Timberwolves, Lynx at center of redeveloped Block E

You can't see movie stars at the Block E multiplex in downtown Minneapolis anymore, but basketball stars may soon take their place.

Building owners unveiled plans Monday to overhaul the troubled development and the centerpiece of the proposal is a new practice facility for the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Minnesota Lynx.

Block E opened to great fanfare in 2001, made possible by almost $40 million in city subsidies. Today it's mostly vacant. Just four tenants remain -- an Irish pub, a piano bar, a sandwich shop and a Starbucks. They account for about 15 percent of the sprawling building's 400,000 square feet.

Phillip Jaffe, one of the investors who took over the building in 2010, said there are lots of problems with current block E design. He said it looks too suburban for a downtown area and the layout is confusing.

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"If you're skyway level right now of Block E, how do you get down to the street? It's not crystal clear," Jaffe said. "And it's important from a landlord's perspective that we make it easy for people to find their way around. Otherwise, they don't come."

Jaffe's company, Provident Real Estate Ventures, plans to fix the layout, renovate the facade, create upscale office space, and bring in new restaurants. He said the Timberwolves and the Lynx will make that redevelopment possible by serving as "anchor tenants."

Jaffe also hopes they'll help fix another big problem with Block E: the name.

We're not going to be using the Block E name going forward. But that's how everyone refers to it today."

The name "Block E" comes from the generic way the property was listed on city maps. It was once home to a variety of seedy attractions. The city tore them all down in 1988, and it then sat as an empty lot for more than a decade. Given the failure of the current development there to blossom, the name doesn't carry many positive connotations. Jaffe said the Lynx and Timberwolves will help rebrand the property.

Rob Moor, CEO of the two basketball teams, said in a statement that the teams are "excited by the prospect of locating a new practice facility in the heart of downtown Minneapolis." But they have not signed a lease, yet.

If the proposed deal goes forward, Minneapolis could benefit in several ways. Because of the way it was originally financed, Block E has not been contributing to the city's tax base for the last decade or so. The more its property value increases, the sooner it will return to the tax rolls. The city also owns the Target Center, where the teams' practice space and corporate offices are currently located.

Freeing up some additional space a Target Center could bring new money to the city, said Jeremy Hanson Willis, the city’s community planning and economic development director.

"We haven't yet begun to think about what kind of use could fill that space, but certainly it could open up potential revenue streams," he said. "It could be a restaurant or a club or a special events space, something that could earn us more revenue than just the administrative offices of the Timberwolves currently earns."

The city and the Timberwolves would get to split that money, under the $97 million deal they struck last month to renovate Target Center.

Mayor R.T. Rybak said he's enthusiastic about the proposal to redevelop Block E. But Rybak also said the city won't rise or sink based on what happens there.

"It's one project in the middle of a downtown that has an incredible amount going on, and while it tanked, the rest of downtown was doing very well," he said. "And as it gets back on track, I think it'll join most of the rest of downtown that's working extremely well."

The redevelopment plan needs city approval. That process will likely take several months.