It is difficult to review an ordinary new building without sounding like a parent whose child brings home an underwhelming second-grade art project. You want to be encouraging. My, that's really something! You certainly put a lot of work into that.
A skyscraper is not an art project, though. It is a machine for generating income. But we expect a tall tower to be a good neighbor, an interesting addition to the skyline. At best it could be something that defines the town, or at least a downtown neighborhood.
The Wells Fargo towers in Downtown East, for example, are perfectly fine examples of safe corporate architecture, and they form an attractive, symmetrical wall that serves as a backdrop for the Commons park. The new apartments on Hennepin and Washington — one 22-story structure finished at 270 Hennepin, the Washington Avenue-oriented mate now under construction — are also ordinary designs, but they will work well to anchor the intersection and form an entrance to Hennepin.
And that brings us to the RBC Gateway, the new tall tower on the south side of the Henn-Wash intersection.
It's really something! They certainly put a lot of work into that!
Before we consider the building just finished, consider where it is.
The site had been empty since 1991, when the Nicollet Hotel was clawed to rubble. It was a parking lot for decades, a sad patch. A newcomer would look at the area and never know that it was once the showpiece of downtown. A big, proud hotel and the Gateway park with its classical pavilion once defined the space and greeted those crossing the Mississippi into downtown. But no evidence of that marvelous tableau had existed for a long, long time.
We always knew the site wouldn't be fallow forever. Something would sprout. The only question was whether we'd get something grand and great, or something rote. The city of Minneapolis asked for proposals in the early years of the previous decade, and four were released to the public.
The Duval Group submitted a blue-glass slab whose most notable feature was its height: 80 stories. A timeless, spare monolith that would rule the skyline! Nixed.
Doran Development turned in a circular tower distinguished by an interesting crown; it wouldn't have been an eye-popper by day, but the lighting in the evening would've added a visual anchor to the end of Nicollet Mall.
Mortenson, another developer, proposed a 31-story building that curved at the Hennepin-Washington intersection.
The winning design was from United Properties. It was a compromise between "interesting" and "safe" — the tower looked like two buildings welded together, with each tower jutting out a bit at intervals, like blocks stacked by a patient toddler. The tweaks made the towers look less boring. The proposal included a lower-slung building on the 3rd Street S. side, and a broad park facing Nicollet. It even had a streetcar line cutting across the park, heading under the building.
All in all, completely acceptable. Nice job!
Then, nothing. According to Star Tribune stories in 2014 about the competition, construction was supposed to begin in 2016. It didn't happen. In 2018, United came back with a new design — not tweaked, but overhauled. Gone were the irregular facades; now it looked like any other office tower from the past 30 years. The glass was blue, with icier blue accents that kept it from being a monotone slab. You might not have thought it was the most imaginative building ever proposed, but unlike some outre designs intended to shock, it would probably age well.
In the final product, the balconies on the upper floor have been moved around. The massing has shifted; it has an asymmetry at the top that steps down as if intending to honor the Washington-Hennepin intersection, but it's insufficiently scaled, and looks like a little cocked hat on a tall man. The midsection has a box hanging off the main tower, which looks like it's wearing a backpack.
You hate to say that a new 37-story tower anchoring a landmark site is OK, but it's not a knockout. As a new member of the city's Blue Glass Skyscraper club, it's better than the Campbell Mithun Tower at 222 S. 9th, which was described years ago as "an accountant in a party hat." It's more aesthetically cohesive than the LaSalle Plaza, which mixes blue glass and Kasota stone in a fashion not to everyone's liking. It's not as interesting as the RBC Plaza (60 S. 6th), with its different hues and classic skyscraper setbacks.
It's not even in the same league as the IDS, the most perfect glass skyscraper ever designed, or the Wells Fargo Tower — Cesar Pelli's homage to Rockefeller Center. It lacks the Capella Tower's fascinating aggregation of shapes or bright crown.
The public spaces are bright and spacious. The lobby has a fine view of the Mall and the Northwestern Life Building. No other building on this site was ever so open to its surroundings. The view from the building is more interesting than the view of it, but that's often the case.
Midblock, there's a curved front that looks as if it should be a grand entrance into an atrium. It's not. The second floor of the building on the Nicollet Mall side is given to the skyway, a generous gift, a new view of the Mall from above.
Half of the view, alas, is a parking lot. You wonder how long that parcel will lie fallow, and what might someday rise to meet the RBC Gateway. You hope it'll be something that soars and stirs the spirit.
But for now, it's good to have the graveyard of the Nicollet Hotel finally filled, with people working in spaces in the sky that never existed before. It's fine! And you know they put a lot of work into it.