Riverside Plaza — history in the (re)making


Of all the landmarks in Minneapolis—from the Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture to Minnehaha Falls, the Stone Arch Bridge or the Basilica of St. Mary—few are as poorly understood or generate as much debate as Riverside Plaza.  Encompassing several city blocks in the Cedar-Riverside area, Riverside Plaza is a set of high-rise residential towers, built in the early 1970s, that has created its own distinct micro-community of several thousand residents within its walls.  Many know the area to be the center of the Somali and East African community in Minnesota, but what is often lost is an understanding of that community—and this place—within the broader history of Minneapolis. 

Minnesota Beginnings

In many ways, the story of the Riverside Plaza area is the story of Minneapolis. Settlement of the area began in the 1850s, as the first mills were built near the St. Anthony Falls area, harnessing the area’s water power to process flour, lumber and textiles.  With the growth of industry came a growing demand for workers, which was largely supplied by new immigrant migration to the area.  German, Norwegian, Swedish and Czech laborers traveled to the area to work in the mills, and built their own squatter communities on the nearby Mississippi River banks, a short distance from where they worked.  The first of these communities took root on the east side of the river—then known as the village of St. Anthony, occupying the area now known generally as “St. Anthony Main”—and later spilled over to the area just to the east of downtown, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Many of the immigrants lived in the Bohemian Flats which were just below Riverside Park and in the area near today’s Washington Avenue bridge. In 1867 the city of Minneapolis was incorporated, with these first migrant groups among the first residents.

High-rise ghettos or urban villages?
Are the Riverside Plaza and Seward high-rise apartment complexes, home to low-income residents for more than 35 years, “beyond merely shabby” and filled with crime? Or are they “a vital and fascinating mix of cultures … a series of villages in the city with the opportunity to begin life in the United States among one’s countrymen?” Our series highlights concerns and facts, featuring the voices and stories of people who live and work in the communities. Click here for links to all of the articles in the series.


FULL DISCLOSURE: Justin Elston is a current Public Policy student at the University of Minnesota, located on the West Bank, and a student in the Cedar Humphrey Action for Neighborhood Collaborative Engagement (CHANCE) capstone course, which seeks to take part in community-based research within the Cedar-Riverside community.

Writer’s Note: I am indebted to the work of Judith A. Martin, whose book “Recycling the Central City: The Development of a New Town-In Town” was crucial in writing this article.

Over time, the city expanded, with new immigrant groups replacing earlier immigrant communities, and new housing and industrial development further fueling growth in Minneapolis outward from its downtown core by the river.  As the city expanded, the housing in these first immigrant communities slowly aged, in some cases suffering under the proximity to river flooding, lower quality building materials, and neglect.  By the 1930s, the housing in the Cedar-Riverside area was listed as some of the most dilapidated in Minneapolis, and a nascent sense that the area needed redevelopment began to take hold among city planners.  Plans for redevelopment, however, were opposed by neighborhood groups when they arose in the 1950s, beginning a pattern that would repeat itself again and again within the neighborhood.

Development Begins

In the 1960s, a variety of changes took place in the Cedar-Riverside area that coalesced to make the Riverside Plaza area a reality. In 1962, Martin Segal, a Minneapolis doctor, and his wife Gloria began buying up small parcels of land in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood as a part of their personal investment strategy, under the advice they received from Keith Heller, a lecturer at the University of Minnesota’s School of Business.  

The 1960s also saw the University of Minnesota begin construction of its West Bank expansion, becoming a dominant entity in the neighborhood, along with Fairview Hospital and Augsburg College.  Along with the University’s expansion, Interstate highways 35W and 94 added to the area’s construction boom, which served to separate the area into a more defined triangle, bordered by the two highways on the west and south, and the Mississippi river to the northeast.  Eventually, the Segals’ relatively simple investment strategy began to change into an increasingly complex development plan, and their land acquisitions grew to encompass much of the Cedar-Riverside area not controlled by the large institutional residents, within the increasingly boxed-in neighborhood.

During the 60s, the population of the area fell, mostly due to the University’s expansion, which displaced a sizable amount of residential housing stock.  The Seagals believed that what was needed in the area was a dramatic redevelopment plan, one that would meet the needs of the large community of students and employees who studied and worked in the three dominant neighborhood institutions. Their planning efforts eventually led them to Ralph Rapson, a professor of architecture at the University of Minnesota. He helped develop the architectural designs that would eventually become Riverside Plaza.

The plans as originally developed were notable for a variety of things that bear little resemblance to the Riverside Plaza of today.  First, the original plan called for the Riverside Plaza area to be only the first phase in a multi-phase project that would encompass around 100 acres of land, and almost all of the neighborhood.  The buildings were designed to contain housing for a wide variety of income types, from large, luxury apartments that had access to saunas and indoor swimming pools, to more affordable middle-income units, as well as a number of low-income housing apartments.  The concept, known as “New Town in Town” was supposed to be a model for how communities could be developed to allow a large number of people to live together in dense communities, but without creating the kinds of concentrated urban poverty that usually accompanies dense urban housing.  The architecture of the buildings themselves, designed in the “modernist” tradition, was meant to convey a sense of something futuristic and utopian. That’s a feeling that many today, looking at modernist architecture, would have difficulty believing.

Whatever the designers’ original intent, Riverside Plaza has found a life as something much closer to the historic neighborhood that it displaced than the utopia the Segals envisioned.  

Early residents were indeed people who studied and worked in the area, but over time the Plaza became home to the same population that it housed 100 years earlier—immigrant groups.  

Beginning in the late 1970s, an influx of Vietnamese immigrants moved into the Riverside Plaza, adding to the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood’s cultural mix and population density.  Over time, that population followed a basic pattern of immigrant settlement trends, where the first generations of an immigrant group form a tightly-knit, densely located community, and subsequent generations begin to move out from that original neighborhood core.  

This pattern began to repeat itself in the 1990s. Civil unrest in Somalia and East Africa forced an exodus of immigrants and refugees to leave their native countries. Some moved into Riverside Plaza, following much the same patterns as the Vietnamese had several decades earlier, and Scandinavian and Irish immigrants had a hundred years prior to that.

Housing Redevelopment Planning Today in Riverside Plaza

The Riverside Plaza neighborhood today is wrestling with many of the same issues that the neighborhood had wrestled with 60 years earlier — aging housing, a boom in transportation construction, and a population struggling to maintain its identity in the face of change.  The Riverside Plaza buildings, now 35 years old, need substantial repairs to continue functioning.  The Plaza community—now largely East African in make-up—has become an important voice in the planning discussions surrounding this rehabilitation project, slated to begin in early 2011.

On October 13th, a community meeting was convened by Minneapolis City Council member Cam Gordon at the Brian Coyle Community Center in Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.  At that meeting, members of the City of Minneapolis’ Department of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) and the owner of Riverside Plaza, George Sherman, presented a draft of the agreement between the Plaza owner and the City on how to move forward with the rehabilitation project.  

The draft plan as discussed at that meeting — though by no means finalized — contained a wide range of project items, under the broad headings of Public Safety, Jobs, Infrastructure Improvements, Community Space, and Health and Welfare of Tenants During Construction, with two related initiatives included in an Other section.  The meeting, well attended by the local East African community, highlighted both the areas of agreement within the Plaza and surrounding area, as well as a variety of issues on which members of the community disagree vigorously.

While the details of the plan have yet to be finalized, what is clear is that the size of the final proposal will be large—current estimates place the project at $52 million—and is set to be paid for by a mix of public and private funds, including borrowing Community Development Block Grant Funds from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, borrowing against City of Minneapolis Housing Revenue Bonds, grant funding from Hennepin County, and a variety of private borrowing and funding from Sherman Associates.

These rehabilitation proposals, and the funding commitment associated with them, continue a larger trend that Riverside Plaza has been a part of since its inception.  The Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is designed as a place for change to take place. Students, immigrants, patients—each group finds a home in the neighborhood for as long as they need, adding distinct cultures to the mix, and to the history of the area.  In this context, Riverside Plaza is much less an apartment complex than a monument to the city that came before us, and the city that we will try to grow for the future.

Coverage of issues of race and race relations, cultural diversity and immigrant health issues is funded in part by a grant from the F.R. Bigelow Foundation.