Park Entrances at Downtown East Commons: X Marks the Spot

With so much attention focused on bells and whistles and whether or not Portland Avenue should be closed through the park, when it comes to the debate about Downtown East Commons, perhaps quite literally we can’t see the forest for the trees. Playgrounds, restaurants, gardens, terraces, and even water features are all well and good, but what about the countless visitors to the park who simply want to stroll in, maybe find a bench, or just pass through? Past coverage has estimated that, for the park to be successful, 1 to 2 million people must visit per year, and it is reasonable to estimate that a large percentage of those aren’t necessarily there for a specific reason like a movie, a meal, a playground or tailgating. Therefore, the “commons” needs access from every corner, which will not only encourage more people to visit for these specific reasons, but all those casual users who are indeed just passing through. The paths and access of Downtown East Commons must acknowledge the context of the surrounding neighborhood.

Downtown East Commons, Ryan Companies

Original (2013) Rendering of Downtown East Commons by Ryan Companies (not Hargreaves)

Think about all the times you have visited a park in a dense, urban, downtown-like setting.Were you there for a specific use, more casually to find a bench or people-watch, or even just passing through because it is a nice diversion?No matter how you started your journey, you likely entered the park on foot, right? And probably from an intersection at the corner of the park, right?

After giving this some thought, I realized more often than not that I visit an urban park for a casual stroll rather than specific event, and having a direct path to enter the park at the corner or nearest street sure helps invite me in, much less get me out the other side. This will hold true for Downtown East Commons; nearly all visitors (including those coming from the skyway) will arrive on foot from across a street and at a corner, so providing direct access in to and across the “commons” from all corners will encourage more visits, both specific and casual.

Cambridge Commons, Elegant Entrance Paths for Specific and Casual Visitors Alike

Cambridge Commons, Elegant Entrance Paths (and Direct Routes Across Park) for Specific and Casual Visitors Alike

For example, consider another “commons,” Cambridge Common in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Look at the paths through the park; nearly all line up with streets and sidewalks that access the park. Cambridge Common exists within the context of its surrounding neighborhood. Approach the park from any direction, cross in to the park and you are met with a shortcut path to just about any intersection on the other side. It is simple, elegant and encourages park usage. Getting from the Sheraton Commander hotel to the Harvard campus or dinner near Harvard Square offers a pleasant but direct path through Cambridge Common. To get from Mason Street on the west to Cambridge Street on the east; straight line. Appian Way to the north end of the park; same thing. The park doesn’t have to be a destination in and of itself, it can be a pleasant diversion to simply pass through. I’ve visited Cambridge several times in the past couple years, and in all my visits Cambridge Commons itself was my actual destination only once. However, I estimate that three-quarters of my journeys to and from my hotel included passing through the park, because it was a pleasant option but also because there was a direct, convenient route to get where I needed. A simple X-shaped path from corner to corner of the park goes a long way, and we can’t forget this as we design our “commons.”

Cambridge Common, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Cambridge Common, Cambridge, Massachusetts


Look around at other downtown parks or squares surrounded by a lot of urban density (i.e., people). Washington Square Park in New York City has access from the many streets that intersect it.

Washington Square Park, New York City

Washington Square Park, New York City


Across the pond, Soho Square in London twists the X-shape in to a cross but still provides direct access from the surrounding grid.

Soho Square, London

Soho Square, London


Across the river in St. Paul, both downtown parks have the simple X-shaped access. Rice Park has access from all corners, and at 1.6 acres isn’t that much less than the largest block of Downtown East Commons (2.4 acres).

Rice Park, St. Paul

Rice Park, St. Paul


Mears Park has a classic X-shape set of paths but also a stage, winding trail and stream. It invites people from all directions to pass through or stay and linger.

Mears Park, St. Paul

Mears Park, St. Paul


Maybe the most appropriate example is Folger Park in Washington D.C., because it is two parks bisected by a road (gasp!), but each has access from every corner. This isn’t rocket science. As with St. Paul, often the solution is a simple X-shaped set of access paths, elegant and inviting to the actual people who use and love these parks.

Folger Park

Folger Park, Washington D.C.


Hargreaves Associates should overlay a simple X-shaped set of paths through each block of the “commons,” welcoming people to the park but also encouraging others to pass through. Want to get from City Hall to the stadium? The Mill District to the Armory? Either light rail station to Wells Fargo? HCMC, new apartments and retail, future land uses we haven’t thought of? Providing direct access from all corners will make the “commons” more welcoming for all. Not every visitor will be there for a specific event or activity, but whatever the reason, better access from the corners helps all visitors access and enjoy the park. It is important to point out this is true whether or not Portland Avenue passes through the park; embrace the grid and pedestrians can approach from any direction, going anywhere, and they can either pass through or stay and linger.

One of Four Concepts by Hargreaves - Access From Corners Required

One of Four Concepts by Hargreaves – Access From Corners Required


Some of those in favor of closing Portland Avenue have used the slogan “one park not two.” I’d rather have two well-designed parks than none. Hargreaves has so far taken public input and created four concepts, presented last week (scroll down and link to the 37 MB presentation), which include very sensible ideas like a playground, restaurant, and space for events. Whether we/they choose the “contrast,” “connect” or “unite” concept, and whether or not Portland is closed, we must put more emphasis on the context of the surrounding Downtown East neighborhood and how people will actually get to and enter, much less use, the park. Access from every corner is critical and can be achieved while still accommodating all proposed uses within. Doing so can increase the number of visitors, both specific and casual passers-by, and create a more welcoming and accessible park for all. A “commons”, if you will.

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

15 thoughts on “Park Entrances at Downtown East Commons: X Marks the Spot

  1. Pingback: Joe Urban » Blog Archive » Downtown East Commons Access Paths – X Marks the Spot

  2. Wayne

    While we’re discussing parks that have good access and useful paths to traverse them, can I bring up how truly awful the layout paths in Loring Park is? Seriously just a bunch of randomly meandering trails with as many extras crammed in to the spaces as they can think of and little to no relation to the street on the east and south sides. There’s not even a sidewalk along a lot of it (or a nearby trail with a buffer that parallels the streets).

    I don’t care who designed it (they probably didn’t design most of the additions to it anyway) or how famous they are, Loring Park is garbage in the design department and a big part of why we’re so gung-ho about getting a new downtown park is because the one we already have is crap.

    1. Rosa

      I’ve always assumed that the path design in Loring was specifically to make it so people didn’t cut through it on bikes or skateboards. Especially the decorative fencing bits, they seem specifically to be there to keep bikes off the pedestrian paths (and make little kids on bikes crash).

      Powderhorn is similarly not for cutting through, but that seems more geographical – the paths are ringed so they are mostly level except for a few connectors.

      And Peavey seems designed for easiest police drive-through 🙁

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Well, there is a lake in the middle of it, so unless you plan to ford, you kind of need to either take a path around it or get to the bridge.

      It can be a bit hard to see what goes where, but I don’t really agree it’s so terrible. There are entrances in each corner and directly across from each street that meets it (Oak Grove, 15th, 14th, Grant, the Greenway, Yale Place, MCTC, and Maple).

      But yes, the paths expect that you want to enter and/or cross the park, not promenade around the exterior. Maybe a sidewalk on both sides would make sense for 15th and Willow, but I don’t really think that’s keeping anyone out of the park.

      Now if you want to complain about the bike path, that’s a little different, as there’s only one routing you around one side of the park, and it’s difficult to distinguish from the foot paths (and thus often containing pedestrians).

      1. Wayne

        Peripheral paths really help transition from park to street and … well, act as sidewalks. The sidewalks across from the park are so terribly narrow that they’re barely wide enough for one person to walk in places. Why is it crazy to assume that people who would be walking on those sidewalks would rather do so on the park side (maybe with a few extra feet and some greenery?). It’s utterly insane to me to have urban parks without sidewalks on the street edges. It’s bad design that belongs in some third-ring exurb where nobody walks anyway.

        I do also want to complain about the bike path, because it often floods or washes out whenever there’s rain or melting snow. It’s crap too, but it doesn’t somehow excuse the rest of the poor design by comparison.

        Also there’s already a bridge/path that cuts across the pond. But why do the approaches to it meander so senselessly? And that plaza-ish thing next to it prevents anything resembling a direct approach. You could have a nice plaza there with benches lining it where all the paths meet up to cross the bridge over the pond.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          This is the park:,-93.2860394,17z

          There’s a small curve to make on either side of the bridge, but it’s hardly forcing you too far out of your way.

          Otherwise, there’s a close to direct path from every entrance to the bridge except Maple St. If you’re coming from there, you have to detour one way or the other if you want to take the bridge over the pond, although you might be more likely to skirt the pond, in which case there’s a path right there for you.

          There are certainly a lot of extra paths that lead to things other than crossing of the park, so maybe that’s what you mean, but if the difference between a straight line and a gentle curve is what’s got you worked up, I just don’t see it.

          Although I have been known to enter the park from the Greenway and want to go to the businesses on Harmon Place. There’s a convenient path to take me there, except that’s the bike path. That is a bit of an issue.

          1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

            To be fair, Loring Park is much bigger and has a lake in the middle, and is certainly not a “square” consisting of one or two downtown blocks. While we can probably take cues from its design, it does serve a pretty different purpose.

  3. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

    Another major reason to design a baseline of good direct shortcut paths from corner to corner of each block is funding. While funding for all the elements shown so far in plans is still up in the air, there is no guarantee some won’t be value engineered out. As donors are found to ensure construction of a restaurant, terrace, water feature, etc., at least we’ll have basic circulation already established.

  4. Kent

    Of course if they don’t provide paths from each corner across the park, the foot traffic will just grind them into the dirt anyway as the lack of sidewalks won’t prevent most people from cutting across the grass and forming dirt trails. Might as well do it right to begin with.

  5. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

    Might wanna check with Jacob Frey about this. He seemed to be against (forgive my paraphrasing) ‘A simple X with a fountain’.

      1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

        YES! That thing! Thank you for looking this up/ remembering your post.

        Can MPLS just make one block Rice Park and one Mears? The Grandstand would face the stadium, a nice little water feature in each. X paths, maybe get rid of those 1 foot trip-fences that StP uses to keep people off the grass, but that’s it.

        1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

          I definitely don’t remember my old posts, and often have to look them up!

          I might add that I have new insight into this matter and I wouldn’t pigeonhole Councilmember Frey’s opinion on the “commons” as anti-“X with a fountain,” but just that it’s important to think outside the box and ensure this park is world-class, or “freaking awesome” as it were. In other words, “freaking awesome” can indeed include, but just can’t be limited to, an X with a fountain.

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