Making Downtown East Commons a Great Place

This past weekend the Star Tribune reported the Minneapolis city staff have recommended approval of a $1.8 million contract with Hargreaves Associates to design Downtown East Commons, the 4.2 acre park proposed on two and one half blocks near the new Wells Fargo campus and Minnesota Vikings stadium. The park and campus are being developed by Ryan Companies. What is worrisome is the target completion date of summer 2016 and the difference between the city’s estimate that the park. The Strib reports that “some estimates” (the city’s, I think) are the park will cost between $6.3 million and $10.5 million, whereas Hargreaves envisions spending around $18.7 million. I think both estimates are low and the timing is certainly aggressive. In other words, we could in for some unpleasant reckonings in the next few months. Plus, design alone will not result in a successful park. Programming is key. Real leadership is required right now, and it’s uncertain from where it will come.

Booths on Paths

Design + Programming = Worthwhile Expense (Discovery Green Conservancy)

Let’s begin with the cost, not just the upfront cost to build the park but ongoing maintenance and programming, something that has been neglected so far in public discussions of Downtown East Commons. Hargreaves helped design Discovery Green (above), a 12-acre park in downtown Houston. A little research reveals Discovery Green cost $182 million to build and $5.4 million per year to maintain and program. It also attracts a million people per year and is generally regarded as a success, both in terms of design and programming. I’ve personally visited and concur with both. (Two more lessons learned from Discovery Green: it used to be an un-programmed and under-utilized green space, and also its timeline was extended in order to get design, programming and funding right.)

Looking in to upfront and ongoing costs of other downtown parks including Discovery Green, Columbus Commons in Columbus, Fountain Square in Cincinnati, Citygarden in St. Louis, Jamison Square in Portland and Bryant Park in New York City reveals an average cost per acre of developing a park is in the $7 million to $10 million range, and a half million dollars per acre annually to maintain and program. This means if we really want Downtown East Commons to be a success, at 4.2 acres it may cost $30 million to $40 million to develop and $2.5 million annually to enjoy. It is worrisome that we may be underestimating the price tag by a factor of 4 to 1. Credit Hargreaves for their figure of $18.7 million, and it could still be double that, although not having to build parking is a cost savings. It is worth noting that nearly all successful parks listed above (and elsewhere) have some sort of conservancy to help funding, so the creation of Greening Downtown Minneapolis is a key piece of the puzzle and a positive step, but we know precious little about this entity right now. And given the $10 million public price tag to extend the private skyway system through Wells Fargo to the new stadium, would that money be better spent on a public park?

A major part of the ongoing success of a park is not just development costs, but getting people there (and not just on game days). For this, Discovery Green provides a lesson from which we can learn. As an article in Landscape Architecture magazine describes, not only did Hargreaves create a good design, leaders in Houston also brought in Project for Public Spaces (PPS) beforehand to help create successful programming for the park. What the LA magazine article also reveals is Hargreaves and PPS never spoke (sure enough, the Hargreaves and PPS website entries don’t mention the other entity), but local officials in Houston acted as an intermediary and are adamant that nonetheless Discovery Green is a success because of the expertise of both. That demonstrates real leadership, and I hope Greening Downtown Minneapolis is up to the task.

Ice skating at Discovery Green. Note corporate sponsor is XFinity. (Discovery Green Conservancy)

Ice skating at Discovery Green. Note corporate sponsor is XFinity. (Discovery Green Conservancy)

So let’s not kid ourselves about the price tag, and more importantly the long-term enjoyment of Downtown East Commons. Based on press coverage, it seems we are only a quarter of the way to where we ought to be at this point in terms of planning for this park. Before hiring a designer, we need to hire an expert in programming public space. After all, we should figure out what we’re going to do there before it gets designed, right? Now is the time to bring in PPS (or HR&A or The Musicant Group) to help us get our enjoyment out of our park (the Minnesota Vikings are no substitute for PPS, and let’s be honest, the Vikings need to be focused on football right now). And here’s the thing, we can be out there right now programming the space to see what works. Doing so will both generate excitement and help with fundraising. Next we need to be honest and clear-eyed about what this will likely cost, both upfront and ongoing, for it to be a successful, enjoyable downtown public park. And then we need to accept that the park won’t be open in time for the 2016 opening of the Vikings stadium. Only when this is accomplished should Hargreaves begin its design work.

It is safe to say we all want Downtown East Commons to be successful. Good design costs money and time, and $6.3 to $10.5 million isn’t likely to pay for as much as we previously thought. As Discovery Green and so many other parks have shown, success comes at a price (albeit worthwhile), not only up front but with ongoing maintenance and programming. A successful Downtown East Commons will require some difficult negotiations with the MSFA, standing up to the Minnesota Vikings, a tremendous amount of fundraising and even more leadership. I look forward to Greening Downtown Minneapolis stepping up in a big way, because we need them to do so right now.

Note: Max Musicant and I did an informal series on this project approximately one year ago at Max and I are also two of the more than 700 members of the PPS Placemaking Leadership Council.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is

14 thoughts on “Making Downtown East Commons a Great Place

  1. Pingback: Joe Urban » Blog Archive » Making Downtown East Commons a Great Place

  2. Joe

    Why exactly is it an aggressive timeline to build a park by 2016? If bridge can be built across the Mississippi river in a year a park surely can be built in a year.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      The bridge got built so fast because we knew exactly what was needed – a bridge. We don’t have the same certainty with Downtown East Commons. My point is we need to take enough time to understand programming needs before design occurs.

      2016 completion is based solely on the Vikings stadium opening. While they have a pretty good idea what their programming needs are, I’m not sure what we the general public want to do there the other 200+ days per year. If this is going to be a great public park, then this question must be answered before design even begins, much less construction.

  3. Joe

    I was just in Chicago and loved all the programming at the new Maggie Daley Park. What do you think of that? Too expensive? Too much going on for our main downtown park? I would love it to be something like that personally.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      While I’m not familiar with Maggie Daley Park, I’m very familiar with Millennium Park, which is very busy and exactly what we should be aiming for.

      The Landscape Architecture article correctly points out how Chicago’s Millennium Park is a little more accessible and gets a lot more tourist visits when compared to Discovery Green, which is less centrally located in downtown Houston. The lesson there is Discovery Green (and I suspect Downtown East Commons will be) is even more reliant on programming to draw people out – key to its success.

      If people start complaining that too much is going on at Downtown East Commons, I will be very happy, as that is perhaps the biggest metric of success.

  4. Wayne

    I have very low hopes, considering whatever design they choose is apparently going to need to cater to people parking their pickup trucks on it for tailgating before their bread and circus. I was almost excited about potentially getting to work in the new buildings there, but the whole thing is probably going to turn into some kind of dismal messy failure because of the city cheaping out and the footballers usurping public space and making demands that won’t fit with a good public space.

    Like here’s an idea that would never happen: Raise the park up in the middle and lower Portland Ave a bit so you get a continuous landscaped bridge thing going on. Maybe even extend it across 5th to meet the upper level entrance part of the armory. You get one continuous park and some cool slopes to use for things like amphitheater style seating for concerts or plays on either end. Oh, but that would cost actual money, so nope. Maybe we’ll get some cheap benches (but the uncomfortable kind designed to make sure homeless people can’t sleep on them) and a couple trees on the edges. If we’re lucky there might be some grass the Vikings don’t kill with their programming.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I really, really hope you’re wrong that they are going to cater to people parking their pickups on it for tailgating. I wish I was confident that you are.

      Tailgating is such a strange thing. How’d it go from “thing we do because there’s nothing else to do before the game in this giant parking lot” to “thing we must do, ’cause drinkin’ next to a pickup rulz!”?

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        Tailgating is pretty fun, but I don’t think anyone is considering Downtown East Commons as a place to tailgate. I think there is an idea for “railgating” where people park elsewhere but hang out at vendors and do all the stuff they would do tailgating, just not next to their car. To me, that sounds pretty fun, too, but again, the Vikings will handle that part of the programming, whereas someone has to figure out the other 200-300 days per year.

        1. Wayne

          The Vikings will most definitely figure out that part, and they won’t care about the rest of the year when they do. They’ve steamrolled the people of Minneapolis time and time again to get whatever they want, why would they stop now?

          I swear I’ve read multiple mentions of using the new park for ‘tailgating’ in articles about this early on … was it something they’ve dropped or did everyone just forget about it?

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            We have one thing on our side: the Vikings don’t make any money off of people bringing their own pre-game food and drink.

            Which means they don’t necessarily have any incentive to push for tailgating in the park beyond not wanting to anger their fan base.

            I’d have to think they’d much rather everyone gather and purchase food and drink from them.

        2. Monte Castleman

          I find it regrettable that the stadium wasn’t built in Arden Hills, but at this point let’s finally bury the idea of tailgating since it’ll be another 30 years before we get another change to build a Vikings Stadium. And “Railgating” is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. If you’re just riding the light rail down and buying overpriced food what difference is it from every other fan?

  5. Dan Fehler

    What are your thoughts on inter-park connections? Is this park an island, or will effort/design be spent connecting it to Gold Medal and Elliot Parks, or even Currie Park?

    1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

      The ideal scenario would probably be walkable streets that connect the parks. A greenbelt isn’t necessary, but interesting storefronts and safe sidewalks and street crossings are pretty important.

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