Minneapolis Should Rethink the Above the Falls Master Plan

It is hard to overstate the importance of the Mississippi River in the urban form of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Once a source of energy and an important transport route, the river’s main value now is environmental and aesthetic. With the imminent closing of the Upper locks and the Upper Harbor Terminal–basically the Port of Minneapolis– the city has an incredible opportunity to redevelop 43 acres of riverfront land. More land will be available in the future, and the city has an extensive plan–the Above the Falls Master Plan–for developing the riverfront upriver from the Saint Anthony lock and dam.

The immediate plans for the Upper Harbor Terminal do not take full advantage of the area’s potential. Taken as a whole, the Above the Falls Master Plan has some worthy proposals for parks and trails but the plans for commercial and residential development need re-thinking. It would be a shame for Minneapolis to ignore models of waterfront re-development that have worked here, and in many cities abroad.

The Above The Falls Master Plan update has a nice picture of the new Lowry bridge.

The Above The Falls Master Plan update has a nice picture of the new Lowry Avenue bridge.

Fundamentally, the problem with the immediate and long-term upper river plans is that they plan for only moderate density, and make little provision for market demand for the area to be higher than plans anticipate. The Above the Falls plan was written in the early 2000s, before the city entered what is now a sustained building boom in Uptown, Downtown, Saint Anthony and around the University of Minnesota. It is highly likely the authors of the plan did not anticipate the strong demand to live in Minneapolis that has been demonstrated in the last few years.  Here’s how dated the original plan is: the website warns you that “it may take a long time to download over a modem”. While the city updated the plan in 2013, the plans continue to reflect an outdated approach to urban planning with proscriptive land use and a view that the city can accurately predict what mix of commercial and residential demand will occur in the future. If Minneapolis is to become Transitopolis and reach a population of 500,000 as the mayor hopes, we need to think bigger about our plans for the Upper River.

Good transit or walking connections help sustain demand in Minneapolis’ growing areas, while the upper river area currently has poor transit access. However, much of the upper river area is just 2-3 miles from downtown, making active commuting (walking, biking, running) a possibility for many. While Minneapolis envisions growth to 500,000 along existing transit corridors, the upper riverfront should be another area in which higher density is permitted. The geometry of the area permits cost-effective transit when demand warrants. Buses running down Washington or 2nd on the west bank of the river  could serve that area easily, and Marshall performs a similar role on the east bank.

above the falls

The immediate plans for the Upper Harbor Terminal–43 acres on a mile of riverfront land–envision a business park. This oxymoronic phrase gets to the heart of the problem. What the city is proposing is developing prime waterfront land in a low density single-use format. Without any residential development planned on this site, what Minneapolis is proposing is a suburban office development, but with river views. This is a wasted opportunity. Around the world, and in Minneapolis itself, people pay a significant premium to live with water views, and a slightly smaller premium to live near the water. With a mile of developable land along the river, Minneapolis has an incredible opportunity to let thousands of people live near the river if the demand is there. The views of the downtown Minneapolis skyline and the river between the Lowry and Broadway bridges can be stunning. We should let more people live there and enjoy them.

Let’s recognize the positive elements of the Above the Falls master plan, and what has already been achieved on Minneapolis’ riverfront. The master plan envisages the continuation of existing riverfront trails for biking and walking all the way up the river. These trails can serve as both recreational and transport corridors for cyclists and pedestrians. The trails will be paralleled by a linear park, with the width and flora varying along the way depending upon the flood plain. In this respect, the plan builds on what already exists in parts of the area. But the plan seems to ignore the precedent of St Anthony Main that should be a model for development further up the river.

In the St Anthony Main area, a recreational trail and linear park front the river. Immediately across the road, within 50 yards of the river in some places, there are high density mixed-use buildings. In the past year, several new apartment buildings have been built in the area, bringing more residents and increased vitality. The Above the Falls plan mentions St Anthony Main but does not see it as a precedent. The plan for land use on about 4 miles of riverfront envisages a mix of residential and commercial uses, but separates those uses, sets them further back from the river than has been successful here and elsewhere, and proposes less density.

The success of St Anthony Main is unsurprising. It has the same features as other successful waterfront re-developments in Toronto, Vancouver, Sydney, Wellington, Auckland and London. Those features are public access to the water, a lengthy but narrow trail and park along the water, moderately sized buildings (3-6 stories) immediately beside the park, stepping back to significantly taller (10-30 stories) buildings in the second row of buildings back from the water.

Residential development plans Above the Falls could be higher density.

Residential development plans Above the Falls could be higher density.

By contrast, the Above the Falls master plan, as pictured above, envisages mostly low-rise buildings and townhome development, in which many people will be near the river but not be able to see it from inside. Despite planning for an extensive linear park, it shows residential development buffered by larger setbacks. If implemented it will be a missed opportunity. If people are willing to pay for a view of lakes, they will probably be willing to pay for our more interesting views of the Mississippi River, and the Minneapolis skyline to the south. Let’s rethink the plans we have for this area and allow for significantly higher densities than what is proposed.

Evan Roberts

About Evan Roberts

Evan Roberts is an Assistant Professor of Population Studies and the History of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches and researches demography, labor and urban issues. He counts it as a successful week if he has run more miles than he has driven. Connect on twitter @evanrobertsnz or now Mastodon @evanrobertsnz@econtwitter.net

18 thoughts on “Minneapolis Should Rethink the Above the Falls Master Plan

  1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Good post.

    Hopefully whatever they do they will put in appropriate transportation bicycling infrastructure. A path with lots of curves and hills is fun for recreation, not so fun for actually going somewhere. A few curves can add some interest, too many says I’d rather drive.

    Riverfront trails are very enjoyable most days but on really windy days or hot sunny days an alternative route that provides some protection is good to have.

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I’ll admit that I haven’t done much more than skimmed through the plan, but I worry that your comments — and the mayor’s goal of 500,000 residents — makes the goal of density one-dimensional.

    As of a few years ago, Minneapolis was losing jobs, and the outer fringe suburbs were gaining them. Bloomington has more jobs than residents, and Edina is close to 1:1, but the more distant suburbs are gaining jobs at an even faster pace.

    I think 100% medium-high density residential does not necessarily equal a very functional place, either — as the isolated, dead Upper Landing demonstrates. Extremely close to downtown St. Paul, but you’d never know it by being in the development.

    Bottom line: it’s great to have a city of 500,000 people, but not if half of them have to drive to Savage or Maple Grove to work. Maybe the balance is a bit off here, but I think it makes sense for office space to be a major component.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      I agree, I hope to see mixed use… just think if St. Paul’s Upper Landing had a similar job/housing mix as Lowertown. Translating that across the river, imagine if the Upper Harbor had a similar jobs/housing mix as the North Loop.

      This could be a natural extension of the North Loop. Transit can be the bridge to connect it. It seems like a no-brainer to use 2nd to get a Broadway streetcar downtown via the North Loop and this new neighborhood. But what if there was an additional streetcar stub that went up to Lowry, then possibly across the river to loop through Northeast?

      1. Evan RobertsEvan Roberts Post author

        Thanks for commenting. I hope this is mixed use. The “office park” to begin with does not seem to portend that. I also think the city should be envisaging taller buildings for more of this site. Maybe they won’t be built for a while, but lets set that as the expectation.

        North Loop and Lowertown are other good local examples.

    2. Nathanael

      High-rise residential and high-rise offices can fit adjacent to each other. A low-rise “office park” makes no sense for a waterfront zone. Every waterfront in every major city in the country has developed stacks of highrises with views.

      What are these jobs which have moved to the bad suburbs? Some are obviously location-tied — Bloomington has the airport, for instance. Retail is tricky to attract because it *follows* people rather than preceding them. Warehouses always want to locate in the middle of nowhere where land is cheap.

      But offices are another matter — they should not be located in the middle of nowhere, it serves no purpose. Office buildings are a straightforward way of moving jobs back from outer suburbs to better locations.

    3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Was the job loss a general loss or related to the recession? The only places that grew jobs seem to all be areas that were largely ag when the study period began and have now built up.

      Over the past few years good urban cores have been growing faster than normal as employees express an interest in being located in a dense walkable/bikeable area. One of the best examples may be SF which has seen an influx of tech companies move in from the valley. I would expect the same in St Paul and Minneapolis (unless they screw it up).

    1. Rosa

      both Block E and St Anthony Main have gone to being mostly offices, haven’t they? (My husband’s office is in St Anthony Main and I have the impression it was intended to be retail or something originally, but I don’t actually know. It’s set up like a mall, though). There might be evidence that offices work out better than other commercial stuff.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        It’s not the presence of offices that’s objectionable. It’s suburban-style corporate parks surrounded by parking lots, like the park board building (https://www.google.com/maps/@45.000836,-93.2767341,3a,75y,256.6h,82.23t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1spAwkqBBlyyqk9NmEm6yE3A!2e0) and Coloplast (https://www.google.com/maps/@44.9963926,-93.2780251,3a,75y,144.41h,93.85t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1st6AQyarZ2OAJEKjX4qRuHA!2e0) that are already out that way.

        But yes, Block E is being converted into offices, a medical clinic and sports facilities instead of retail and I think you’re right about St Anthony Main. In fact, it’s slightly odd to cite St Anthony Main as successful, as it’s very different than the original plan (to my memory) and seemed to kind of languish for a long time.

        It is, however, at least mixed use and people have, in fact, been living there even if it failed as a retail destination.

        We shouldn’t be trying to build retail destinations (it doesn’t work). We should be trying to build a city, where people can live and get what they need on foot, on a bike, or on transit just as conveniently as by car.

        1. Evan RobertsEvan Roberts Post author

          Adam, I agree St Anthony Main has succeeded despite the plans. Even a few years ago I might not have put it on this list of places we should see as working.

          What lesson should we learn from St Anthony Main and Block E? Cities don’t have a great record in predicting what specific use will work out in a specific location. But they do have an appropriate role in planning the public realm and establishing some co-ordination of building form. How the buildings immediately adjacent to the linear park meet that space is incredibly important.

          Cities can also do a lot by setting or releasing expectations, especially since we’ve become conditioned to cities setting limits on development. Rather than envision a low-rise neighborhood here, lets aim to make this a happening dense area of the city taking advantage of its riverfront location without existing residents to object to the construction and change.

  3. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    This section of the river above the falls could reasonably be a popular recreational boating area. The Minneapolis portion could be filled with river-side restaurants with docks, further up river outside limits are many island to explore. Could these 43 acres make room for a marina? People pay crazy amounts for a slip on popular boating destinations. I bet it would even be possible to run a cut through the port area and make a canal that parallels the river to maximize “river frontage”. That would create quite a unique amenity in the park system, and even if you didn’t get a river facing view of downtown, getting a view of a leisurely canal could make up for it.

  4. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    When I saw this on the UrbanMSP/streets.mn forum (what do I call it!?!?1?), I immediately thought of this recent piece on Market Urbanism: http://marketurbanism.com/2014/11/06/planned-manufacturing-districts/

    Now, obviously this isn’t targeting specifically manufacturing. But the vision is fairly myopic and potentially not the best use. The fact that TIF may be considered is strong indication to me that the implementation may be off. Does the city own the land? If not, will they be buying it to redevelop (similar to the St Paul Port Authority)? If so, why would the proposed zoning and the resulting form not be sufficiently dense to cover the infrastructure costs through the sale of land?

    Either way, we definitely should want jobs here, and the access to I-94 may even make light industrial workable. But as Evan notes, the proximity to downtown, the river, views, and what will (hopefully) be a world class linear park should make residential the top game, with (well-designed) offices a prime #2 that should out-compete the Eagans of the metro for space.

  5. Steven Prince

    Cities with high densities do not over-segregate activities, so the redevelopment here should allow commercial, residential and appropriate neighborhood oriented retail. High density neighborhoods work best when some significant fraction of the neighbors can live, work, play and shop all on foot.

    I agree that Minneapolis (other cities seem to have less problems with this) has a poor track record of predicting activities that will work in a particular location. But one thing that has worked consistently is investing in amenities that then spur additional development. The Greenway is one great example.

    One failure of the existing plan is how it is oriented completely to young adults and older-empty nesters. Does anyone thing we can create a larger sustainable city catering only to those populations? As some point, don’t we want families with kids to be part of the growth in population?

    If so, why is the entire plan focused on largely passive and completely singular recreational activities? Where are the soccer fields, basketball courts, baseball diamonds? Minneapolis has far too few of these types of facilities, and they take up space. If we can’t fit them into this part of the city where will we put them?

    1. Evan RobertsEvan Roberts Post author

      Steven, thanks for the excellent and on-point comments. Boom Island Park has a lot of under-used open grass that could be sports fields. The new Scherer Bros park spot also has potential for being sports fields.

    2. Rosa

      That is a really good point! Plus people without kids play softball and soccer and volleyball (and kickball and Ultimate and hockey).

  6. JJ

    Perhaps the Upper Terminal is a very polluted site that is unrealistic to clean up to residential standards due to extensive costs. A lot of old heavy industry is so polluted you’d be hard pressed to find someone clean it up to residential standards without massive subsidy.

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