3 Questions that Need to be Answered About The Yard & Ryan Co’s Downtown East Project

 “The Yard”



The proposed $400 million East Downtown corporate Wells Fargo office, housing, retail, parking and park complex being proposed by Ryan Development is chugging along, having just received unanimous support from the Minneapolis Planning Commission. At the center of this project – literally and figuratively – is “The Yard” a two block (likely separated by a county road), 4.2 acre park space that is described on Ryan Co’s website as a “world-class urban park/plaza that serves as the ‘front yard’ to the new stadium”.

It will be just like Bryant Park! … right?

I having been to a few presentations regarding this development, there is a lot of talk about how The Yard will be just like Bryant Park in New York City. Wow, that sounds fantastic. As someone who used to live in New York I love Bryant Park, there are so many things to see, do, experience – and it’s so well managed. And the thing about Bryant Park is that it has always been awesome and a huge asset to the surrounding neighborhood because that is what parks always do.

Wait hold on, that last part is not actually true.

Bryant Park, 1970 (City Journal)

Bryant Park, 1970 (City Journal)

During the 1970s and 80s Bryant Park was a hub of drug dealing, crime, and in one case murder. It was still in the same place, with the same general design – but there was a critical difference: there was no effective management. In response to the precipitous decline of the park, the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation was established as a business improvement district (BID) to oversee a basic redesign of the park, but more importantly manage and program the space going forward. Under the leadership of Dan Biederman the new organization made sure that the park was well cared for, well funded, and well programmed. Since re-opening in the early 1990s it has emerged into what it is today: one of the best managed, most used and beloved parks in the world.

Bryant Park today

Bryant Park today

Two critical lessons of Bryant Park for The Yard

As someone who used to work for a former lieutenant of the Bryant Park Corporation and now owns a business that transforms and activates underused space, the lessons for The Yard are clear:

  1. Well capitalized management of the space is required
  2. Downtown parks must be programmed with daily activities (they cannot be treated like neighborhood parks that happen to be located downtown)

For an example of what happens when you have neither of these elements, look no further than the state of Peavey Plaza today.

3 Questions that need to be answered

So despite all the talk about how The Yard is going to be the centerpiece of the transformation of East Downtown, how is the new park going to be financed? Ryan Co.’s website states “(the) City of Minneapolis would purchase land and develop to basic level. Can be developed for more active uses.”

Under the current proposal, Ryan Co. would acquire the park land, demo the buildings, do site remediation, install irrigation, seed the land, and put in perimeter lighting, sidewalks and some trees. In essence a flat Gold Medal Park. The City and others have to raise additional funds to make The Yard a real attraction though. The real issue is that raising capital to build shiny new things is always the easy part, but securing a steady stream of unsexy operating dollars much less so. If the public is on the hook for this thing we need answers on the long term stewardship of The Yard.

Citizens of this city, Wells Fargo leaders and employees, and all interested parties need to know the answers to these questions. They are not merely details, but legs on a stool that will determine whether The Yard truly becomes an asset or liability for the city and region:

  1. Who is going to own the park?
  2. Who is going to be responsible for its management?
  3. What are the funding sources for the park’s ongoing maintenance and programming?

We need to know.

Max Musicant

About Max Musicant

Max is the owner and Principal of The Musicant Group (www.musicantgroup.com) - a placemaking advisory firm dedicated to "Creating Great Places for People". The firm combines urban planning, design, and business management strategies to create on-going systems that improve public spaces for visitors, tenants, residents, and owners. He holds a BA from the University of Wisconsin and an MBA from the Yale School of Management

18 thoughts on “3 Questions that Need to be Answered About The Yard & Ryan Co’s Downtown East Project

  1. shane morin

    Great points, Max. We need to know that this place is not going to be ignored after it’s built. We also need to know that life AROUND the park will be hopping. Right now the area is still pretty barren with parking lots taking up most of the space (or so it seems). Apartments are popping up, but if Downtown East wants to be a vibrant place with the Yard being a destination park, we need to see a lot of people moving into the area. Part of the planned development includes office towers and an apartment building, but premiere addition is, of course, going to be a stadium used only a handful of times a year with accompanying parking ramp. Sure, people work around here, but what happens after 5? If there aren’t enough “eyes on the street” or in this case, park, it could become a shady place come sundown (apologies for the pun). I feel like Jane Jacobs is still the standard-bearer on parks and if I remember correctly what she said was focused on, for a park to be successful, there need to be people around on a consistent basis. It’s a start, but it can only be the very, very beginning for this whole thing to work right.

    1. Adam MillerAdam

      Agreed. And what concerns me on that front is not so much the stadium on one end (which will be in use more than a handful of times a year, but most of those events don’t draw many people). It’s the other two sides, which include the county jail, the empty armory, a parking structure and what appear to be low-traffic office buildings housing part of the Strib and some government offices. We need a redevelopment plan for the south side of the park too.

      That said, even a less than effective park is likely an improvement over the existing surface parking lots.

  2. Max MusicantMax Musicant Post author

    Both good points. While the addition of so many office workers and residents may seem like a lot, if you figure that at most 1% of adjacent users will be in the park at any one time (and I think that is being optimistic) than you get:
    – 60-80 people at any one point during weekdays
    – 2-20 people at any one point on non gameday weekends

    At the optimistic end, 80 people in a 4.2 acre park comes out to 2,000+ square feet per user. This is FAR short from what is needed to make it feel vibrant and safe. 300 feet per person is a healthy amount, which would require 600 people to be in the park ALL THE TIME (sorry for so many ALL CAPS).

    The only way that the park will be a success then is if it draws at least 500 people from different areas to the park every hour (thus, around 5,000 per day and 1,750,000 per year) – which I am not sure even Lake Harriet or the Stone Arch Bridge does. It can be done, but only with proper programming and management – which as my post notes, has been sorely neglected to date.

  3. B. Aaron Parker

    Max Musicant’s three questions are absolutely right. Developers who stand to benefit from the presence of their buildings surrounding an urban park, need to step up and fund the park or participate in the creation and maintenance of an entity charged with maintenance, programming and renewal of that park. Musicant is correct in his earlier bullet points as well. Downtown parks such as Bryant Park, Paley Park, Channel Gardens and the Ice Rink at Rockefeller Center all require the following:
    1. Well capitalized management of the space is required
    2. Downtown parks must be programmed with daily activities (they cannot be treated like neighborhood parks that happen to be located downtown)

    That said, design is absolutely crucial to the success of all of those parks and will be essential for the Yard as well.

    I lived in New York before, during and after the transformation of Bryant Park and observed the transformation. The renovations were NOT minor design changes. Prior to its renaissance, one could not see into the park; it was difficult to access but easy for nefarious lookouts to monitor police movements and easy for perps to exit and avoid arrest; it was unwelcoming and dangerous; it was elevated well above the street and eye level and it was dark, dirty and poorly laid out; foliage provided cover illegal deeds instead of enhancement to public space. The new design widened access and views into the park; made the stairs easier to scale and made them places in themselves; enhanced the relationship to the New York Public Library and all of the surrounding streets; it created focal points and places to focus from and places to simply retreat from the hubbub of the City. The renovations deeded the park back to its citizens.

    But, as Max says, without the intense and full schedule of programming (which itself is quite lucrative for Bryant Park), it would not be as civicly or economically successful as it is. If the redesign reclaimed the space for the people, the programming ensured that it stayed theirs.

    Likewise, the space currently containing the Ice Rink at Rockefeller Center was a dismal windswept, leaf/dirt/wrapper-catcher of a space for decades before it was redesigned, reconceived and reprogrammed into its successful form.

    The Yard is unlike the three examples above in several important ways:
    1) at 4.2 acres, it is considerably larger.
    2) it is bisected by traffic so it will have, at the very least, two centers, which will complicate the perception of what it is. I defer to Max regarding the programming challenges this may cause.
    3) Location, location, location must be taken into account in the hyperbolic comparisons with its New York counterparts. The Yard is anchored by a football stadium, not
    a) 30 Rock & Fifth Avenue across the street from Sak’s Fifth Avenue and St Patrick’s Cathedral
    b) the New York Public Library (also on Fifth Avenue) and a stone’s throw from Times Square.
    4) Finally, and here’s the real wild card: The other examples are all compact URBAN PARKS in a very densely populated urban city where people know how to use urban parks. Minneapolis is a city of parks as “greenswards”. If we are a pedestrian city, it is because we walk with purpose and/or stroll in our parks, not so much on our streets. We travel in circuits around our parks. The Yard will be a different sort of park that we may not be very used to and will have to learn how to use.

    Minneapolitans are proud not to be New Yorkers. They are not quite ready for a Bryant Park. But fortunately, The Yard cannot possibly be Bryant Park. If that is so, then designers had better figure out what it should be.

  4. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of criticism of Bryant Park and the way its privatized by its programming on a regular basis. Good example is when a tent takes the area over during Fashion Week… What are your thoughts on this?

    A counterexample to Bryant is Washington Square, which isn’t programmed with daily activities, is it? Things just happen there… Or do they? I don’t know. I’d bet that the fountain performers need permits, or there’s some sort of hidden order to how that kind of interaction occurs.

    Still, your points about density are very good ones. Downtown Saint Paul’s two parks might be good cases, too, where you have some (but not much) residential density and (some of the day) office workers… I think they work OK. (They’re smaller, though.) I think they’re both better public spaces than Chicago’s Millenium Park (for example) large parts of which often seem like an unused event center the times I’ve been there.

    Good questions! More reason we shouldn’t rush this deal through before the next mayor/ council takes over: (see today’s Strib story http://t.co/yokkXAEPzl)

    1. Adam MillerAdam

      These are good questions, but I’m not sure they are reasons for delay. They are questions about how to make the most of the proposal, but they really don’t do anything to make the proposal worse than the status quo.

      The existing surface parking lots and half (or more?) empty newspaper office are worse than a park that may not be fully utilized.

      And as I think about it some more, Gold Medal Park and the City Hall Plaza are neither continuously programmed nor haven for criminal activity. The Yard will have similar proximity to law enforcement to the plaza, which should help too. And given that there isn’t a much housing nearby, it will also be a rather out of the way spot to set up your criminal activities.

  5. Max MusicantMax Musicant Post author

    Totally agree Bill. Sometimes in Bryant Park it can feel like there is TOO much going on. That said, they kicked out Fashion Week (and sacrificed a lot of rental fees) for the very reason that it diminished the public’s enjoyment of the space.

    As for Washington Square Park – it is not really programmed, but it is managed by the NY Parks Department. One reason that it is so active is that it serves as the “quad” for NYU and is one of the few parks in the densely populated West Village area.

    I also agree that Mears and Rice function better than many parts of Millenium – whose activity is mostly concentrated along its Michigan Avenue edge. Size is a critical element – the bigger the space, the more people you need. The Yard will be much larger and in a worse location that Rice and Mears – which makes its programming and management (hopefully by a publicly accountable non profit or governmental body) that much more important.

  6. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Max and the commenters so far raise some good points. Sure, this isn’t New York, but if Minneapolis had a proper, programmed downtown park, we’d use it properly. After all, Cincinnati has done just that with Fountain Square – http://myfountainsquare.com/.

    When I think about Fountain Square, I imagine what Block E could have been had it been a park. This is not to browbeat past city councils for creating today’s Block E, but to consider what a great location for a park Block E would have been – only one block in size rather than The Yard’s two-plus, and surrounded by activity with the Target Center and First Avenue, the entrance to Target Field and generally the midway point between the office core and the Warehouse District – in other words, a perfect place to attract the numbers of people Max is getting at. So yes, Minneapolis really screwed up by not putting a park at Block E. Even Rice Park, lined by the Ordway, Landmark Center, St. Paul Hotel, library, and co close to the office core, works really well and hosts events in all seasons.

    So where does that leave us? The scale of The Yard only really works well on a Vikings gameday or if there is a Dave Matthews Band concert. Its large two-block size, bisected by Portland Avenue, oriented towards the stadium, is not very compelling. Don’t get me wrong, this park could be great, but it feels like it will require a herculean task to do so. Then again, Discovery Green in Houston didn’t need to happen, but it did and it is great, but it took great effort and dollars.

    The problem, when you back up and look at this from afar, is the park was not the driving force in this process. The VISION wasn’t for a park. In fact, there was no vision at all, only a decision that the Vikings Stadium would be downtown and it needed parking. the city’s Downtown East plan only hints at open space. That the Star Tribune is willing to sell their land was only a matter of time and only by chance was Wells Fargo looking for a large amount of office space. The park feels like an afterthought and a selling point for Vikings fans. As currently planned, it is far from an asset.

    So, to answer your questions Max. I don’t know. I don’t know and I don’t know. Where is the Minneapolis Park Board in all this?The silver lining is minimal investment now in the park with the Ryan plan could be helpful in the long run. The stadium and Wells Fargo and apartment buildings could get built, and allow a longer time to assess the best design and funding sources for the park. Let’s leave that to the next city council and mayor.

  7. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    A couple thoughts:
    1) Max, you’re presenting some pretty ambitious numbers for what it will take for a park to be a success, but then you also admit that even the Stone Arch doesn’t draw this many users. Does anyone consider Stone Arch a failure as a park because it doesn’t draw the number of users you’re recommending?

    2) Likewise, has Gold Medal Park (which I assume doesn’t draw anywhere near this number of users either) taught us anything about urban parks in downtown? GMP isn’t a great example of what urban parks should look like, but it hasn’t deteriorated into burning barrels yet either.

    3) How do Rice Park and Mears Park in downtown Saint Paul compare in terms of numbers? Are they good examples of urban parks?

    4) Lastly, can someone clarify for me exactly what the Ryan Companies proposal for The Yard actually is? It sounds like Ryan’s plan is for the City to buy, develop, & maintain the park with all funding coming from the City. In what way is Ryan actually contributing to the park (other than generously gracing us with their new buildings across the street)? It seems like the park and the Ryan development do not have to be a package deal, as much as Ryan and the Vikings would want us to believe otherwise.

      1. Adam MillerAdam

        Looking at the plans some more, I guess the biggest thing that gives me pause is giving up yet another block to an above ground parking structure. If I had my way, no new above ground parking would be allowed in the city, as a parking ramp is almost as dead a spot in the city as a surface parking lot.

        Alas, I’m not going to get my way.

    1. Max MusicantMax Musicant Post author

      Reuben, after doing a bit more research, here is what Ryan will contribute towards the development of The Yard (which I have also updated in the post itself):
      “Under the current proposal, Ryan Co. would acquire the park land, demo the buildings, do site remediation, install irrigation, seed the land, and put in perimeter lighting, sidewalks and some trees. In essence a flat Gold Medal Park. The City and others have to raise additional funds to make The Yard a real attraction though. The real issue is that raising capital to build shiny new things is always the easy part, but securing a steady stream of unsexy operating dollars much less so. If the public is on the hook for this thing we need answers on the long term stewardship of The Yard.”

      As for whether other parks are not a success or not based on usage – I think that is a multifold question. Good parks draw people in part because they are good. Bad parks don’t draw people because something is wrong, some combination of: management, design, location, amenities, crime, etc. This is also all relative, so smaller places are not expected to be as big of draws. My thoughts on Stone Arch, Mears, Rice, and GMP is that they are all fine, but are not anywhere close to meeting their full potential.

  8. Richard Nelson

    One solution for pulling people into the park, from May to October, anyway, is to include in its design the ability for food trucks to make best use of the surrounding sidewalks.

    1. Erica M

      I had the same question about food. I didn’t catch how big this county road might be, but if food trucks can park along that street, even just on one side, that’d be great. Does it make sense to have a seasonal restaurant open at one end (a la Tin Fish, Bread & Pickle, Sea Salt, Sandcastle)?

  9. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    As the current development proposal stands, the plan for The Yard is effectively a placeholder for future improvements. It is important that the Park Committee – http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/cped/ParkCommittee – be given the political will and tools (funding) to pursue/create a proper park ownership entity, design, programming and management for long-term success.

  10. Erica M

    The idea of an outdoor concert venue is interesting as well, but a Dave Matthews Band-scale show (or even a Basilica Block Party-scale show) seems at odds with keeping the space green. Bye bye, grass.

    When I think about programming, Klyde Warren Park in Dallas is what springs to mind. http://www.klydewarrenpark.org/ They provide plenty of free entertainment, but the space is also rent-able for events. It has the benefit of nearby arts attractions; we visited the park (on foot) because we had already parked the car to visit a couple museums. They park a bunch of food trucks along one side of it. There was a good mix of tourists and workers there when we visited on a weekday in March.

  11. Pingback: “The Yard” Part 3: Making it Work: for the City, Ryan Co., the Vikings, and (most important) – the Public | streets.mn

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