One of the most distinctive structures in the Twin Cities is headed for a two-year, $90 million renovation, partly funded by taxpayers.
The plan is to make the Riverside Plaza apartment complex -- the cluster of 1970s towers in Minneapolis with the multicolored panels -- more energy-efficient. Sherman Associates Inc., which bought Riverside Plaza from the government in 1989 for about $17 million, said it expects to have the $90 million package of tax credits finalized in September. Construction is to start this fall.
Back in 2004, I was working for one of those shady 527 groups, going around the Twin Cities registering voters in front of the Kerry v. Bush presidential election. It was an interesting job, firstly because I didn't have to ask anyone for money, and secondly because I got to see lots of different parts of the Twin Cities that I'd never been to before. I really enjoyed walking the sidewalks of Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and the inner-ring suburbs day after day, night after night.
But on election day, I was assigned to bring people to the polls. I was lucky enough to draw the Cedar-Riverside towers as my task. So, my partner and I started at top of one of the taller buildings in the complex and knocked on every door in the building, working our way down through the 30 or so floors, talking to folks and telling them the location of their polling place (very nearby, it turned out).
I found it fascinating. Most of the buildings house Somali immigrants, and a few of them invited us into their homes to talk about the election. Many times, when we'd knock on one of the four doors on the floor, all the other doors would open up and people would come out into the cramped hallway and talk to each other. It seemed to me that the buildings housed a tightly knit community, very different from anything I was used to in the Twin Cities.
And from what I could see, the apartments are in decent shape. They certainly have wonderful views, and, despite the Brutalist architecture and terribly out-of-place scale, they add to the diversity and excitement of the West Bank scene.
What's truly noteworthy about the Cedar-Riverside Plaza rehab, however, is that fact that its happening at all. Large public housing projects in the US have a justifiably bad reputation. And this is particularly true for the really large Midwestern concrete projects. (On the other hand, many of New York City's smaller-scale projects have aged a bit better.)
For example, the most notorious housing project of all time was the Pruitt-Igoe houses in Saint Louis, which famously lasted won a prestigious architecture award in 1951 before being demolished less than 20 years later.
The same fate was in store for many of the large Chicago projects, including the Cabrini-Green projects and the Robert Taylor Homes, both on the South Side.
It seems to me that part of the reason for the relative success of the Riverside Plaza towers has to do with Minnesota's provincial conservative streak. As a state, we are very reluctant to jump on the trendy bandwagon, the bubbles and bust cycle that strikes with more frequency on the coasts. We were behind the times in embracing the 'conservative revolution', and usually have smaller economic and real estate swings than many of the sun belt and coastal cities.
And we were similarly slow in building large public housing projects. Riverside Plaza wasn't constructed until 1973, after the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe. By then, architects and social scientists had learned a few lessons about how NOT to make high-rise public housing.
I'm not sure what those lessons were (and I've heard rumors that the original plans for the Riverside towers called for a much larger array of Corbusier concrete). But the fact that these buildings, not only are still standing, but are being lived in and remodeled, repainted, and rehabbed... it is one of the more successful stories in the troubled saga of US public housing policy. I guess Ralph Rapson must have done something right.
Here's to you, Riverside Towers. It still sucks to walk around you, underneath your drab slabs of monochromatic uniform towering concrete. But at least you're providing good homes to people that need them. And with a fresh coat of paint, maybe someone with bad eyesight will someday call you beautiful.
[The "fountain" inside the Brutalist Riverside Plaza.]