It was a historic, but ugly corner.
Well, almost historic. It was home to the first Best Buy store, and that has to count for something.
But why was the corner so ugly? The reason most commercial corners look ugly: There was no particular need for beauty.
Most suburban intersections have a collection of useful businesses — a fast-food outlet, a tire store, a mattress store, a small strip mall with a phone store and the obligatory chain coffee shop. What distinguishes one from the other is whether the Taco Bell is on the west side or the east.
So why is the corner of 66th Street and York Avenue S. in Edina worth noting? Because it’s transforming itself. It’s becoming more dense and more interesting.
If you were to stand in the middle of the street and do a slow 360-degree turn, you’d get a nice lesson in the history of suburban architecture. (You’d probably get hit by a car, though. So just read this and be safe.)
The northwest corner of the intersection has two 1970s-style office towers, each regrettable in its own way. The 3250 Professional Building is white with a gray mansard roof — the heavy, overhanging type overused in the 1970s. The Titus Building is a six-story tower that bulges out on top as if it’s the command center for a vigilant group of crime-fighting executives who must monitor the Southdale area 24/7. Or 9 to 5.
It’s the lawns that make these two buildings what I call the Mature Early Suburban style. In cities, office buildings are part of a hard, inorganic world; brick and glass and marble arrayed along concrete sidewalks. But the sylvan fields of Mature Early suburbia offered big expanses of green grass, just like the homes where their workers lived. It was a visual cue that everything was more relaxed, more friendly in suburban offices.
Across the street to the east lies Southdale Square, a relic of the postwar inner-burb strip mall. It’s been refreshed over the years as anchor tenants move in and out. One of the strip mall’s additions, likely from the ’90s, terminates in a rotunda. The addition has a decorative arch that serves no structural purpose, but the pediment (that’s the triangular rooflike shape at the top of the arch) gives it some historical class. Since there’s no similar architecture in the neighborhood, however, it’s just an empty gesture. A yawner, like most suburban strip-mall additions.
Until last year, that mishmash of buildings made up the corner of York and 66th. It got worse when the Best Buy was leveled after years of vacancy, and the southwest corner was nothing more than a parking lot.
Then two projects were announced. Homewood Suites by Hilton, proposed in early 2016, isn’t finished, but the exterior — rote-rustic faux stone and siding, the standard 2018 suburban style — is complete. Its four stories rise directly from the street instead of hanging back behind a parking lot.
Across the street, on the southeast side of the intersection, Doran Developments is constructing a five-story apartment building. Like the Hilton, it comes right up to the street. When it’s done, the two buildings will give the intersection a sense of place, a hefty, solid presence instead of an expanse of nothingness.
It might even be vibrant.
That’s the overused new-urbanist term. Vibrant! It means people walking around looking in store windows, or sitting outside drinking white wine. An article announcing the project said the Hilton hotel would “include a central gathering area called The Lodge — a highly visible amenity designed to ‘engage’ the sidewalk along 66th Street.” Meaning, the corner will look better as you drive past.
And that’s no small thing.
The problem with nearby France Avenue is the lack of visual engagement. The office buildings sit far back from the street, castles behind a moat of asphalt. It’s eminently practical, the lots tell you there’s parking here, and plenty of it. Since the area grew up around the car, it makes sense to assure users that the buildings will accommodate them.
When the office buildings on France age out, they’ll be replaced with new buildings, and the parking lots will go in the back. In 25 years, it’s possible that taller buildings will line the street, and it’ll look like a shiny new downtown.
The change on France will be gradual, but the change at 66th and York is happening now.
What was just another commercial intersection will soon be lit up with a hundred windows, each one signifying someone who doesn’t just pass through but has come to stay.
It might be just a matter of time before the rest of the corner follows suit.
James Lileks • 612-673-7858