Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

We Have the Plans, Now to Get the Development Right in Downtown East

Dateline: 3:29 pm April 22, 2013 Filed under:

The winner of the 2013 Urban Land Institute/Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition for the downtown east area of Minneapolis has been chosen. But with existing plans in place and potential developments emerging for apartments and offices, what of the winning team’s plan will, or even should, be built? Hopefully a lot of it.

A team from the University of Kansas/University of Missouri/Kansas State created a plan for downtown east in Minneapolis that focuses on the Armory as an indoor market and civic space, flanked to the north by two blocks of green space – the first downtown park. Retail, entertainment and housing fill in the development parcels. The Kansas/Missouri/Kansas State team beat out teams from Harvard, Yale and Ball State/Purdue, plus more than a hundred other entrants. Aspects of all four finalist teams deserve to see the light of day.

Principle 1: Get the streets right, as I’ve already written. Every team had some sort of street and traffic flow change proposed. Some closed portions of streets outright, while others proposed two-way streets or more dedicated bike lanes or cycletracks. Good ideas all of them, but many proposals focused on just one street, often Portland Avenue. I think all streets need addressing for successful urbanism to take hold.

Principle 2: Build that park. Two of the ULI Hines teams, including the winners, proposed a park on the block (or two) to the north of the Armory. This is an excellent idea. Downtown Minneapolis desperately needs a park, and frankly with so many blocks currently used as surface parking, they practically scream for a park. Any good neighborhood needs one, and I agree that the best location is the block north of the Armory, particularly if the Armory is used for any kind of public or quasi-public use.

Principle 3: No more skyways. We should not perpetuate the expense of new skyways in an area most believe should be pedestrian-friendly. The density of foot traffic simply won’t accommodate both, as drawing people in to the skyway eats away at sidewalk retail potential. Even a single skyway connection from a parking structure to the new Vikings stadium for VIP usage should not be allowed. All fans, VIPs alike, should have the experience of an outdoor walk to the stadium to remind them of the weather and elements in which football should be played. (When is the last time the Vikings got to the Super Bowl? It is no coincidence that it was when they played home games outdoors with all the competitive advantages the elements bring. But I digress.)

The ULI Hines finalist teams clearly struggled with the issue of skyways and understood their damage to the public realm. The team from Harvard went so far as to suggest semi-enclosed sidewalks that were heated. All of this strikes me as odd, as if you make a public realm with sidewalks, street trees, benches, flowers, and all the elements of good placemaking, nobody will miss the skyways. I realize pedestrian-friendly streets are a novel idea for downtown Minneapolis, but this must change.

Parking Hidden - Mill District

Principle 4: Parking should not be visible from the street. The city already will not allow new surface parking to be built, although I fear the Vikings will find a way to circumvent that; we should go one step further and not allow any new ramps visible from the street. Parking should only be approved if it is contained within mid-block structures and wrapped by buildings (as shown in the photo above), or underground. Don’t let the Vikings claim they need easy accessible parking for up to 12 games per year. If they want a 50,000-vehicle ramp, let them have it so long as they pay for it and residents of the city cannot see it walking by the other 350 days per year. Some renderings show continued surface parking in the name of football obliquely hidden by trees. Let’s not let this happen. We have succeeded with this elsewhere in downtown.

Hardware Street

Principle 5: Break up the blocks where possible, as three of the four teams recommended. These are large blocks. Create some quaint mid-block alleyways, either with retail/restaurant frontage like this image of Hardware Street in Melbourne, Australia (shown above – courtesy City of Melbourne) or residential mews. Alleyways and mews (regardless of whether they are lines with restaurants or residential front doors) would not only add to the variety of pedestrian routes and choices, but add intrigue and intimate spaces to a downtown sorely lacking in this department.

Park Av Lofts

Principle 6: Make frontages more interesting. Every single structure built (office, parking, residential) must be interesting at the street level. Implement the Jan Gehl rule of requiring at least 10 doors per block front (minimum of 10 doors per 100 meters to be considered remotely “friendly”). If the building is Wells Fargo Mortgage offices, line it with small retail spaces. If it is a parking structure, do the same. If it is residences, make sure they have doors and walkout entrances at the ground level. Windows are not enough. Even the stadium can be more interesting at eye level with plaques, murals, art installations or Vikings memorabilia. As the image of Park Avenue Lofts (above) shows, we know how to do this in Minneapolis and must continue to improve upon it. Follow the “Gehl Rule” to ensure friendly streets.

The ULI Hines winner and runners up have some excellent ideas for downtown east. We should pursue some of them. But regardless of which ones we pursue, if we do these few things (public space, no skyways, no visible parking except curbside, and good frontages), we’ll look back in 30 years and not remember the current conditions around the Metrodome. Who knows, maybe we’ll even celebrate a Super Bowl victory on Armory Green. Well, I can dream, right?

1 Comment »

  1. Regarding the park… I think it would be better on the Thrivent parking block south of Armory rather than north. It would help move DTE urbanism south towards Elliot Park. It has more available frontage for mixed-use buildings (Thrivent’s half block lot, Thrivent’s quarter block lot next to the Sexton, and HCMC’s half block next to their ramp). There’s also the potential to create a linear park from this block to Chicago Ave and Elliot Park, creating a truly urban arc around the new stadium, from Elliot Park to the edge of the CBD then around to the mill district.

    The block to the north of the armory will have the blank wall of a jail between it and downtown, and it is more likely this block would get tailored to tailgating rather than neighborhood park uses.

    Comment by Matt — April 22, 2013 @ 3:57 pm

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