The Commons – Some Observations

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?”

The "Zygi View," Complete With Berm

The “Zygi View,” Complete With Berm

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.

Learning to Ride a Bike in the Roomy Commons

Learning to Ride a Bike in the Roomy Commons

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.

For People-Watching, Try the BWCA

For People-Watching, Try the BWCA

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.

Food Trucks and Tables and Chairs are Complementary

Food Trucks and Tables and Chairs are Complementary

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.

Shade. Precious Shade.

Shade. Precious Shade.

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.

Crosswalk or Not, Humans Will Cross

Crosswalk or Not, Humans Will 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 in Detroit - A Great Urban Park

Campus Martius in Detroit – A Great Urban Park

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!?

Where are the People?

Where are the People?

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.


Streets.mn is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

, , , , , , ,

31 Responses to The Commons – Some Observations

  1. M November 2, 2016 at 9:34 am #

    This could be Jacob Frey’s Block E.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke November 2, 2016 at 9:53 am #

      I wouldn’t blame Frey. Blame the Vikings stadium. Apparently, they insisted on having a large “staging area” for events, and at some point some people were like, well why not make the staging area into a city park. It was always going to be vague and kinda half-baked for this reason.

      See more here: https://www.minnpost.com/cityscape/2014/06/considering-stadium-design-yard-and-gray-area-between-public-and-private-space

      Here’s the relevant quote from the head of the all-powerful Sports Facilities Commission:

      The big difference between suburban and urban stadiums are the vast surface parking lots that surround those in the suburbs. These acres of asphalt serve many purposes beyond the obvious car storage. (For example, take tailgaiting, the time-honored tradition of having a boozy picnic next to your car.) According to Kelm-Helgen, parking lots also become crucial event management tools for hosting large events. As she told me, “If you had a suburban stadium, all those parking lots would become staging areas and a security perimeter. For a Super Bowl or a Final Four, you don’t want everybody showing up at 5 o’clock for the game, you want people to come through the day. So you put up a tent so that people can come throughout the afternoon.”

      • Sam Newberg
        Sam Newberg November 2, 2016 at 4:15 pm #

        Agreed. Frey inherited this and is making the best of a disappointing situation.

  2. Joe Scott
    Joe November 2, 2016 at 9:35 am #

    Maybe The Commons only needed to be a third of an acre. < Yes, I am always puzzled by how proud people are of the parks around here. Most are 90% empty fields of grass, so how is that a good thing when empty suburban lawns are a bad thing?? If you can grow grass in a downtown park it doesn't have enough foot traffic.

  3. Matt Steele November 2, 2016 at 9:54 am #

    I think this has potential to mature the right way over time, but the Vikings’ rights to the property work against that potential.

    – Remove the 400 block of Portland, making this one park instead of two.
    – Build a new park building / restaurant / etc concept on the air rights over the Downtown East station (1/2 block corner of 4th and Park). Bonus: Partial blockage of stadium view.
    – Allow small mobile structures around the park that further activate the space. Think food trucks to the next level. Could be a shipping container gift shop or bike rental stand, or an airstream-turned-coffee-kiosk, etc. Give office workers a reason to walk TO the park and then walk AROUND when they get there.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller November 2, 2016 at 12:21 pm #

      As to the second one, the pedestrian bridge and it’s staging area might have ruled that out.

      More food/other trucks should definitely be in the plan.

      It would also be nice to make greater use of the areas around the park. Could something be built at 5th and Portland (on the parking lot/former hyperbaric medicine spot)? Above/next to the new ramp? Across Chicago from the ramp?

  4. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke November 2, 2016 at 9:55 am #

    Put a Shake Shack in it.

    • Alex Schieferdecker
      Alex Schieferdecker November 2, 2016 at 11:13 am #

      Problem SOLVED.

  5. Alex Schieferdecker
    Alex Schieferdecker November 2, 2016 at 12:36 pm #

    Was it ever going to be any different? The main reason The Commons isn’t being used so much is simply because there’s not a lot of activities around it. The Wells Fargo towers and occasional events at US Bank Stadium are not enough to provide a steady string of park users, and as Sam mentions, there’s no programming to lure people in anyway.

    My concern longer term is that with the third tower on the parking ramp lot, and the prospective City of Minneapolis office building, this area will get a lot of office workers (who will use the park during lunchtime) and few residents, which is what it really needs. Only the First Covenant lot near the stadium is slated to be residential. Meanwhile, the awful Juvenile Court building is never going away, and nobody can find a good use for the Armory (which I hate, but it’s historic, so idk).

    In other words, residential development in the Commons area is a long time coming, and so without programming, the Commons is going to be lightly used for a while.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke November 2, 2016 at 1:11 pm #

      Uses for the Armory brainstorm session.

      OK go!

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke November 2, 2016 at 1:15 pm #

        I’ll go first.

        Climbing gym.
        Small zepplin hangar.
        Mammoth dioramas.
        National parking museum.

        • Alex Schieferdecker
          Alex Schieferdecker November 2, 2016 at 5:38 pm #

          I mean, I don’t want to advocate tearing down unusual and historic buildings. But like the U of M aluminum grain elevators, it feels like everyone is just treading water with the armory.

          That being said, I definitely don’t the development pressure is such that the armory is in trouble anytime soon. At least not before that Thrivent lot.

          • Adam Miller
            Adam Miller November 3, 2016 at 10:02 am #

            Someone is currently (and for maybe the last year or so?) spending money on fixing up the Armory, so they must have a plan for it.

            • Sam Newberg
              Sam Newberg November 7, 2016 at 9:22 am #

              Yes, some work has been done on the Armory, but I can’t recall seeing final plans or knowing that financing has been arranged.

              I wish the Armory had a better presence and relationship with The Commons. Now it’s kind of tucked away behind The Edition apartments and berms/foliage.

        • Will November 3, 2016 at 9:21 am #

          The parking museum is the boost that downtown Minneapolis needs. Complete with free parking that is always at the door.

    • Matt Steele November 2, 2016 at 2:44 pm #

      Other than the skyway that runs through it, I’ve never been in the jail… But from the looks of it, the eastern 1/3 of the jail block (facing 5th Ave and the Common) is loading docks or some other low-slung use.

      Could it be worthwhile for Hennepin County to look at reconfiguring this space or getting an easement for the uses it contains, and offering development or air rights for this eastern 1/3 of the block? A nice 8 to 15 story residential tower would work great here.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller November 2, 2016 at 2:57 pm #

        They could call it The Dungeon and market it as Halloween-themed!!

        (okay, no)

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg November 2, 2016 at 4:23 pm #

      To answer your first question, Alex, “was it ever going to be any different?” Yes. Long range plans never showed a park in this location. So now we have a park, which in principle is fine, but we weren’t provided enough time to really think through important things like scale, use, a long-term vision for what people want with an open space, etc., only the guiding notion that it will make the stadium look great, which arguably it does admirably.

      • Alex Schieferdecker
        Alex Schieferdecker November 2, 2016 at 5:34 pm #

        I guess my perspective started from “it’s getting built” and from that point on I never expected it to be particularly popular, at least to start.

        But you’re absolutely right to point out that if there had been a longer term planning process before this thing was even decided, beyond “let’s give everyone a great view of the sandcrawler”, we might’ve had better answers for how it was going to be used.

  6. Noelle November 2, 2016 at 1:55 pm #

    Speaking as one of the downtown worker bees, it’s a bit of a hike from “core” downtown. I actually had no idea there was seating and food trucks there during the day – had I known that, I might have taken a Nice Ride over there once in awhile. But, given the choice, I’d probably go over to either side of the river rather than hang out in the shadow of that monstrosity of a stadium. I agree with Matt that it needs more of “something” – a decent coffee shop, some retail, etc – that would actually make me want to take the time to make it to that side of downtown.

  7. Joe November 2, 2016 at 4:17 pm #

    I agree that the problem is the vikings. I LOVE programming, but making it a kids park (a small version of Maggie Daley Park in Chicago), would draw a ton of kids/parents and even adults looking for fun. However, that can’t be done, because the Vikings needed for 10 afternoons a year.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller November 2, 2016 at 4:48 pm #

      So, I had never before looked at the features of the Maggi Daley Park, but having now done so I’d say the bigger issue here is finding the funding for features of that type.

  8. Erci November 2, 2016 at 5:52 pm #

    I don’t question your observations or concerns, but I do think it’s a bit early to celebrate defeat. The park was barely finished at the end of August and much of “Downtown East” is still a work in progress. So now we’ve built it . . . will they come? I don’t think we know yet. Programming the park will help, mature trees will help, filling in the vacant retail spaces on some of the streets surrounding the park will help, using the park as part of major events in the stadium will help. There will be trial and error as to what will work in this space. Some of these things take time and money to develop and expecting all of that to be lively and hopping and ready to go 90 days after the park was completed seems a bit unfair to me.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg November 2, 2016 at 6:53 pm #

      But to be fair, the Vikings stadium opened in August, fully funded and programmed, and by all accounts has been successful so far. No need for trial and error there.

      And I’m not celebrating defeat. I’m worried that we’ll never quite be able to make a huge 4.2 acre park successful. I’m also concerned that The Commons will make the possibility of a truly vibrant, urban park politically impractical. I’m hoping for success at The Commons. I’m just not sure it’s possible.

  9. Serafina Scheel
    Serafina Scheel November 2, 2016 at 9:20 pm #

    The play garden at Maggie Daley is awesome, as is the play area outside the farm at the Minnesota Zoo. A distinctive play area could make it a magnet for families and visitors. Instead we get a sad, generic toddler climber.

  10. Keith Morris November 3, 2016 at 8:31 am #

    If it were designed like a European plaza, then at least all of the edges would be full since instead of streets for cars surrounding the park there would be buildings full of cafes, restaurants and bars spilling over directly into the park.

  11. Nick Deacon November 3, 2016 at 10:36 am #

    From Downtown Journal, July 14, 2016 (http://www.journalmpls.com/news/2016/07/boosters-want-to-build-buzz-for-the-commons/):
    “It takes work,” Rockwell said. “The (conservancy-run) parks that have succeeded in other cities around the country typically have gotten there by a thoughtful, incremental process of focusing on the space, finding activities that really work in that space outdoors, that fit in that community.”

    Rockwell, currently Green Minneapolis’ sole employee, said he aims to add 10 to 12 full-time staff members by the time the organization takes over the park, probably in the spring. Their mission isn’t just to be caretakers of the grass, trees and hardscape seating areas but to program activities and events that draw in the public.

    “The goal of a destination park is to be humming, to have a buzz to it,” he said.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg November 4, 2016 at 11:16 am #

      Win Rockwell resigned from Green Minneapolis in September. If anyone has updates on the org, I’m interested to hear. I’m hopeful for the success of The Commons and that there will be more programming next year.

  12. Betsey Buckheit
    Betsey Buckheit November 5, 2016 at 4:15 am #

    I hope you (or someone) revisits this space in a few years. When I was in Boston two years ago, I walked what was then the brand new Rose Kennedy Greenway and thought there was very nice landscaping, but the park was empty of people despite free wifi, charging stations, and being surrounded by Boston on all sides. I just returned from visiting Boston again and the park is much more active now. Food trucks at intersections draw people from nearby offices, more people seem to be choosing to walk in the park (whether to get somewhere or just to walk, I don’t know), benches were well used (and movable furniture had been moved into little groups). I was there on a warmish November weekday, but I’d like to see it in the summer and/or a weekend.

    Perhaps the Commons will also grow into a great place for people with a little time and effort.

  13. K.Broberg November 7, 2016 at 8:05 am #

    I’ve noticed the same thing with the protected bike lanes, they are barely used.