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.
Why couldn’t I be pointing them in the direction of 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.
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.