Demand Good Urbanism in Downtown East

On our way to the ceremony unveiling the plan for the five-block Star Tribune property in Downtown East, my son Shaw and I got off the train at the Downtown East/Metrodome station and I was asked directions by an older couple. They were looking for Periscope, the ad agency, at 10th and Washington. Obliging, I agreed to walk with them from the platform across 4th Street, where I would point the way to Washington and bid them adieu.

We stood waiting for the Walk signal to get across 4th Street and I detected a murmur from them as nothing was happening; there was no traffic, except for the one car that had come to a stop in the crosswalk in front of us, but nobody seemed to have a green light or walk signal. But the view across surface parking lots towards the Guthrie was…a view. Great, I thought, here is someone’s first exposure to our city and it is one of crosswalk confusion and lack of urbanity.

4th Street and Chicago

Why couldn’t I be pointing them in the direction of Nicollet Mall?

Nicollet Mall

We finally crossed 4th Street, maneuvering roller bags around the car still stopped in the crosswalk. As I pointed down Chicago Avenue towards Washington, past the surface parking lots and hardscape, I detected a possibly Scandinavian accent. I asked where they were from. “Ohio,” she said. I raised my eyebrows and the man, sensing my confusion, chimed in “We’re originally from Denmark.” Ah, that’s better. I apologized for our crosswalk and lack of shade trees. They joked that Copenhagen has more bike lanes, and I sheepishly said “yeah, but we look to you for inspiration.” Not to be deterred, I encouraged them to take a stroll on the Stone Arch Bridge after their meeting at Periscope.

They went on their way, and who knows how the rest of their visit transpired. I like to think they had a pleasant time at their meeting, followed by perhaps a meal at one of our fine restaurants and show at the Guthrie. Shaw and I went to the unveiling of the Downtown East plan and I kept thinking about them and all the people who get off the train for the first time or the hundredth time and walk from the platform to the Mill District. What about them? What kind of city are we showing off to guests? What kind of city are we building for ourselves? How will that experience change in three short years when it all this new development is planned?

In an attempt to answer that question, I spent time on the Ryan Companies website looking at images and watching the “flyover” presentation on YouTube. I was shouting at my screen “go left,” “slow down,” “zoom in,” “pan down,” “focus on that streetscape,” “is that street two-way?” “oh, hell, was that a skyway?” It is hard to tell, as there is not much detail yet, but according to the plan’s timeline, if I should run in to my Ohio/Copenhagen friends on the train platform three short years from now, we’ll be looking at a decidedly different surroundings.

To our right will be a “striking” new indoor stadium that will draw crowds but not necessarily give the Vikings the necessary competitive advantage an outdoor stadium would bring to help them return to the Super Bowl. To the left will be a green space, with any luck a fully programmed park that will be the focal point of the downtown, a gathering place for all, and a crowning achievement in this public/private partnership. Possibly the crosswalk at 4th Street will be a little less confusing and more pedestrian-friendly. Across 4th will be an apartment building that fronts the 4th Street side of the easternmost Star Tribune block. As our friends from Ohio/Copenhagen walk down Chicago Avenue towards the Mill District, they’ll very likely pass under a skyway that connects a massive parking structure on that same block to another parking structure farther east, both of which are connected by skyway to the stadium. Unless some parking can be put under the new park, they will also very likely pass by that large parking structure. Maybe the streetscape along Chicago Avenue will be better, with street trees and benches, but only so much can be done to enliven a parking deck. Maybe there will be storefronts, but it is also possible that retail space won’t be viable at the street level because the skyways suck the life and customers from the street.

Maybe our friends will finish their meeting at Periscope and be intrigued enough to wander back to the Downtown East area and look around. They might walk along a pedestrian-friendly urbane street, with good commercial and residential frontage and plenty of pedestrian doors (their fellow Danish urbanist Jan Gehl would be proud). They could well pass a busker along the way, but whether that busker be leaning against the wall of a parking ramp as he wails on his saxophone remains to be seen. If they are seeking a late afternoon coffee, they may find it at street level, or perhaps it will be tucked away up on the skyway level, possibly not even open late in the day, as is often the case with many skyway-level businesses. Perhaps there will be a market event at the Armory and our friends can browse artisan crafts or sample some bacon-wrapped lutefisk on a stick. Maybe there will be a movie showing in the new park across the street. Maybe Wells Fargo employees will be emerging from work and populating the sidewalk tables facing across 4th Street to the new park. It is possible that 4th Street itself will be a safe, sane two-way street planted with trees that will provide valuable shade in a decade or so. Our friends might join others on the patio, sipping a drink and gazing across the new park at kids playing in the fountain, couples nuzzling in the glow of dusk, commuters biking across the park where Portland and Park Avenues used to run. Afterward they could grab a nightcap at a cozy wine bar in one of the new mid-block alleyways, while gazing at paintings in a small art gallery.

Star Trib 4

There is much to be resolved, as the site plan is promising but vague, but yet all of this is possible in Downtown East. Over the next few weeks and months, it will be very critical for us to demand good urbanism from the city council, Ryan Companies, CPED and ourselves. There is public financing going to this project and it will pay for parking and improving the green space to a “basic level.” I sure hope we get something in return, like an attractive public realm and an actual park with a reason to visit. We cannot afford another Gaviidae Common, City Center, Conservatory, or Block E, and we must raise the bar even above the Target corporate campus and store and even the excellent Midtown Exchange. There is much more on the line with this project.

We must have better streetscapes and fewer skyways, more pedestrian doors and no visible parking. This isn’t rocket science, it is just sensible urban values and attention to detail. A stadium, 6,000 employees, 1,700 parking spaces and a green space doesn’t guarantee good urbanism. Good sidewalks, doors, windows, crosswalks, trees, benches, activity and people do. I sincerely hope there will be a little more public vetting of this plan as it races forward to the deadline of ensuring enough parking for the Vikings on opening day 2016. The city cannot afford to “fumble” this opportunity. It costs more upfront, but the return to the private sector, public coffers and our overall enjoyment of our city will be much greater over time. But we must demand a good urban experience, not only to impress our friends from Copenhagen, but to impress ourselves.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.


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14 Responses to Demand Good Urbanism in Downtown East

  1. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel May 22, 2013 at 11:13 am #

    Those two new parking garages and the skyway are just a slap in the face of good urbanism in Downtown East. I welcome the new development and park by Ryan Co., but ease up on the parking and kill the three block long skyway connection.

  2. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg May 22, 2013 at 11:31 am #

    A number of people, including a Letter to the Editor in today’s Strib, and yours truly, are advocating for public parking under the new park. Huge opportunity I’d hate to see missed.

  3. Jeremy Bergerson May 22, 2013 at 12:31 pm #

    As a cyclist who is excited by the huge boon to north-south commuting that Park and Portland Avenues offer, I am frustrated by the potential severance of these two arteries. The loss of all-day use of Marquette & 2nd has already made commuting across Downtown from south and west of I-35 more difficult, and it would be maddening to lose Park & Portland.

    As a fan of architecture, I would prefer that the StarTribune’s moderne office building be repurposed, ideally as condos. This especially, since all the new condo construction in Minneapolis is cheap 2×4 and drywall buildings that will scarcely appreciate. We need to keep some of the more substantial structures, all the more so given the loss of historic buildings over the years. This is, after all, one of the hallmarks of historic Downtown East – historic buildings.

    And finally, how is this park supposed to harmonize with the City’s plan for a Gateway Park that would incorporate land near the library, Cancer Survivor’s Park, and the land northwest of the main post office? Do we really need so much park space? Minneapolis is already fairly scary at night, given how few people are out and about. We need a signature park downtown, to be sure, but having two doesn’t make sense. We need density in Downtown East, not some weird trend-driven nonsense.

    If Ryan can come up with something else, then so much the better, especially if it succeeds in luring Wells Fargo. But this current proposal is unacceptable.

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel May 22, 2013 at 1:07 pm #

      Jeremy – I echo your frustration with the loss of historic buildings and the closure of through streets. I think the park is compatible with no wrecking the street grid. My fingers are crossed.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke May 22, 2013 at 2:00 pm #

      I’m sort of ‘meh’ (MIMBY) on most of these parks, except for the Gateway one (which I love). This park could be half the size and just as good. The real important thing is to have buildings with people in them, sidewalks with people on them. Parks that are either jam packed or deserted depending on what day / hour / season it might be won’t do anything without the people part in place first.

      • Sam Newberg
        Sam Newberg May 22, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

        A park that is well-programmed most days of the year yet can accommodate crowds on Vikings gamedays is the hope of the city. A model like Discovery Green in Houston provides a good example – http://joe-urban.com/archive/a-bold-vision-for-a-downtown-park-and-a-more-beautiful-city/. A good downtown park is more about the programming than the design, if the object of the park is for people to use it.

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke May 22, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

          so its not the size that counts?

      • Jeremy Bergerson May 22, 2013 at 4:24 pm #

        Hear, hear!

  4. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg May 22, 2013 at 1:33 pm #

    I’d like to think two through bike lanes could be routed through the new park even if Park and Portland Avenues disappear.

    As for THE downtown park, it is a good point, the city should decide on one or the other and make it happen.

  5. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke May 22, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    A pedestrian-friendly, traffic-calmed, actually crossable Washington Avenue that didn’t feel like a freeway onramp would be nice too.

  6. Ross Williams May 22, 2013 at 2:12 pm #

    Isn’t a football stadium that will be used 8 times a year by people driving in from the suburbs a black hole for anything like “good urbanism”? If you want a good urban community, you have to design it for the people who live and work there, not for a flood of visitors who attend an event and go home to somewhere else.

    • Matt May 22, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

      While this plan isn’t perfect and you’re spot on with your analysis of where we should be investing, I just have to keep telling myself that it’s orders of magnitude better than the initial concepts of these blocks which would have been primarily tailgaiting space.

  7. Brendan May 24, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    “I’d like to think two through bike lanes could be routed through the new park even if Park and Portland Avenues disappear.”

    Echo this comment. Bike passage through the park is a good idea. This could actually reinforce the (far from perfect) bike lanes on Park and Portland, because the street grid would still be cut off, reducing car volumes. But bike could still pass through the park.

  8. Matt May 24, 2013 at 10:32 am #

    Imagining that it would be nice to focus our limited resources on creating one good walkable/bikeable urban street to connect the Mill District to Elliot Park, what would it be? Portland Ave? Seems like it is most ripe for redevelopment since it doesn’t have HCMC/parking ramps clinging to it like Park and Chicago. And, it goes through the middle of the proposed park, so it could be a great walk/bikeshed between the two neighborhoods with limited auto traffic on each end.