Starting as early as 1919, Minneapolis planners had big ideas for city

One hundred years ago, the city of Minneapolis embarked on a bold new idea: designing the future instead of letting it happen.

Minneapolis, said the editorial page of the Tribune on May 10, 1921, “comes in for commendation from St. Cloud Journal Press, which says that in its city planning commission Minneapolis has what every city should have. ‘Most cities,’ says the Journal Press, ‘adopt the Topsy plan of just growing up.’ ”

The preening editorial continued, pointing out St. Cloud’s pitiful planning process:

“Each new set of officials pay little heed to the program of their predecessors, and there is no general plan of development followed. It is largely a hit and miss program, with more misses than hits.”

Not Minneapolis: The city did more than plan for “street arrangement and land use.” It thought ahead, and attempted to see the big picture. This was the new way.

The future always has its foes, though. The City Planning Commission was not popular with city leaders. The Legislature created the commission in 1919, approving a bill drafted by the Hennepin County delegation.

Minneapolis officials considered it a usurpation of local authority, with one alderman denouncing it as an attempt to leach away the City Council’s “power and prestige.” But eventually the City Council relented, and the commission set about improving some things, and disapproving of others.

The commission already had a blueprint for the future: the extraordinary 1917 “Plan of Minneapolis” that proposed remaking downtown along the City Beautiful model. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago had awakened public interest in white, gleaming classical structures, and many visitors to the exposition returned home to dingy, calamitous soot-stained cities and wondered why those cities couldn’t look better.

The plans for Minneapolis carved diagonal boulevards across the city, limited building heights and foresaw a city that looked more like Paris than the individualistic cities of America. Looking at the unrecognizable Minneapolis reimagined along these elegant lines, you flip back and forth between regret, relief and regret again.

With no political or economic power behind it, the 1917 plan never got off the ground. That didn’t mean the end of thinking big for Minneapolis. In the early 1920s, area newspapers carried tantalizing stories about Planning Commission proposals, which suggested how the city might have been remade.

In September 1921, property owners on “Upper” Nicollet and Marquette avenues (meaning the western edge of downtown) asked the Planning Commission to extend Marquette several blocks past its termination at Grant Street. This, they said, would assist future downtown development, and relieve the ghastly traffic tie-ups caused by cars and trolleys negotiating a sharp turn where the Minneapolis Convention Center stands today.

The plan, the Tribune reported, “would involve the moving back of the Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church” and the “destruction of the Loring Theater and an apartment building.” Pshaw to those who blanched at the task:

“Physical consummation of the plan … would not be difficult in view of the resultant benefits. Removal of the church, for instance, it is said, would not be a difficult engineering feat since lofty buildings have been moved.”

You have to admire the can-do spirit. The plan, however, was not approved.

Another 1921 project aimed to clear up the mess where Hennepin and Lyndale avenues joined. It was made by architect A.U. Morell, who proposed a structure the newspaper described as a “great community building between the Dunwoody Institute and the Pro-Cathedral, spanning Lyndale Avenue.” The paper paraphrased Morell’s hopes: “In sinking Lyndale avenue under the building, a network of streetcar tracks lying under the structure would play a great part in solving the traffic problem.”

Imagine a huge structure in the classical style, spanning the Hennepin-Lyndale bottleneck, stretching from the current site of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to Loring Park, with traffic and streetcars funneled below. It might have been one of the more remarkable structures downtown.

It did not go forward, and this might be a blessing. Even such a grand structure as that would have been demolished when the freeway crashed through the intersection in the early 1970s.

Perhaps that’s the lesson of the planners. There will always be another set of planners who follow, eager to undo and improve. Nothing lasts forever, but you do wish that was a lament. Not an excuse.

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