For the third installment of the “Urban Design – Ten Years Later” series, we head to suburban Richfield, Minnesota to take a look at Kensington Park. What was envisioned back then? How is it used and loved today? Has it lived up to the hype? Is it a great place for people?
The good news is Kensington Park, when viewed in isolation, is an attractive, successful project that mixes uses well and adds tax base to the city. Where it falls short is adding to the walkability and multi-modalism of the city, but this can be mostly blamed on its surrounding context and ongoing decisions that favor automobile use (more on that later).
Kensington Park was completed in 2005 and is a mixed-use project with 96 condominium units, 14 townhomes and 27,000 square feet of retail space (currently 12 retailers). It was developed by The Cornerstone Group and designed by ESG Architects. It occupies a full city block at Lyndale Avenue and 76th Street, and replaced an aging shopping center that was a blighting influence on the area. Together with Main Street Village across Lyndale, it forms a prominent gateway to the city of Richfield.
The project is attractive on three sides and functional on the fourth. Two buildings face Lyndale Avenue; a one-story retail building and a four-story building with ground floor retail and condominiums above. The four-story building mirrors the four-story building across the street, which was rebuilt in the early 2000s as part of the gateway project and includes a landscaped center median. A second four-story condo building faces 76th Street, connected by an underground parking garage. Two-story townhomes face Aldrich Avenue. Automobile entrances are found on three sides (not Aldrich) and sidewalks surround the project. All parking for the project is in the middle of the block or underground, and very little is visible from the sidewalks and surrounding streets.
The four-story mixed-use building facing Lyndale is the visual focal point of the project, and the beacon of hope, if you will, for retrofitting our suburbs in to more walkable places. It looks good, and the 14 pedestrian doors facing Lyndale (12 occupied plus two vacant retail spaces) result in a GDA (Gehl Door Average) of nearly 10, which is downright heroic in a suburban setting, and, incidentally, is greater than nearly every block of Nicollet Mall.
The Case of the Symbolic Doors
Unfortunately, the sad truth is only four of the present retailers even unlock their Lyndale Avenue pedestrian doors during business hours. When I visited on a recent day to walk the sidewalk and try all the doors, a solitary woman was the only other pedestrian. All other lunch customers arrived by car, an unfortunate reality. The upside is the doors exist, and if pedestrian traffic grows over time, perhaps more of these doors will be unlocked and function will one day follow form.
Interestingly, the one-story retail building is occupied by more prominent retailers that draw bigger crowds. Chipotle, Potbelly and Sprint have been there since day one, while retail spaces in the mixed-use building have struggled (other than Starbucks which occupies the prominent end cap). I’d speculate that retailers in the one-story building do better due to being physically located closer to both Lyndale and 77th Street, where most traffic comes from. Furthermore, the parking lot is essentially big enough for about three restaurants, which deters additional restaurants from signing leases. And don’t kid yourself in to thinking that 110 residential units plus another 125 across the street are enough to support a retailer without parking.
As nice as the mixed-use building facing Lyndale looks, the townhomes facing Aldrich Avenue are the best side of the project. The two-story units face existing single-family homes across the street, creating good context and transition in to the existing neighborhood, and all fourteen units have front doors with walk-up access. Even the four-story condo building steps down to three before meeting the townhomes. My only quibble here is that more condo units don’t have walk-up entrances off the sidewalk, particularly as 76th Street has been transformed in to a bicycle corridor.
Real Walkability is All About Context
And therein lies the crux of the slow transition to making our communities healthier and less car-dependent. Kensington Park is well designed and essentially “urban-ready,” but its context is not yet there for walkable urbanism to be achieved. While Lyndale Avenue was rebuilt as part of this gateway project, a landscaped median does not fool anyone. Lyndale is a fast moving four lane stroad (worse yet, north of 76th Street it is a Death Road), and 77th Street does a bang-up job as a reliever to Interstate 494. The landscaping along the curb of Lyndale looks nice but is really just a buffer from the fast moving vehicles of the stroadway, and that’s too bad. Just don’t bother trying to walk from Chipotle to the Best Buy store; you won’t enjoy yourself. The reconstruction of the Lyndale/494 interchange a couple years ago provided for a big ribbon-cutting but only encourages more driving. That said, Richfield should be credited with a major improvement to 76th Street by calming traffic and making it more bike-friendly and walkable, but it places Kensington Park at this weird dividing line between a tangible effort at urbanism and the very worst suburbanism has to offer. It’s high time to calm Lyndale Avenue.
Keep in mind, the city didn’t explicitly set out to create a walkable district where large numbers of people could get by without a car. Their intention was to eliminate some blight, add density and increase future tax revenues, and create a gateway to the city, and they did those things very well. Kensington Park is a success, should be replicated in other locations, and indeed has. It is “of its era” of urban and suburban four-story, mixed-use projects that received a Livable Communities Grant that have held up pretty well for a decade, Excelsior and Grand being perhaps the most prominent and ambitious example. Sadly, while Kensington Park challenged suburban thinking at the time, current projects like Lyndale Station seem like a wasted opportunity to create a great development at such a key corner, and are a step backward to 20th Century development and planning. Maybe a decade spent on mixed-use developments (the 2000s)followed by one that adds bike lanes and better sidewalks (2010s) will produce great results, or maybe great urbanism can only exist in an urban setting.
Primarily because of its lunchtime restaurants and coffee options, Kensington Park is a popular destination. The unfortunate truth is most customers are coming for the predictable national franchise food or coffee offerings and easy vehicle access (free parking!), not the urban ambience, and they use the parking lot entrance. The project also added housing options not previously offered in the city, or since for that matter. Very importantly, it is “urban ready.” It fits in to its context very well, and will do so even more as future infill, traffic calming and transit improvements (hopefully!?) occur. Kensington Park has much to like for urbanists, but don’t blame the project itself or its developer if it doesn’t ultimately “move the dial.” Land use and transportation must work in unison; there is more work to do.