There is room for improvement at the transit-oriented development proposed at Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue. It has been a long time coming, but the latest version of the project (shown below) has Hennepin County acting as master developer, working with a private design and development team led by BKV Group. A Hennepin County service center will be the primary tenant of a mixed-use office/retail building on the 6-acre site, which will also include an approximate one acre public plaza that will be home to the Midtown Farmers Market, as well as around 500 housing units. The county has indicated a short timeline to get the county services building up and running, and I fear in their haste urban design and public realm issues won’t be properly vetted.
I was part of the BKV Group design team that started working with the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization (CNO) in 2009 (five years ago!) to push forward on design ideas for the site. I’m no longer on the BKV team, but have been asked by CNO to weigh in on matters of design, particularly the public realm and plaza. So here goes.
First, the public plaza is in the wrong location. Second, pedestrian connections around and through the site may be less than adequate. Third, it is critically important to pay close attention to how the ground floor of these buildings (commercial and residential) relate to the sidewalk and street. Hennepin County needs to put the brakes on this project to get the public realm and urban design right.
Regarding the plaza, placing the county services building with ground floor retail frontage right on Lake Street is all well and good and follows basic urbanism principles. However, in this scenario I continue to question why the public plaza remains squished up against the rail viaduct. True, it will have good access to and from the station entrance, but it will be largely hidden from view from Lake Street and not visible at all from the adjacent YWCA. I think this is a huge mistake. Besides, it is always worth quoting Joe Riley, who says “great cities give their best edges over to the public realm.” So why is the supposed lynchpin of this site – a public plaza – not facing Lake Street? Doing so would allow all – train riders, bus riders, drivers and pedestrians on Lake Street, guests coming and going from the YWCA, and students of nearby South High School – to see and experience a high-quality public space in any season, whether the farmer’s market is operating or not (Eastern Market, below, is but one of many examples).
Furthermore, the current plan places two retail spaces facing Lake Street, but also a community room. While the preliminary designs show lots of glass and transparency (a good thing), I’m not sure that only two retail spaces will be enough to activate the Lake Street side of this project. It also feels like the community room is just filler. A third retail space faces the plaza only, which I believe is a pretty major flaw and will be a very hard space to fill. My gut says if you can’t get it right, don’t do it at all. Placing the plaza right on Lake Street, with the county building and retail space set back and essentially facing both the plaza and street at the same time, could very well assuage this problem, as it gives both public space and retail full visibility and exposure. It would allow all retail space to face both street and plaza, making them more viable. The community room should be on the second floor, not taking up potentially valuable and active retail space.
If we accept that the Hennepin County services building must be on Lake Street, then we must address the grade-level midblock passage proposed to cut through the block. In concept, this is a good idea. After all, adding streets to the grid is Jane Jacobs 101.
Adding one street increases pedestrian choices by a significant factor, and breaks up megablocks. The problem is, the current plan calls for a midblock passage that not only passes under an unnecessary second story appendage of the Hennepin County building, but next to an at-grade parking lot covered by the private rooftop amenity deck for the proposed market rate apartments. The path crosses what appears to be the retail truck loading area as well. So yes, a pedestrian can choose to take this path, but why would anyone do so?
The good urbanist in me would ask why not just take the sidewalk along Lake Street to reach a popular destination such as the YWCA? Well, one answer is they provide free parking so I just drive. I only mention the YWCA because close to 1,000 people per day pass through its doors, and the most active pedestrian door at the YWCA faces the parking lot (not Lake Street), as do a large bank of second story windows in the fitness area (eyes on the street/lot). And it is important when planning this site to acknowledge surrounding land uses that aren’t likely to change. Hoping everyone chooses to walk and use the Lake Street entrance is farfetched at best, is a case of hopeful planner thinking, and we’d all be better off if existing conditions and human nature were taken into account. Today one can see in a direct line from the light rail station entrance to the most used entrance of the Y, and vice-versa. Furthermore, a natural location for a stage, fountain or meeting place on the plaza is also in this line of sight. So why block that view with a parking lot, building appendage and private amenity space? The design team has proposed to shield the view of this parking/drive area with a bicycle storage facility, which seems like a good gesture but masks a fundamental design flaw. Regardless of where the plaza is, it is important that it be visible from both the transit station and the YWCA and that any midblock passage be dignified and humane.
Here’s why I’m concerned. BKV is the architect of The Marshall in Dinkytown, where they recently designed a midblock passage, and this is what they came up with.
While they did provide a means for pedestrians to pass through, the design is certainly lacking. This makes me bristle – an uninviting, potentially unsafe passageway with no vista nor visual attraction.
The midblock passage can work, but let’s do it some justice and make it more dignified, more urban, more like a street, and less like an underpass next to a parking ramp. Let’s make it more like Warren Place in Brooklyn…
…Tongli in Suzhou, China…
…Zakkendragerssteeg in Utrecht, Netherlands…
…or even Carrer dels Cecs de Sant Cugat in Barcelona (but straight so as not to block the views up and down the street).
Lastly, I very much applaud that residential units will have ground floor walk-out entrances. However, even the details of this must be paid close attention. Front doors must be inviting and facing the street but not overly gated off or with steps that appear to be hanging off the building. Doing it right like Vancouver…
A simple instinct is that we’ve been planning this project for so long, let’s just get it done! That would be a shame, as it risks winding up with a very average result. We’ve taken so long but still not gotten the plan right; it is even more important that we take the extra time needed now to do so. The plaza can be moved, and regardless, the public realm can be improved. (Of course the cruel irony in planning for a transit-oriented development is parking dictates so much of the design.)
I encourage councilmember Alondra Cano to risk that this project may not host its ribbon cutting on her watch, and that she work with CPED staff and Hennepin County to get the public realm right. I encourage commissioner Peter McLaughlin to step back and put urban design ahead of a tight timeline of providing county services. I encourage city and county staff and CNO to focus first and foremost on the public realm. I encourage all readers to contact elected officials and demand better urban design that benefits all.
Hennepin County wants this project done fast. We need to demand it be done right.