Making Transit-Oriented Development Great at Lake and Hiawatha

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.

10-14-14 Site Plan_Page_01

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).

IMG_20130330_163642_900

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.

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.

IMG_20141015_124557_423

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.

IMG_20141015_124736_426

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…

warrenplace_6_13-thumb

…Tongli in Suzhou, China…

Tongli, Suzhou, China

…Zakkendragerssteeg in Utrecht, Netherlands…

Zakkendragerssteeg

…or even Carrer dels Cecs de Sant Cugat in Barcelona (but straight so as not to block the views up and down the street).

Carrer dels Cecs de Sant Cugat, Barcelona

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…

Picture 065
…St. Mark’s Avenue in Brooklyn…

106 St. Marks
…or our very own Lake Street in Minneapolis, is critical.

Picture4

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.

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13 Responses to Making Transit-Oriented Development Great at Lake and Hiawatha

  1. Matt Steele October 22, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

    I visited Tong Li before I was even an urbanist, so thanks for reminding me about how great those narrow streets were. Venice of the East, right?

  2. Andrew B October 22, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    Excellent breakdown of the proposal, I completely agree. Do you have any side profile images to show what the Lake St sidewalk and plaza would be looking at?

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg October 22, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

      No. BKV showed some at a recent meeting, but I don’t have access to those at this time. The ground floor facing Lake was mostly glass, including retail space, community room and lobby, with a wider sidewalk than required. I don’t have any other details, but hopefully they can be available soon.

  3. Joe Scott
    Joe Scott October 22, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

    The thing is, the most compelling examples you cited are all streets with a series of small lots/buildings controlled by different owners with different interests and goals. If you try and fake it, it’s going to look fake, and people will be unnerved and grossed out. Maybe some day we’ll be able to fake it, but right now we’re in the uncanny valley of urbanism.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg October 23, 2014 at 9:09 am #

      Good point, Joe. I’m not fan of “faking it,” either. But a building can be uniform on floors two and above and also be attractive, but also have a varied and interesting ground floor. The more retailers and restaurants occupying a building, the more varied and interesting that block can be, provided appropriate design elements like doors, transparent windows, signage, articulation, awnings, etc.

      • Matt Steele October 23, 2014 at 9:29 am #

        I realize that economics have changed over time making it tough to develop many small storefronts incrementally and independently, but I think we could still do things to encourage a natural process over time to make the streetscape more interesting.

        Shopping malls are about as sterile as you can get, a monolith developed and leased by a single entity. Yet think of how stores are really given license to make their storefront their own, to try and draw people in from the “main street” of a mall concourse. Cheesy? Yes. Something we could learn from as we develop mixed use? Maybe.

  4. Erik B October 23, 2014 at 8:33 am #

    Great analysis. Another potential problem I see with the site design…by hiding/discouraging ped connectivity from the plaza going north will cause people wanting to go east on Lake St. to most likely walk along the bike/trail. Potentially increasing the number of people cutting across the Hiawatha access ramp. The main pedestrian connection should be to Lake St. It’s almost as if the site is turning it’s back on Lake Street, giving it a sort of megablock quality.

    Will there be any more public meetings on this in the future?

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg October 23, 2014 at 9:04 am #

      Not sure about future public meetings.

  5. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman October 23, 2014 at 8:44 am #

    From an architectural point of view I really don’t like some of the “fake history” developments. Does anyone honestly think putting random finishes on sections of wall makes it look 100 years old and developed at separate times (Downtown Target Store and whatever that thing on the north end of downtown Stillwater is called, I’m looking at you). I’d rather have the entire thing one or two finishes that complement the adjoining area without parodying it.

  6. Alex October 23, 2014 at 10:49 am #

    It seems like the simplest solution would be to rotate the building to the east of the parking ramp 90 degrees and add a first-floor passage to it where it would block 23rd Ave S. This would create an east-west orientation to the Market Plaza that would eliminate your valid concerns about the midblock passage and create a sightline between the YMCA and the transit station.

    But perhaps I see this as ideal because I disagree about whether a large Lake St frontage is better for the Market Plaza. Similar to what you say about land use, the current configuration of Lake St will be around for a long time and of course is too noisy and heavily-trafficked to comfortably accommodate the recreational uses of a plaza. I think that the proposed 80′ frontage is enough to connect the plaza to the street, and considering the draw of the LRT station for the neighborhoods to the south and west the plaza doesn’t need Lake St to activate it.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg October 23, 2014 at 11:46 am #

      Conveniently enough, today’s streets.mn post about transit hubs (https://streets.mn/2014/10/23/the-effectiveness-of-non-downtown-transit-hubs/) indicates Lake Street Station of the Blue Line has 2,572 daily boardings. But not all of those people come from the southwest and would pass through a plaza not located on Lake Street. In fact, it is reasonable to guess that perhaps only a quarter do (650 or so), although South High students probably push that number up (who knows if they were counted in these figures) to around 1,000. Hard to say, but 1,000 is approximately the same number of daily visitors to the YWCA, so this makes a pretty strong argument that the site’s relationship to the YWCA is as important as its relationship to the transit station.

      Alas, we forget about Lake Street buses! The same streets.mn post indicates more than 1,000 people board buses on Lake Street near the station. So there again is further argument that this plaza and site should be configured with open space fronting Lake Street to take advantage of bus riders, not to mention pedestrians and passing cars.

      So we can locate the plaza near the light rail entrance, off Lake and invisible from the YWCA and capture just 1/3 of the potential passers-by on foot, or it can be on Lake AND visible/accessible from the Y and three times as many people can enjoy it.

      • Sam Newberg
        Sam Newberg October 23, 2014 at 11:54 am #

        Regarding noise, I really think it is overstating the problem that Lake Street is somehow a deterrent to public use. Allow me to point out that the farmer’s market is currently essentially ON Lake Street, albeit elevated slightly, and seems to do just fine for visitors and even the enjoyment of live music. The notion that urban parks must be silent and bucolic is a bit excessive.

        Just visit the plaza at West River Commons on East Lake Street (Longfellow Grill and Dunn Bros). That space is very pleasant, yet located pretty close to Lake.

        I really think that a small public plaza of one acre, planted with trees and containing benches and other informal seating, and hosting a farmer’s market twice a week and perhaps other events, could be a very wonderful and pleasant space if located ON Lake Street. It would improve Lake Street immensely, and if done right would be the very best place along all of Lake Street with the exception of Lake Calhoun.

        • Alex October 23, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

          You make good points. To me, personally, constant harassment by cars is the defining feature of being in Minneapolis, so I’m always looking for ways to hide away from them. Again, personally I enjoy the Midtown Farmers’ Market in spite of its location, and always notice the asphalt and noise, even though it is probably at its weekly nadir during the Saturday morning market. But yes, there are ways to design a plaza right on Lake to mitigate the vehicular traffic exposure.

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