Since The Commons opened this summer, I’ve visited a few times and passed by several times, making a point of counting patrons and observing how people use this new public green downtown space. After all, how people use a new park is the best indicator of success, right? Here is a collection of observations so far.
One of life’s pleasures is walking barefoot across an impeccable lawn, so the first thing I did on my very first visit to The Commons was take off my shoes and walk across the brand new, unblemished great lawn. This was the evening of the first game at U.S. Bank Stadium. I’ve seen the occasional frisbee or football be tossed, but most people on the great lawn are just taking a picture of the new stadium. This makes sense, since the primary reason for the existence of The Commons is to provide a view of the stadium. This is called the “Zygi View.” And so, after a couple minutes of walking around barefoot, I asked myself, “now what?”
I returned a couple weeks later on a muggy August morning to help my son Shaw learn to ride his bike. Mission accomplished! The expansive, level sidewalk encircling the great lawn was nearly free of people; a perfect training ground for a six-year old still quite wobbly on two wheels. The only other users of this sidewalk are Wells Fargo employees doing laps with their fitbits, getting their steps in.
On a very pleasant morning in late August, temperature 77 degrees with sunshine, I visited for an hour and a half. In that entire time, including lunch, I never counted more than 53 people in the entire two-block park at one time. This is well under 20 people per acre; I’ve seen more people on portages in the Boundary Waters.
Most people were congregated in the 150 by 100 foot plaza where the food trucks park along 4th Street. And even then, at the peak of lunch hour, I counted no more than 35 people either standing in line for a food truck, waiting for their food, or sitting and eating. This little plaza space was the closest thing to an active urban vibe I could find. Maybe The Commons only needed to be a third of an acre.
The movable tables and chairs are a very good idea. I observed numerous people shift tables and chairs, usually to what today is precious little shade. On a humid day, one gentleman took refuge under one of the remnant large shade trees that used to be located across Portland Avenue from the Star Tribune building. There should be a bench under that tree. Shade is clearly a valuable commodity; I look forward to the rest of these trees growing up.
Much has been made of the idea of a mid-block crosswalk across Portland between 4th and 5th Streets. I think it’s a good idea to make this crosswalk real, at least by my observation of actual pedestrians. The sidewalks on the Portland Avenue edges of both the east and west blocks of the park seem to line up and call out for a crosswalk. In fact, that’s exactly how actual human beings seem to see and use it (below). As well, the shortest path from 5th Street and the downtown core to the west to the doors of Wells Fargo is a diagonal across the west block of the park, crossing Portland Avenue mid-block, and then across 4th Street. Time and again I’ve observed people follow this path of least resistance. So crosswalk or not, it’s where people cross.
I’m well aware that, given funding, there could be additional programming and even a restaurant at The Commons. That would be a big help, because clearly the biggest missing element (other than game days) at the Commons is people. On a September weekday morning with the sun shining and a temperature of 55 degrees, I counted fewer than 10 people at The Commons. A 63 degree sunny October afternoon, same thing. Time and again I pass by and think, why does the park look so empty? A downtown park should do better than that.
Campus Martius, a much smaller, one-acre park in downtown Detroit, uses a combination of urban design and programming to generate consistent crowds, day and night. At least that’s what I saw when I visited this past summer. The differences are many, worthy of its own post. How can it be that Detroit is kicking our butt!?
So The Commons is nice, but…. Max Musicant and I wrote several pieces in late 2013 and early 2014 about concerns we had about this park (this post represents my opinion and mine alone). But how dare I complain? We got a new park – for the price of a stadium (plus the price of an empty park)! And after all, it’s a nice big green space where one didn’t previously exist, and a few people use and enjoy it on a daily basis. This is all true, but a downtown park ought to be much more active.
One solution is obvious – raise more money for capital improvements like that proposed restaurant, and long-term dollars for programming like events, movies, etc. The problem is, there are also other downtown open space projects like Peavey Plaza and the Loring Greenway that may be more worthy of funding. It’s too bad we had to spend that $10 million in public money expanding the skyway all the way to the stadium; The Commons could really use $10 million right about now. So prove me wrong, raise a ton of money and program the hell out of it, but so far The Commons is a big disappointment.