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