The Subpar (Public!) Land Uses of Downtown East

After many decades as a sad parking crater, the eastern side of Downtown Minneapolis is being rebuilt. The next few years will see the completion of the new Minnesota Vikings Stadium, a two-ish block public-ish park, a two-ish block set of matching office towers filled by Wells Fargo employees, a block-sized ~1,600 space parking ramp, and a currently TBD development atop said parking ramp. The office towers will include some residential units along 4th Street South, and in all likelihood the project that goes on the parking ramp will also include hundreds of residential units, probably in addition to some sort of hotel. There will also be a residential development one on of the park blocks. Put together, something like eight or nine city blocks will be rebuilt in the space of about five years, assuming no more projects are announced–which seems unlikely.

(Image from Ryan Cos.)

Current and accurate renderings of this project are nearly impossible to come by–here’s an aerial view (Image from Ryan Cos.)

There are hundreds of millions of dollars in public money (mostly for the stadium) that have been pledged towards rebuilding this part of the city, and it’s been a long time coming. An all around excellent article in Twin Cities Business details the whole Downtown East redevelopment story, including the more or less intentional decision to ignore Downtown East while development was concentrated in Downtown West. Before we get too upset about that, it’s important to keep in mind that Downtown East was not necessarily the Champs-Élysées before it was parking. An aerial view from 1947 shows railyards, parking lots (potentially historic!), and some buildings like the Armory that are still there.

And on that note, there are a great deal of current land uses in Downtown East that are not great. To be clear, there are a number of things in Downtown East that are clearly necessary things to have in a city, but that are not necessarily places that you’d want to live or own property near. And more importantly, these land uses all have pretty much entirely terrible street frontage. We’ve got the Hennepin County Public Safety Facility, Hennepin County Juvenile Justice Center, Hennepin County Crime Lab & Morgue, huge Hennepin County Medical Center complex, and two gigantic, City-owned parking ramps along 5th Avenue South.

Metrodome no longer present

Metrodome no longer applicable

But! You may have noticed that, during that list of buildings and uses, all of the users are government. So we can change that street frontage! Maybe. Reworking the intake area of the county jail is probably harder than auctioning off land around HCMC for a liner development. Still, it’s worth examining the buildings we’ve got in Downtown East at least as a way to avoid doing similar things in the future, and maybe with an eye towards changing some of what’s there.

For the purposes of this post, we’re looking at Downtown East as an idea (?) rather than the actual, technical City-defined neighborhood boundaries. So, approximately the area east of Minneapolis City Hall before you get to I-35W. Here are some photos I took on a Tuesday afternoon during rush hour. There was also a Twins game that evening.

Hennepin County Public Safety Center--i.e. the county jail-- along 5th Avenue South

Hennepin County Public Safety Center–i.e. the county jail–along 5th Avenue South

Walking along the jail on 5th Avenue South

Walking along the jail on 5th Avenue South

The jail is hard to move or change. It’s probably a good idea to have it near the courthouse, which is located in the Hennepin County Government Center kitty corner from the site. But still, there have to be some possibilities for changing the exterior of this building so that it’s not a blank wall with fire exits and nature band-aids. Fun fact: I was in the jail a couple weeks ago! Voluntarily. Did you know the fourth and fifth floors of Minneapolis City Hall are also a jail? Like literally a jail, connected by tunnel to the one across the street. Guys in jumpsuits playing cards six feet above Mayor Hodges’ head. There’s a basketball court directly above the City Council chambers. Crazy.

Two block long parking ramps along 5th Avenue South

Two block long parking ramps (Government Center and Haaf) along 5th Avenue South

The parking ramps on 5th Avenue South are a barrier between the future Downtown East development and Government Plaza

The parking ramps on 5th Avenue South are a barrier between the future Downtown East development and Government Plaza

There are two block-long parking ramps on either side of the jail facility. Both ramps are owned by the City of Minneapolis. There was, apparently, a strategy in the 1980s to locate large parking ramps on the periphery of the then-developing downtown area. Now the periphery is a barrier. The city actually used to also own two more block-long parking ramps along 5th Avenue South, the Gateway Ramp and the Centre Village Ramp, which are a few blocks from here. Both were sold to Alatus in 2007 as part of a package where the city sold yet more (!) parking ramps on the condition that some of the parking ramps, or the areas around them, be redeveloped.

I work in this part of downtown, and while I don’t park a car, some of my best friends park a car, and I hear it’s getting harder and more expensive to do so. Especially with the closure of multiple surface parking lots in the past six months to make way for new development. So it may be hard to gather the political will to just up and tear either of these ramps down. However, the street frontage could be improved with minimal loss of parking spaces. The Haaf Ramp does in fact have two retail spaces at the corner of 5th Avenue South & 4th Street South, which is great.

Corner of the Hennepin County Juvenile Justice Center at Park Avenue South & 5th Street South

Corner of the Hennepin County Juvenile Justice Center at Park Avenue South & 5th Street South

There's actually a garage entrance right on the corner of the building. Never noticed that until now

There’s actually a garage exit with a curb cut right on the corner at the front of the building. Never noticed that until now. Odd design decision?

A blank wall

A blank wall

The Hennepin County Juvenile Justice Center is directly across 5th Street South from what will be the new park, and that’s what it looks like. Lots of blank walls. Similar to the situation with the county jail, it’s hard to imagine this facility moving or being substantially reconfigured, but it’s something to keep in mind as we build a park nicknamed “The Yard” directly across the street from two (2) detention centers.


Crime Lab!

Chicago Avenue & 6th Street South

Chicago Avenue & 6th Street South–across the street from the future stadium

You’ve got to imagine that the crime lab & morgue would be a little easier to move than the jail, but estimated costs to do so have been estimated at $20 to $25 million dollars. That second picture is what will sit immediately across the street from the front plaza of the $975 million dollar Vikings stadium. Certainly a crime lab & morgue have a great deal of specialized equipment, but you’ve got to think that they’d be able to figure out how to do something with a one-story, largely windowless structure. Build something on top of it? Who knows.

Hennepin County Medical Center has a parking ramp which features an eight story tall, block-long wall

Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) has a parking ramp which features an eight story tall, block-long wall

HCMC over 7th Street South

HCMC over 7th Street South

Hennepin County Medical Center at the corner of Chicago Avenue & 7th Street South

HCMC at the corner of Chicago Avenue & 7th Street South

Really puts the park in "Park Avenue"!

Really puts the park in “Park Avenue”!

Like the two jails before it, it’s hard to imagine moving HCMC or substantially reconfiguring its operations. It’s obviously good to have a Level 1 trauma center in Downtown Minneapolis. The HCMC complex takes up an enormous amount of land, spanning five whole blocks, blocking one street and partially capping two others. There is, sort of, a front to the building which I wasn’t able to find on foot, but I did find on Google Streetview. There are literal blank walls and effective blank walls. One helicopter landed and one ambulance departed in the ten minutes or so I spent walking around. The whole complex is pretty brutal, kind of like Moos Tower at the University of Minnesota, which I used to describe as Death Star-like when I gave campus tours back in the day.

However, much of the complex does have generous setbacks from the street. It may be possible to do liner developments in the future to improve the street frontage and break up the monolithic structure.

1980s Mars Colony

1980s Mars Colony

Lately I’m really into Mars, and this picture looking down 6th Street South makes me think of a 1980s Total Recall-style Martian colony. Let’s not let any part of our downtown look like a Martian colony.

Nick Magrino

About Nick Magrino

Nick Magrino grew up all over the place but has lived in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis longer than anywhere else. He has a new cat, Sweater, and does not use hashtags at @nickmagrino. He is probably on a bus right now.

13 thoughts on “The Subpar (Public!) Land Uses of Downtown East

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    “I work in this part of downtown, and while I don’t park a car, some of my best friends park a car, and I hear it’s getting harder and more expensive to do so.”

    Don’t fall for this, Magrino! I doubt its literally harder, except in the sense that people who park in ramps have to turn the wheel a lot more to navigate tight spaces. But parking cars is pretty easy in the grand sense of things thanks to power steering and the internal combustion engine.

    It is surely more expensive, but I used to park in the surface lot where the Guthrie Theater was for a DOLLAR A DAY. Nothing can be cheaper than a dollar a day. That’s basically free. Today parking downtown might cost you, what, $5/day on fringes and double that in the center?

    In other words, parking in downtown Minneapolis is still really cheap, even if you have to turn your wrists more often these days.

    Hey these sci-fi photos are great. Once they build an actual giant stadium that looks like a Cylon spaceship, we’ll have a whole “brutalist future deathscape” thing going on.

    1. Michael RodenMichael Roden

      You had me at brutalist future deathscape. I can’t even remember what I wanted to say.

      Oh yeah. You’re right! More expensive parking can and should be a barrier to driving in to downtown. My wife (who is less militant than me when it comes to not driving) did not even consider for one second driving to her new job downtown. Admittedly, we live in Uptown so a bus commute is not hard, but if parking were a breeze I am sure it would be much more tempting to skip the bus on hectic mornings.

      We need to keep up the pressure on car parking. With an influx of new downtown residents and transit accessible residents, we can begin to wind down parking accommodations. Minneapolis will be better off for it, even if it’s harder to get in to from the suburbs. (I hear there might be a train for that)

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        Of all the levers in the system of automobility, I’m convinced that the price of parking is the easiest one to move. Unlike many of the other variables, cities have it *in their power* to affect the cost of parking, and can use this power to accelerate walkability, growth, and vitality if they so choose. (Parking benefit districts are one politically feasable way to do this, and tie parking costs to tangible improvements in quality of life for the actual people living in the city or neighborhood.)

        Instead, we keep giving it away for next to nothing, and people keep complaining anyway. Seems like a really bad relationship.

      1. Faith

        One of the now-more-popular $5 lots fills up by 9-9:30 a.m. and doesn’t get open spaces until noonish. This never used to happen. The Gateway ramp at $13/day is the next cheapest and usually (but not always!) has spaces available. Parking prices are slightly less absurdly low.

  2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    I always wondered whether the fact that the A, B and C ramps, the Convention Center and the Downtown East ramps for a set of barriers around the city center was intentional (of course, they are all also bounded by nearby freeways).

    And I’ve always wondered whether that might not have been a smart way to encourage density within those perimeters. Super-dense places like Manhattan and Hong Kong tend to combine demand with constrained land supply, so maybe you can artificially create that with planned boundaries.

    Of course, it also might be a way to keep people who live in the downtown-adjacent neighborhoods which, (1) is bad for those people and their neighborhoods, and (2) is bad for density and good for sprawl, and (3) is maybe kinda racist.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      The “Fifth Avenue Wall” was once such a barrier… CenterVillage ramp, Thrivent’s blank wall backside, Gov Center ramp, the jail’s blank wall backside, Haaf ramp, and Gateway ramp. Clearly Downtown has breached its banks.

  3. Janne Flisrand

    The thing I can’t help but notice in these pictures is that all but one of them (7th by HCMC) show big, wide streets with next-to-no cars. Is there a reason we can’t reclaim some of that land for people and do more linear development around other properties, too?

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Honestly, the whole development/park discussion brought so many people out of the woodwork complaining about downtown as a congested hellscape when the idea of Park/Portland closing was proposed. This is simply not my experience in DTE whatsoever, be it 8 AM or 4:45 PM on a weekday. Maybe someone can provide images or videos of streets that are congested to the point of ever waiting more than one light cycle, to say nothing of fully utilizing the lanes.

      I’m very intrigues by the idea of turning over public right of way to private landowners. The typical discussion is how to allocate space better for people, but in the case of areas like DTE where buildings come close to sidewalks with blank walls, turning 10′ of the ROW on each side over to a the building may be enough to get liner development going, while also forcing the tough conversation about what to do with the remaining public space.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        I don’t get that far east all that often, but if I look the correct angle out my office window, I can see the blocks of Park and Portland that were to be closed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them even remotely congested.

        As of just now, I’d say Portland has light traffic and Park light-to-moderate.

  4. Erik B

    I noticed the Juve-y Jail exit and curb cut just recently while riding the train downtown too! I think tunnels like the one created by HCMC and Hennepin County government center are atrocious. They obscure pedestrians and other road users, magnify road noise and just all around make for an ugly streetscape. Would the city still allow something like this to be built?

  5. Jeff

    Change comes slowly. Although we wish it would come faster, we need to be mindful there are many others who do not necessarily share our views. Some will change, others will not. What is important is that we continue to advocate for positive change that benefits as many people as possible, but forcing those who do not share our views will likely backfire. When it becomes more convenient/cheaper not to drive, then people will slowly change their habits.

    The fact that a number of parking structures and surface lots have been developed are indeed positive signs in the right direction, and the market is now deciding that parking is not the best land use. This trend will continue so long as there is a surplus of parking. As parking facilities age, tear down will become increasingly common. (4th and Nicollet is an excellent example). The price will then increase to reflect supply, and commuters will decide whether paying upwards to $10 to park for increased convenience or find other means (bus, carpool, biking, etc) are more worthwhile. We didn’t develop a car culture overnight, so it will not go away overnight either.

    We all would love this to happen sooner, but the suburban mindset is still very car-centric and many are stubborn. Consider a suburban commuter who pays either $6 per day for an express bus (round-trip) vs $6 a day to park a car. Major change in demand will not happen until parking supply downtown decreases due to market economics (thus increasing the price to park) or transit becomes cheaper or more convenient for the suburban commuter. Metro transit really needs to eliminate the rush hour and express bus surcharges, but that’s a gripe for another time.

    Continued advocacy for positive change is great, but let’s be wary backlash that can occur when we force others to share our views.

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