improve the lives of the residents now and in the future. Preservation cannot and should not be defined by our vision of what is beautiful. Viewing buildings as art sells short the importance of that place over time and Cedar Square West has proven to be significant on many levels.

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