Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Pioneering Business, an Abandoned Riverfront Property, and Sushi

Post and photos by the Hawthorne Hawkman.

Part 2 of "More Ways to Find the River"

Did you fill out the survey yet?  Friday the 19th is the last day to tell MRDI to keep the Farview land bridge.

 As you bike from NoMi down the River to downtown, there is a nondescript, gray and brown building near the Mill Ruins Park.  Many people know it already, and probably some don't.  One of my neighbors called it to my attention as we were discussing opportunities for development along the Mississippi.  He was so specific in his description of the building that he had me convinced I knew which one it was.  Eventually I had to admit I had no clue what he was referring to.

So I went out for some sushi.

The Fuji-Ya site along the river is now owned by the Park Board.  It's been sitting vacant for decades, we (as in our local government) have site control, and it sits on a key part of the riverfront.  Being north of the Stone Arch Bridge, it was within the geographic area set out by the Mississippi Riverfront Design Initiative.  So why wasn't it included in the lead proposal?  Surely something must be afoot, we thought.

In conversations with some of the planners, we found we were only half right.  The Fuji-Ya site was left out of the design because there have already been some plans in the works for it, and because the group wanted to focus on areas of the Mississippi farther north and outside of downtown.

A brief history of Fuji-Ya is in order, but first, about that order of sushi...

...I'll admit that I'm not terribly experienced in the nuances of what makes one kind of sushi better than another, other than the simple test of "I put it in my mouth and I liked it."  But I am somewhat of a connoisseur of spices.  So when the wasabi and ginger were set down before me, I immediately popped a morsel of the green stuff without waiting for the sushi.  Their wasabi goes straight for the nasal passages and is easily the most potent I can remember trying.  But the spicy impact dissipates almost immediately.  (Sapporo beer helps in this regard.)

I ordered the wasabi crunchy, as that had some serrano peppers in the mix as well.  The combination of the slow build of serranos with the quick hit of the wasabi made for an excellent combination of spiciness.  In short, I put it in my mouth and I liked it.  The eight-piece roll was surprisingly filling and the hot sake made for a perfect conclusion to the meal.  In my limited experience, this may just be the best sushi I've ever had.

While I ate, I spoke with a waitress who worked at the original restaurant along the river.  She told me how everyone told the owner how crazy she was to buy anything on the waterfront.  Nobody was there except factories and robbers.  People wouldn't come to a restaurant in such a bad spot and she would go out of business.  Instead, as we know, Fuji-Ya flourished, and the waitress remembered fondly how wonderful it was to work at a destination with such a great view of the water.

We couldn't speak for too long; she had other tables to serve on a busy night, but my neighbor did some digging for me and came up with some of the history of Fuji-Ya.  The Star Tribune has a quick and easy-to-read timeline posted here.

We went and took pictures of the building by the river as well.

The building sits atop an old mill that goes three or four stories down.  It's my understanding that the mill underneath is considered part of the Mill City area historic district.
These mirror the stone arch bridge and while they need shoring up, should be kept intact.

Adding some planned landscaping and gardening would be gorgeous here.

Ironically, one of the reasons that Fuji-Ya was condemned in the first place may have had to do with a lack of parking.
I'm standing at one end of the parking lot, with my friend between the two doors.

Another few spaces put the total up to roughly thirty spots on site, not to mention nearby parking meters and garages.
On top of having a great view, it's clear that the majority of passersby access the area by foot and bike.
In spite of the location not being prominently featured in the winning design proposal, one of the competitors did focus on the Fuji-Ya site.  While the building does exhibit signs of deterioration due to water damage, that damage happened because the Park Board has failed to properly maintain a building that they own.  And the architects in this proposal do state their belief that "In general, the building is judged to be in a structural condition that would allow adaptive reuse after incorporating structural repairs and replacement at some areas."

A "Pottery Barn rule" of sorts should apply here.  Instead of "you break it, you buy it," we ought to tell the building's current owners, "You bought it, you broke it, now fix it."  According to the Minneapolis Park Watch, there is at least some hope that this could happen.

The Fuji-Ya building may not yet be considered Historic with a capital H, but given time, it very well could be.  The building housed a business by a pioneering minority woman business owner, and the historic contributions of women and minorities in Minneapolis are woefully under-recognized.  Japanese architect Shinichi Okada contributed to the design as well.

In twenty years, thirty, fifty, what will be the architecture we consider historic?  What personal and cultural contributions to our city will be part of the memories we wish to preserve?  Which ones will already be lost to the current predisposition towards demolition?  The Fuji-Ya site deserves restoration because of the under-appreciated contributions of women and minorities and because the architecture and design have strong potential for historic designation in their own right.

Given the litigious and sensitive nature of the site, the topic of exactly how to do this should be carefully and considerately dealt with.  Like the Spirit Island portion of the current design initiative proposal, the exact way in which the site is addressed ought to be left to those directly affected by its loss - the original owners and perhaps a broader segment of the Asian-American community of Minneapolis.  I can't even imagine how difficult it would be for the Weston family to see the site restored.  The vindication that the Fuji-Ya site has incomparable value may come too little, too late.  Too late is still, however, better than never.


  1. prepare to lose consciousness...

  2. Good blog post. I predict it will get picked up by Twin Cities Daily Planet in 3...2...1...

  3. I initially rejected a comment because it violated my somewhat stringent and admittedly arbitrary criteria for publication. I can't "un-delete" it on blogger, but I can cut and paste the email notification. Here is the comment, unedited.

    "Since you are not from here, you clearly do not know your history. The Fuji-Ya site was used by the Park Board as office space for many years, and has not been vacant for decades, It has only been vacant for less then 10 years. And since Johnny Northside is not a Minneapolis native he doesn't know anything either."

    Well, the Downtown Journal did a recent story on the Fuji-Ya site. In that article, they say "The Fuji Ya site has been vacant since 1990."

    So yes, the building has been vacant for decades.

  4. It looks like the city screwed this lady and while she shared your desire for more parking, she lost.

  5. Your prediction was right on, John. The article did get picked up by the TC Daily Planet.

  6. I used to love taking dates to the Fuji-Ya because it's location made it adventuresome and the cooking style and management made the experience elegant. I was sorry when they left that location. What was the name of that nightclub next to the Fuji-Ya with all the interconnected rail cars and love seats. Another great place! Across the river was Guadalaharry's too. This was way before raw fish became popular-lol.

  7. Nick Halter's information is incorrect. The Fuji Ya moved out 21 years ago in 1990. The Park Board used it for offices until it was going to be turned into condos. It has not been vacant since 1990, and the MPRB held numerous staff and planning meetings there over the years.

  8. Please reference specific information to back up that claim. Based on all available infrmation, the statements I have made (and re-verified) in this post are factually correct. I will, however, edit the post if it is documented that I was wrong.


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