Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Alexander Garvin and Downtown Minneapolis

Dateline: 1:20 pm April 19, 2012 Filed under:

Perhaps fitting on my way recently to see renowned urbanist Alexander Garvin speak about the public realm was my own journey through the public realm of my fair city. In the one block between the light rail station at 5th Street and the Central Library at 4th, I witnessed the range of good and bad public realm that Nicollet Mall and downtown Minneapolis have to offer.

From the train platform I stepped on to Nicollet Mall and passed by the adjacent Powers Block, on which once stood the Powers department store. Today the block is mostly surface parking, but there is also a vacant former McDonald’s restaurant and what is by any measure the ugliest parking structure in the city. Opus owns the site and is proposing a high-rise apartment tower with retail on the ground floor, but for now the block is, um, underutilized (one can only hope the parking structure disappears when developmet occurs).

Nicollet Mall itself is a very attractive pedestrian street with benches, kiosks, bus shelters and attractive pavers that make for an attractive streetscape – a nice public realm indeed. At some point after the Powers building came down, a wall was built at the edge of the sidewalk facing Nicollet, with a raised landscaped area behind it. The wall is the right height on which to sit, which is I’m sure the point, and indeed people do sit there. In fact, developments go up in downtown worth tens of millions of dollars but without a place to sit on the sidewalk in front. This wall feels like “accidental urbanism.”

On this particular day a man was sitting on the wall playing guitar in the pleasant spring weather, adding much to the ambience of the public realm. There was also a couple feeding the pigeons in the little landscaped area. How nice, I thought as I walked on, until my eye was drawn to the used dirty diaper lying on the ground next to the pigeons. Gack! The good, the bad and the ugly public realm all within one view – what a city!

I proceeded to the Central Library to hear Alexander Garvin speak about how important the public realm is to a city. The public realm is what we share – the streets, squares and transportation system – the “living room” of the city. A good public realm, in his words, is where you can “just wander.” He pointed out that improvements to the public realm should not be made in isolation or without a plan for the surrounding land uses affected. He compared the Los Angeles River culvert to San Antonio’s Riverwalk. Both were built with massive public investment for flood control purposes. The former does nothing for the city (except for the occasional movie set location), while the latter added hundreds of million dollars of real estate value to the surrounding area.

Garvin also reminded us to think long-term. It has taken 150 years (and counting) of improvements to Chicago’s lakeshore for private investment to respond. Furthermore, while the Chicago Plan of 1909 (“Burnham’s Plan”) didn’t specifically call for a big bean, Cloud Gate and the surrounding Millennium Park is absolutely in the spirit of the plan for Chicago’s public realm. It is enjoyed by thousands of visitors per day.

He also pointed out that the ribbon cutting is the “birth” of a project, and that it is more important to nurture and feed a public realm during its life cycle. No city is ever “finished,” as city of London planner Peter Rees explains in Craig Taylor’s new book, “Londoners” (I highly recommend it). Carefully plan the “furniture” in your “living room,” leverage private investment with good public realm investments, be patient, nurture projects, and allow for serendipity, and repeat – your work is never done. Easy, right?

In the Question and Answer session, the talk turned to skyways. David Wilson, a member of the Downtown Improvement District’s Greening Committee and an executive at Accenture, asked the audience and Garvin what if even a fraction of the dollars invested in skyways (mostly private property) were instead invested in the public realm? Garvin replied that skyways weren’t necessarily a liability but that the focus needs to be simply on getting more people downtown to enjoy the public realm.

Downtown Minneapolis is making great strides. The Downtown Improvement District is already cleaning the downtown (I’m sure they got to that diaper!), making it safer, and working to implement the 2025 plan. More people are coming, and with them important things like grocery stores! Development around Target Field is occurring, whereas it never did around the Metrodome. And we also need to attract people downtown in the winter. Skyways alone won’t do the trick. We need ice rinks and outdoor fire pits, for starters. We need good plans that leverage private dollars and improve the public realm. For example, building light rail down 5th Street (a huge public investment) without adding a single street tree is inexcusable.

Downtown Minneapolis needs its “big bean” and perhaps a little more serendipity. I think all the great architecture in the world cannot save a lousy public realm, whereas a good public realm can excuse the occasional architectural eyesore. Good plans for a strong public realm and a little breathing room for private investment to occur is the way to achieve a world-class downtown “living room.” Thanks to Alexander Garvin for the inspiration. Time for Minneapolis to step up its game!

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