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Get ready for The Interchange, Minneapolis’ Grand Central Station – and then some

The Interchange untangles pedestrian paths to trains and buses
Courtesy Knutson Construction/EE&K a Perkins Eastman company
The Interchange untangles pedestrian paths to trains and buses and allows safe passage over tracks to nearby streets.

This spring, while people were ripping their hair out about the Vikings stadium, a more exciting project for downtown Minneapolis was quietly speeding toward realization. And — hold onto your hat — the groundbreaking is set for next Monday.

Called "The Interchange," the $80 million development, right next to Target Field, will knit together the endpoints of the North Star, Hiawatha and Central Corridor. Professional planners refer to it as a multimodal transportation hub.

To Peter McLaughlin, a Hennepin County commissioner and chairman of the Regional Railroad Authority, I said that it sounded kind of like an open-air version of New York's Grand Central Terminal, where commuters catch trains, subways, buses and cabs to travel from one far-flung part of the metro to another. 

Our ‘Grand Central Station’

"Not kind of," he says. "It will be like Grand Central Station. A little disaggregated, maybe, but, yeah, Grand Central Station."

The hub has been in the Metropolitan Council's regional transportation plan for quite some time. (There's also one slated for St. Paul at the Union Depot.) But, the Minneapolis project took on a head of steam after the Twins ballpark opened in 2010.

"In the first year, 8,000 fans used public transit each day," says Ed Hunter, Interchange project manager. That was more than anybody expected and, at game times, the area became a mess. People crisscrossed each other, trying to get to either the North Star or the Hiawatha LRT line. Those who wanted to stay in the neighborhood to eat or to shop had to walk over live train tracks or slither down a narrow sidewalk to get where they were going.

The area was doomed to become an even bigger mess when the Central Corridor line goes into operation in 2014. Twice as many people would be flooding the streets and platforms from the arrival of 500 trains a day and 1,800 buses. Of course, downtown Minneapolis wants more people to commute, visit, hang around and spend money. So says McLaughlin, "It's a good problem to have." 

Ergo, Hennepin County put the project on a more aggressive schedule and managed to convince the Met Council and the Federal Transportation Administration that building the Interchange earlier, rather than later, made sense.

Since rerouting of the turnaround areas for trains would be necessary, it wouldn't make sense to dig everything up after the Central Corridor LRT started running. Hunter says he persuaded the county to do what's called a "design-build." That's a method of accelerating a project by having one team in charge of both steps. Already, Knutson Construction, the company also renovating Riverside Plaza, has won the contract. 

Transit headquarters — and lots more

The Interchange untangles pedestrian paths to trains and buses and allows safe passage over tracks to nearby streets. But, as they say in those infomercials, there's much more.

The hub will include space for bars and restaurants, a Metro Transit Police station, a bike shop and bike racks. (For commuters' sake, I suggest adding a dry cleaner, a shoe repair and a hair cut joint.)

There will also be a stretch called "The "Great Lawn," which could be used for fairs, concerts, exhibits or an ice-skating rink, and "The Cascade,” a huge stairway (think of the Spanish Steps in Rome, only bigger and wider) that would be a meeting place ("Psst, Romeo. I'll see thee at The Cascade."); it could also serve as an informal amphitheater.

A similar project in Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland has been very successful, says Barbara Thoman, executive director at Transit for Livable Communities in St. Paul. "It's come to be called 'Portland's living room," she says, and it hosts film festivals, musicians, a farmers market and fairs.

Interchang eSquare
Courtesy Knutson Construction/EE&K a Perkins Eastman companyThe hub will include space for bars and restaurants, a Metro Transit Police station, a bike shop and bike racks.

Of course, whenever any city puts in a new open-air development, the worrier in me starts fretting that it will draw panhandlers, drunks, pickpockets or worse. But if enough people use the space and the transit police patrol it, the Interchange should suffer no more nuisances than any other busy city street. 

All the Interchange development will take place on county land.

During the two years of construction, the current turnaround area for trains will be rerouted to wrap around the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, which burns garbage to create electricity. Nobody using the Interchange will have to look at trucks unloading the yucky stuff because that side of the HERC facility will be at the back where trains are stored. The other side of the building, a blank wall, will face platforms.

"Could you use it for light shows?" I asked Hunter, in hopes that someday I could once more feel like I was in Times Square without actually having to travel there.

Year-round activities

"That's what we're thinking," he said.  "We want the area to be used 365 days a year."

Seriously? In Minnesota?

The answer is “yes.” Excess energy from the HERC plant will go to heat the sidewalks and the stairways. Using steam to melt snow turns out to be cheaper than shoveling. And maybe visitors will be able to enjoy a cup of joe in an outdoor cafe in January. Pretty exciting.

Another part of the plan that could be thrilling — at least to developer types — is a squaring off of an Indianapolis 500-style curve in the road on the northwest side of the area, making room for a hotel, office building or stores. At least, that's what Hennepin County hopes will come in. There will also be routes to connect the area to the North Loop.

 A patchwork of funding is underwriting the project: $39.1 million from Hennepin County, $17.2 million from state bonding, $10.5 million from the feds, $10 million from the Met Council, $1.5 million from the Minnesota Ballpark Authority, and $500,000 from Minneapolis (to square off that street) and another $500,000 from the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, because, says McLaughlin, "the design calls for innovative water treatment."

The county expects some return on its investment from parking fees. (There will be a small 250-vehicle garage under the train platform.) Store rents and licensing fees from whoever wants to sell stuff on the Great Lawn, for example, hot dogs or ice cream, could supply another revenue stream.

And, of course, there are the naming rights.

Please, I beg of you, Hennepin County: Don't call it Target Plaza. We've been there and done that — a lot.

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Comments (9)

What about buses?

Grand Central Station huh? Can't you catch a bus there? At the Interchange, the buses will be 750 feet away. It would be great if the Interchange was being built to be resilient enough to last as long as Grand Central Station is, but if it's being built without the possibility of adding a BRT station and without accounting for the eventual necessity of grade-separating LRT downtown, it's hard to imagine the Interchange lasting more than a couple decades.

At best, this project will

At best, this project will provide an actual "front door" for the city, a pleasant place to wait for the train, a connection between the North Loop and Downtown, and a way to handle overflow crowds.

Unfortunately, the renderings that have been released give us next to no indication that any of those goals will be successful...unless fireworks and the mass release of balloons really get you going.

I worry that, because of the very limited schedule of commuter trains (and the lack of real prospects for future lines) and the fact that LRT passengers mostly do not continue to the end of the line, that this project will not live up to its potential.

Retail and the lively atmosphere that is described by the renderings require people -- not the mass crowds seen before a Twins game - who use the space as part of their everyday routine. A few hundred people waiting for the train at the end of the day will not cut it, I'm afraid.

commercial area at the Interchange

I hope that there will be a bookstore at the Interchange. No better time to look at books and ebooks than when waiting for a train or waiting to met someone who's coming in on a train. The bookstores at the airport know how to set up a store for travelers/commuters with newspapers, magazines, best sellers and some interesting literature.

Sweet...

Minneapolis is growing up - transit wise.

Bring it on!

Moving to the North Loop later this month. Great news whatever shape or form it takes on. Maybe they can plop down a lake while they're at it?

I can't believe

that you quoted the use of the word "disaggregated" with a straight face.

dis·ag·gre·gate

to separate (an aggregate or mass) into its component parts.

It's just like Grand Central

It's just like Grand Central Station, except it's just 2 LRT tracks and a bus stop, a couple hundred parking spots, located on the cut-off periphery of the downtown. It's most public area is a slice of wide-open paved plaza and a stairway shoehorned into a space between LRT tracks, a street, and the trash-burner.

There is a real reason why the architectural renderings make it very hard to figure out the space. It's because it is a really awkward space that the main function will be to pass through on their way to a game or to an office or condo are in the north loop. On hot summer days or cold winter days, there are really very few urban plazas where people will congregate and gather. Check out the plaza in front of the Metrodome, lots of people hang out there, eh?

By the way, THE Grand Central station has 75 tracks, covers 48 acres (yes, covered), and has almost a hundred stores and restaurants, and is in a very vibrant urban area.

The overselling of these places is ludicrous--isn't the St. Paul train station supposed to be the equivalent of Union Station in DC? Now we'll have both Grand Central and Union Station within a few miles of each other!! Aren't we great!!

Or are we just gullible rubes?

Completely agree that the

Completely agree that the comparisons to Grand Central Station are borderline ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as the renderings that come with this article.

That doesn't mean that it can't be a nice space, and a functional space - definitely nicer and more functional than exists currently.

C'mon people

Look, no matter how many or few tracks and trains, buses, whatever you have, you still have to plan t and build hubs. Whatever big station you care to name anywhere in the world was the product of planning, that's all we're doing here, and it's about time.