The great mayor of Charleston, Joe Riley, likes to say “there is no reason to build anything that won’t add to the beauty of the city.” Inspiring words. It behooves the Mayor of Minneapolis, R.T. Rybak, to take those words to heart. After all, the mayor is the chief planner for the city. So you could imagine my concern last week, at the unveiling of the plan for Downtown East, when the first words out of his mouth were that the key to this plan is the parking. It took Rick Collins of Ryan Companies, speaking after Rybak, to point out the real key to the plan is the public park. As the plan for Downtown East advances, it is critical for Rybak to sell this plan with a focus on the new urban park and improving the beauty of the city, or else he risks his legacy being known as the parking mayor instead of the parks mayor.
Right now the only certainly about the plan for Downtown East is the city must provide a lot of parking for the new Vikings stadium. Wells Fargo is interested in building a campus downtown, and to be sure, it would be a stroke of genius if their parking needs could share a facility with the Vikings. But this goes deeper than the provision of parking for a few events a year or a lease signed by a company for some office space. Downtown needs a park, and a well-designed and programmed park will outlive the Wells Fargo lease and certainly the Vikings tenure. This park represents the city’s one major chance to create its version of Central Park. Therefore, the mayor should minimize the focus on parking (not to mention eliminate the skyways) and immediately push for the creation of a conservancy for the new park, a 501c3 entity that can raise money to build, maintain and most importantly program a world-class downtown park, just like they did in Houston with the Discovery Green Conservancy.
Yes, Houston. Discovery Green, which opened about five years ago in Houston sets the bar in my opinion. It shares many characteristics with the new park in Minneapolis, including approximate size (the Downtown East park is about nine acres; Discovery Green is less than 12), and the fact that its area was also once covered by parking lots that severed the downtown core from a major attraction (in this case the Houston convention center). The Discovery Green Conservancy helped raise $125 million in philanthropic money to build the park, which has more than 25 different programmed spaces including gardens, plazas, promenades, fountains, terraces and restaurants that attract people from all over Houston to enjoy their downtown. It s a lovely place. By the way, this well-designed and programmed public space has leveraged about $1 billion dollars in private development around it in less than a decade. That is what the city needs, and the image of a lively, activated, beautiful park like the rendering released last week (shown below) needs to be the basis of the mayor’s vision and rhetoric for the area. A properly executed park will catalyze more development and investment than any stadium ever could.
Critically, Discovery Green has more than 600 underground parking spaces, and doing the same under the new park alleviates the need, or at least alters the design, for the 1,300-space parking garage along Chicago Avenue, which is the front door to the Mill District and should not be marred by a parking garage. Yes, underground parking costs more, but a large underground parking facility nearby uses like a stadium and 6,000-employee office should help pay for itself, and of course would be better situated for park users.
Right now the name for the new park is The Yard and the only budget is for grass seed. Sounds like my yard. Mayor Rybak hopes this can be a front yard for residents of the Mill District. We can do better. We must do better. We need a new name like Humphrey Square and it must become the front yard for the entire city if not the state. An elegant, beautiful place to gather for events, weddings, races, yoga, celebrations (should a certain football team finally win a Super Bowl), and yes, even protests, or just hanging out.
We need a bold vision from our elected officials calling for a more beautiful city, not a hope that by building a parking structure that it just happens. Perhaps I’m being too hard on the mayor. You decide. But as mayor your job is to inspire and to invoke beauty and urbanity, not parking. Joe Riley is right. There is no reason we should build anything that won’t add to the beauty of the city. Rick Collins of Ryan Companies was quoted in the Star Tribune saying this is “a game-changing development.” I sure hope he’s right. Only by developing a beautiful world-class downtown park will this indeed be true; adding Wells Fargo or parking ramps for the Vikings won’t cut it. Even if the mayor doesn’t have the funding lined up for the park, he should be out there promoting a wonderful, populated, planted, programmed park that is a gathering place for all and a centerpiece of the future of the city.
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