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Gateway Park: When will Minneapolis get a signature downtown park?

Gateway Park: When will Minneapolis get a signature downtown park?
Courtesy of Accenture
The largest piece of the proposed Gateway Park would unite Cancer Survivors Park and an empty lot next to the library now used by Metro Transit as a bus turnaround.

All the very best cities have one.

No, I am not talking about a National Football League franchise or a symphony orchestra. Minneapolis has those things — or one of them, anyway. What I am referring to is a downtown park.

San Francisco has Union Square, a tropical piazza with a dramatic obelisk. Boston has the Common and adjacent Public Garden, where you can catch rides on boats shaped like swans. In New York, there's Central Park, with a zoo, an ice rink and a merry-go-round; Bryant Park, with a restaurant and reading spots (it's next door to the public library), and Washington Square Park, which features playgrounds and tables for chess. London and Paris have too many to mention. Even the city's less populous neighbor St. Paul has two, Rice and Mears, whose lighted trees at night look as though they were laden with diamonds.

Minneapolis, however, has no signature downtown park — and it should. Remember when Obama was elected in 2008? He delivered his victory speech to thousands at Chicago's Millennium Park. Well, if R.T. Rybak were to become president, he'd have to address his followers in a surface parking lot.

Since 2008 at least, Minneapolis civic and business leaders involved in the Trust for Public Land, a conservation group, have been jonesing for a major park in the city's core. David Wilson, managing director at Accenture and head of the park steering committee, believes that if downtown doesn't get its act together — and fast — its future will be anything but vibrant.

Why is a park so important? He points out that many of his company's 1,600 employees are people under age 30 who want the amenities of downtown living, restaurants, theater and entertainment. And they're more likely to find a downtown amenable if it offers a swath of nature where they could walk, run, take their kids, play games and so on. Already, he warns, "Denver is eating our lunch, and Seattle and Austin [Texas]." In other words, young up-and-comers are not up-and-coming here but up-and-going there.

Property values rise

Downtown parks also offer dollars-and-cents benefits to property owners around it. According to a study done   for the Trust for Public Land, way back in 1856, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead conducted an analysis showing that property near New York's Central Park sold at a premium. More recently, Chicago's Millennium Park was found to have added $1.4 billion in value to nearby residential property, a 25 percent increase. Discovery Green in Dallas, which opened in 2008, boosted redevelopment by $312 million.

So it would go in Minneapolis. Among other financial benefits, a downtown park would add a premium of $147 million to property values; in turn, local tax coffers could expect an extra $2.4 million a year in revenues.

The plan that has evolved is Gateway Park, which would stretch from 5th Street to the Mississippi. In a way, it's more a green corridor with lots of trees lining Hennepin and Nicollet to hook up two major splotches of actual park. The first would unite Cancer Survivors Park between Second and Third Streets with a now-empty lot next to the Main Library. (It was once the site of the Nicollet Hotel.)

Two triangles of land fronting Hennepin would provide passageways to a second large patch on Hennepin and First Street that would terrace down to the waterfront below. Down at the river level, the Post Office has an arcade that could be used for eateries and shops, places to rent kayaks, bikes, Segways and so on, says Wilson. "A lot of people who travel here don't even know there's a river downtown," he adds.

The plan is a kind of cobbled-together affair, a patchwork of land that is already publicly owned. A walk along the green corridor would not be completely bucolic; a pedestrian would have to cross several streets, one of them busy Washington Avenue, which, though due for a sprucing up this spring, will remain wide and busy. And, I'm not sure exactly how Cancer Survivors Park, with its plaques full of homilies about the disease, will mesh with the rest.

Initially, I was a little disappointed that the vision wasn't quite as grand as Manhattan's Central Park. But there's no way Minneapolis can do anything like that in an already built-up setting. After all, you can't exactly run around tearing down useful buildings to create green space. And the plan capitalizes on land that's mostly vacant. Anyway, a bits-and-pieces park may be a good approach. For starters, the park can be installed in phases. And, if any one bit or piece doesn't work, well, the city can try something else — without having destroyed an entire neighborhood. 

Practically everybody in town has signed on to the plan: the Minneapolis Downtown Council, the mayor, the steering committee which includes leaders from Target, Piper Jaffray, the Pohlad Family Companies, the Minneapolis Planning Commission and the Parks and Recreation Board. The Minneapolis Parks Foundation's River First program held a riverfront design competition last year. As it happened, the winning design connected downtown and the river with, you guessed it, a green corridor.

Given all that, you'd think that Gateway would be a done deal. In fact, according to my colleague Steve Berg, who wrote about the what was then called Library Park two years ago, the groundbreaking was supposed to occur this year. Oops.

Some challenges

What's holding things up? First, there's a problem with the lot next to the library. The city used federal transit money to purchase it, and the land's use was restricted to transit — right now buses to turn around there. For several years, Metro Transit balked at giving up the space, but if all goes according to plan, Wilson says, the bus operation will be moving to the Gateway Parking Ramp this spring. Then too, the piece of land that will step down to the river isn't vacant. Sitting on it is a pretty ugly but presumably useful parking ramp that serves the Post Office next door. It would have to be torn down. 

There would also have to be a "deeper level of design," says Bruce Chamberlain, assistant superintendant for planning services for Park and Recreation. So far, nobody has asked the public what it would like to see in the park — a skating rink, a merry-go-round, a pond or all three. And there needs to be programming of some kind. After all, visitors and residents need a compelling reason to walk from downtown to the riverfront. "There has to be a there there," says Chamberlain.

Figuring all that out, he estimates, could take six to nine months. Also to be decided would be the ownership, the management and the financing. Wilson says that private companies may be willing to contribute, but for the long-term the park would need public funds. 

The main problem may be that no official government body seems to "own" the project. The Downtown Council and the Trust for Public Land are its "champions," says Chamberlain. But the Park Board sees Gateway as an adjunct to its own agenda to develop the riverfront from downtown to the city's northern border.

"What makes it [Gateway] powerful is its connection to the riverfront," says Chamberlain. So the Park Board will "support" and "contribute" its professional expertise to the Gateway plan. But right now it's not clear who will get the ball rolling. 

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Comments (29)

How About...

"Initially, I was a little disappointed that the vision wasn't quite as grand as Manhattan's Central Park. But there's no way Minneapolis can do anything like that in an already built-up setting. After all, you can't exactly run around tearing down useful buildings to create green space."

I'd be willing to give it a try with Block E. Seriously, would anyone miss that monstrosity if it went away?

Great Idea

I think it's worth mentioning that Minneapolis does have a few Downtown (or at least DT-adjacent) parks: Loring, Gold Metal, Mill Ruins, Father Hennepin, Nicollet Island, Boom Island, etc.

This is kinda the problem

This is kinda the problem though: we have good parks in our outlying neighborhoods and outskirts of downtown, and along the river. But there is nothing truly central in downtown.

But the "truly central" you're talking about

Is a little over a mile from Loring Park to the river. Is that really such a large area that it just "needs" a park?

Maybe a park is a good idea, but I don't think it's because of a shortage of existing park space.

A downtown park is a great idea...but we can do better.

Yes, we need a downtown park, there is no doubt about it. However, I think there is too much emphasis on the wrong location. Go to the old downtown armory and look across the surrounding streets and there are empty parking lots. They are directly in front of and behind the armory between 4th and 5th Streets and 6th and 7th Streets.

OK...here's the plan. Transform the Armory into a Minnesota or upper Midwest food emporium. That's right...a year round farmer's market. Get Brenda Langton involved, look at how she developed Mill City Farmer's market into a huge success. Have Cargill and General Mills and others partner to showcase our variety foods - cheeses, meats, bakery, produce, wines and even crafted beers. Create a critical mass like at Pike's Market in Seattle. Then, turn those street level parking lots into parks - one on either side of the armory.

During the warm months, downtowners will flock to the food emporium, buy their lunches and eat in the parks. In the winter we've got a Viking stadium right down the block...what a great place to tailgate. And, for those who travel to downtown via light rail, well, your a block away in either direction.

Minneapolis needs something different, unique and wonderful to get people into the core city and having a food emporium surrounded by parks is the key.

So, who's going to run with this idea?

"Initially, I was a little

"Initially, I was a little disappointed that the vision wasn't quite as grand as Manhattan's Central Park."

This is a bizarre comparison. The functional equivalent of Central Park in Minneapolis is the Grand Rounds. We already have that, and it's better than what most other cities have in the way of park space. The other comparisons (Bryant, Washington Square, Rice, Mears) are more appropriate, but go take a look at them, and they're much smaller than a park one block wide stretching from fifth to the river. The other part of this vision that those comparisons bring up is the need for development fronting the park (on the other side of the road), and quiet streets around them. This idea just won't work with a six lane Washington Ave breaking it in half. Trench Washington so the park can be more or less unbroken for a greater distance.

Huh?

We have long ribbons of park on both sides of the river, including Gold Metal Park, Mill Ruins Park, Excel Energy Water Power Park and St. Anthony Main. We have Loring Park and Bryn Mawr Meadows and Theodore Wirth Park. We have Nicollet Island and Boom Island Park. We have the Stone Arch Bridge. Visit on any weekend or nice day and there will be no shortage of people out walking and biking and playing.

Where'd you get the idea we don't have any downtown parks?

Which is not to say that another might not be a good thing, but let's at least begin by acknowledging reality, which is that we have no shortage of urban green space, thanks in no small part to smart re-use of the riverfront and the existence of our very own Central Park (now known as Loring Park).

As for the specific plan, it's set in the historic center of the city, so hopefully if it's to be a park we can work in some commemoration of the city's past too.

Parks for the sake of parks...

It's not a bad idea for Minneapolis to have a more centrally-located park than Gold Medal Park, Loring Park, or the riverfront. Having a place to "end" Nicollet Mall would be nice, and there'd be great programming opportunties on parade days. I think some sort of winter village, sort of like what a lot of European cities do, would be awesome during Holidazzle.

That said, everyone needs to keep in mind that parks for the sake of parks in the city is potentially a bad idea. You can't just put down sod and some saplings and expect organic, vegan, diverse, free range creativity to sprout up from nowhere. There is some nearby development happening, but there's almost no regular (sober, productive) foot traffic in the Gateway District right now.

Across Washington from this site, there's a suburban-style office building, across Hennepin, there's an empty lot, kitty corner is public housing, across 3rd Street is effectively a blank wall of the library, and across the Mall there's green space but it feels disconnected from everything outside its block. The Whole Foods going up will definitely help. But permanently taking a block off the property tax rolls because it looks nice in green in watercolor could prove to be shortsighted. There *has* to be lots of regular foot traffic and eyes on the space for it to be successful and not a new nuisance.

Marketing Pays

"Cancer Survivors Park"? Sounds like a fun place. Can't believe I haven't gotten there yet.

Scariest notion

It is quite odd to visit the old federal reserve building and come out and see people lighting up their cigarettes in Cancer Survivor Park.

Gateway Park

There have been several versions of "Gateway Park" and for various reason they all have been failures. And that includes removing the last one for "Urban Renewal".

http://www.cityhistory.us/minneapolis/images/gateway_park_nicollet_1.jpg

http://www.cityhistory.us/minneapolis/images/gateway_park_1923.jpg

http://www.cityhistory.us/minneapolis/images/gateway_park_nicollet_2.jpg

-Hudson

Too much

The kingdom of Parks Department already has trouble handling what they have with the abundant maintenance staff they have (based on observations of crews). It was a mistake to give the department independence. The result is less efficiency and an over paid board residing in an overpriced remodel in a perfectly lovely spot.

Making Downtown Inviting

A couple of comments have mentioned walking and foot traffic—that’s the key, IMHO. I can’t think of any spot in the downtown core that is inviting/welcoming to people who want to walk and otherwise be outside. It’s a bleak environment of concrete and cars and (mostly) dehumanizing modernist crapitecture—I better not get started on the “skyways.”
Recent rebuilding of several streets for better transit did absolutely nothing to make downtown more friendly—and less dangerous—for walking and biking.
What’s needed is a bold and visionary move already undertaken by major cities around the world—designate a street in the thick of what action there is, as a pedestrian-only street, permanently. There are plenty more low-cost changes that could be made. And as for the young professionals: many of them don’t have cars or plan to get them. They like biking. Wake up.
Rice Park and Mears Park in St. Paul are both very intelligent examples of downtown public spaces.

St. Paul Parks

Both Rice and Mears Parks are nice. They are not very big, have nice water features and are surrounded by human scale and interesting buildings. They are also both on the way to places - with Rice Park - Xcel Center, the Ordway, the Library, the St. Paul Hotel, with Mears Park, you can go to some nice bars, the Farmers Market, etc.

Getting downtowners all the way from the downtown core to the river is quite a stretch. If they won't get to Loring Park through the Greenway, then I don't see them heading east to the river.

links to plans

What? an article in an online newspaper with no links to websites with more information. I want to see the idea for the way it would be linked to the river. I want to see more details.

It's true we already have parks but...

Actually I think this is bigger problem for St. Paul than MPLS, but I tell you what: I was recently in Seattle and visited the space needle park, rode the monorail (all three blocks of it), and walked down to the fish market. On a Sunday afternoon it was amazing how busy and populated the entire downtown area was, far more so than either MPLS or St. Paul would ever be. There's no doubt that city design played a huge role in this, and the park around the Space Needle is essential. Simply because it's there all kinds of stuff both organized and spontaneous was going on. They had food carts, they had pirates walking around while street musicians, dancers, and local artisans sold their wares at tables. This park is connected to the rest of the city by the monorail and major retail corridors that connect to other hubs, and then down to the fish market. There's nothing like this in MPLS or St. Paul. We didn't even go up the Space Needle (you've seen one space needle you've seen em all) but went the to look at it and see a Chihuly glass museum and it launched us into a exploration of the entire downtown area. I can see where a centrally located park of some kind could do the same thing for MPLS or St. Paul, but it has to be connected to the rest of the city somehow. Boston is another good example. Newbury Street and the back bay are connected to Downtown and eventually Little Italy (the north end) by the commons, and walkable streets and subways. The commons anchors it.

The problem with the Twin Citie is everything is so spread out, theaters are everywhere, the museums are on the edge of town or on the other side of a highway. The markets are on the edge of town. Tell me how you would walk or get from the MPLS farmers market to the Nicolette Mall? Or how you would get from the Lowertown Market to Landmark Center? Without getting into a car and driving there? Maybe if you had a central park that acted as a hub and was connected in some reasonable way, people would move around and be able to spend a day downtown. Then we have these highways rammed through the center of both towns. Try to walk from Uptown to downtown sometime, or from the Capital to the Exel Arena?

The park is an intriguing idea, but it's not ready for prime time yet. You have to have a plan to tie things together.

Walking

I'm not sure what's so prohibitive about the 3/4 of a mile walk up 5th from the Lowertown farmers market to Landmark Center. The mile or so from the MPLS farmers market to Peavy Plaza is less appealing and requires a little more navigating. It's not impossible, but I agree that a better connection or new location for the market would be desirable.

Every once in awhile I do walk from downtown to uptown (and usually back). Lowry Hill and I94 make for a bit of a navigational challenge, but its not all that difficult. And if you want fewer cars, you can take the Cedar Lake Trail (for a longer trip).

Walking isn't impossible

I didn't say these walks were impossible Adam, the point is you don't see a lot of people making those walks and there's a reason for that. There's no such thing as a vibrant Downtown devoid of pedestrians and MPLs and St. Paul are great examples of downtowns that people don't walk around. Sure they can walk, but compared to many other downtowns they're not doing it.

Downtown MPLS=50% of Seattle's

A big reason may be that Minneapolis has around 28,000 downtown residents, while downtown Seattle is just shy of 60,000.

http://downtownseattle.com/Resources/Demographics

I seem to see a decent amount of people on weekends and during the day on weekdays. Full sidewalks on Hennepin and Nicollet are common when the Twins are playing. St Paul , on he other hand, reminds me more of Columbus as far as rather low foot traffic overall. I think it's pretty clear that Minneapolis has more people out and about than St Paul.

What is this park on the way to?

Don't get me wrong, I love parks, and take daily advantage of the park system. Most successful city parks are not just destinations, but on the way to somewhere else, which is often not another park. People from Olmsted to Jane Jacobs recognized this. Central Park -- surrounded by buildings. Rice and Mears Park, great examples, but again in the middle of a [locally] dense part of town.

I'm skeptical we need this much park heading out of the density of downtown.

Absolutely

There is absolutely a need for this park. Downtown does not have a central signature gathering place, and this will create it. Other cities are doing this or have them historically yet Minneapolis is leaving itself behind. Now is the time to do this while there are available parcels. The Nicollet site is just fine for this -- it is situated on the Nicollet Mall, adjacent to the coming Whole Foods and residential developments, at the junction of three great Minneapolis streets - Nicollet, Hennepin and Washington, a stone's throw from the Mississippi and Hennepin Ave. Bridge into St. Anthony, and within blocks of thousands of downtown workers and residents.

Right now, there could be a holiday market going on right now in this park that would fuel pedestrian and retail activity, visitors to downtown and just a better urban experience for residents and workers. This is why the business community is so much behind this.

This idea has been around for a long time, and it is pretty well agreed by most people it is necessary. The business community is unified and crying out. What more do you need. I'd say it is time for people to get together and figure out how to get this done. This won't take much -- establish a nonprofit to raise money and manage the park with a commitment from the city and park board to both chip in some initial funds. You can start with the Nicollet block.

Circulation and Transit

The constraints related to Metro Transit's utilization and the traffic imperatives at the Washington/Hennepin intersection require that the park design accomodates those realities. I would like to see consideration of a relatively large-scale, at grade traffic circle (oval?) situated approximately at the Wash/Henn intersection. Maybe similar in size to Stockholm's Sergel Torg or a little bigger than Indpls' downtown circle. Conceivably, Metro Transit vehicles could ramp down from the circle to a below grade station and up from there to enter Nicollet Mall. Incorporating such circulation/transit functionality significantly changes the possibilities for the park footprint and may also facilitate mild changes in grade which would allow a new and attractive pedestrian-way over Washington (along the general course of Nicollet Mall.) and then aimed toward the foot of the Hennepin Bridge/post office area.

It won't work if the park AND surroundings aren't designed right

I love the idea of a circle at Washington & Hennepin, and the traffic volume and the hoped-for park pedestrian volume would still probably dictate that a trenched Washington with a land bridge might be necessary. I agree with other commentators that there isn't a shortage of park space downtown (I don't think anyone mentioned Elliot Park), but that doesn't meant that a new central park couldn't be fantastic. However, I don't think you're going to draw people to this new park just because it's there. The whole area is devoid of pedestrians now, because there are few destinations and virtually no retail along the street. If that isn't changed, and if there's no land bridge over Washington, I can't see this park being anything but a hangout for shady characters. It's not just the details of the park, but everything around it as well, that will determine its success or failure.

Design-Pull vs. Pedestrian-Push

Paul, you are spot on regarding the correlation between pedestrian volumes and the likelihood that the space will be seen as attractive/successful. Pedestrians are sparse (relative to available space) throughout the downtown streetscape -we needn't go off on a skyway design tangent here- so the problems you noted are a risk for just about any downtown location/project if the design isn't scaled right. In this case, I think we should be watching the new grocery store project for hints about forthcoming changes in traffic patterns and pedestrian volumes in this vicinity. In the longer run, whatever is built across the Mall from the front door of the library will be the activity generator (or not) that makes (or breaks) any proposed park/green-space connector-to-the-river layout. I don't think this space is likely to work right if we try to make it a 'Central Park'--a 'destination', but I think it could work really well as a notable reference/landmark, e.g. 'Hennepin Circle'...that happens to adjoin a 'wide green space' (i.e. Cancer Survivors plus what works as green space in this property's footprint) along the Mall and that is also functionally integrated with an important transit utility.

Whether Washington would need to be trenched is an interesting landscape design question, which I think should be considered in a context that begins by examining the grade a couple of blocks up Nicollet Mall and reconciles to the crossing point at Washington. Because of the configuration of the old Fed Reserve Bldg, it already has a second floor entrance on its park side. That suggests to me that a bridge over Washington (that would hug the Fed Resrve Bldg site and that would be scaled similar to the U Campus pedestrian bridges over Washington) is plausible without significant changes in Washington's level/grade. The most tricky part of this idea is getting the bridge design right on the opposite side of Washington (where the NW National Life building and its plaza are inviolable) so maybe some diagonal/trapezoidal surface shapes could be considered for the span.

Lambie is right

Paul is absolutely correct. If there's no "attraction" of any kind this Gateway Park will suffer the same fate that befell the original Gateway Park. Maybe we should build a Space Needle?

Yes to developing Armory Park food emporium!

@ Stephen Dent - I like Mr. Dent's idea for the indoor space at the old Armory Building. The east side of downtown has capacity for more activity, and good to link it to the expensive infrastructure that will be coming from the new Vikings stadium site.

Funds

How on Earth is MPRB going to pay for another park when it constantly says there isn't enough money to maintain the parks it already has? Minneapolis has very likely the most unique park board in the country dating all the way back 1883 (Loring Park - then Central Park - was the first park in the system when part of Johnson's farm was purchased). Minneapolis Park Board Commissioners are elected. Other major metropolitan areas have appointed commissioners. This means our park commissioners are OUR employees, not willing bidders of the mayor - or some corporate body. We must maintain public oversight of our parks and resist any attempt to curb that right. Last year the Downtown Parks Alliance attempted something very similar - and this may very well be a second attempt re-branded - when the stretch to the riverfront started at Sculpture Garden/Loring Park. This plan was ludicrous in that it proposed to give powers of programming, maintenance, and revenue to corporate donors all the while using public funds as well. Our parks are not meant to be revenue generators for private entities. Charles Loring, the Boards first president and the father of Minneapolis Parks, was adamant that buildings do not encroach on parks (which MPRB muffed), people do not make money off parks (which MPRB muffed), and that the citizens of Minneapolis are the true owners of the Minneapolis park system.

If Minneapolis wants this it's going to happen one of two ways: through taxpayer dollars or with corporate funding. Only one scenario is how public parks in Minneapolis are meant to be run and I'll gladly fight as I did last year to keep our public parkland public.

Utilize Nicollet Mall

Get the busses off Nicollet Mall. Make that pedestrian green space from Orch Hall up to Cancer Survivors Park, or even all the way to the river.

Downtown Park

You can't eliminate all the parking for people that work downtown by building a park, parking in ramps are already ski high, Improve Elliot park on 8th st. Maybe it can be included in the viking new stadium plan