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Needed: A park for the North Loop

Needed: A park for the North Loop
Great River Greening, 2013; North Loop Neighborhood: Park Scoping Study, sketch by Pong Khow, 2013
The North Loop, now 4,300 residents strong, wants its own park.

One reason why I chose to live in the Mill District in downtown Minneapolis was the proximity of Gold Medal Park. If you live in the suburbs, you have a backyard to connect you to nature, assuming you've managed to keep the vegetation alive. But for those confined to an apartment, the availability of a park is almost a medical necessity -- for mental health, fresh air, for views of plants and animals instead of steel and brick, and freedom to cavort without fear of being mowed down by a passing car or truck.

Not that Gold Medal Park is ideal. It's a one-block grassy square in the middle of which rises a breast-like hill (reminiscent of a Dakota burial mound, I am told) whose top is reached by a spiral pathway. From there you can see the Mississippi, the Stone Arch Bridge and the Guthrie Theater. Otherwise, there's not much to do except sit on a bench.

Enter the North Loop Neighborhood Association, which represents the Warehouse District. The area, now 4,300 residents strong -- with thousands more on the way, thanks to a spurt in new apartment-building -- wants its own park, one that offers a lot more than grass and scenery. "We don't just want green space," says Alice Eichholz, a member of the group. "We want a place people would spend time in, at all times of day and in all seasons."

So the association, with a contribution from the Minnesota Twins, whose stadium sits just across I-94, commissioned a so-called scoping study, a kind of pre-feasibility report that explores of the possibilities. Leading the effort was Great River Greening, a Minnesota nonprofit and consulting group, one of whose purposes is to "increase urban residents' access to natural areas and sustainable open space."   

Report endorses park

To nobody's surprise, the report enthusiastically endorsed the creation of a North Loop park. There were rationales aplenty. Among them: the North Loop is the fastest-growing neighborhood in the city.

As a former industrial district, it has little greenery, except on the riverfront, and, says Todd Rexine, operations manager and design ecologist at Great River Greening, large superblocks of building cut off access by most residents. Increasingly, younger workers come to cities where they can live near work downtown yet enjoy recreation around the corner. To keep those people here (or to attract them), the area has to provide the amenities they're looking for. The south end of downtown has Loring Park, the Mill District Gold Medal Park and the Stone Arch Bridge, the Northeast Father Hennepin Park, but the North Loop has almost nada. Historically an industrial area, it received no attention from the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board.

As a further selling point, the study underlined the fact that the mere presence of a park in an urban setting has been proven to raise property values in the immediate vicinity. Research in Dallas, for example, showed that homes adjacent to a park enjoyed a 22 percent premium in value over those a half mile away. A 2005 analysis of Philadelphia neighborhoods made similar findings -- that housing fronting green spaces carried a 30 percent premium.

An analysis of sales data for 44,000 homes in Hennepin County supported those findings; those within 200 feet of a park enjoyed a premium of about $13,000. Nationally, studies have shown that commercial buildings reap similar benefits.

The North Loop study, however, was pretty conservative in computing these premiums; they went as high as 17 percent for properties within 100 feet of a park but sank to 1 percent for properties within 1,000 feet, which is only about two city blocks. Still, higher property values, no matter how mingy, translate to greater investment appreciation for property owners, more property tax revenues and a financially sounder city.

The vision for the park is pretty ambitious. What the neighborhood wants, as channeled by the report, are: a shady lawn area, a sunny lawn area, an active play area, including "fitness structures" and a half  basketball court, and a plaza with a small stage, "seating walls," places for public art and, most important, food vendors. In the midst of all this would lie a water feature evocative of Bassett Creek, which once traversed the area but now flows underground from Penn Avenue and -I394 to the Mississippi River."The park should mimic the natural environment," says Eichholz.

The plan, or rather the scoping, anticipates using local flora, which would put a lid on the cost of upkeep. Trying to make parks look like the English countryside, as Frederick Law Olmstead did, can get pretty costly. Finally, a number of strategies would aim to reduce and filter storm water draining into the sewer -- so that we send less dirty junk down to New Orleans.

Problems ahead

All of that sounds really appealing, but there are problems. (When aren't there?) For one, the North Loop is a historic district. Its heritage is industrial; trees, plants and water features don't fit into that. "There could be a conflict," says Rexine.

The proposal contemplated four different sites, all of them vacant. Of the two that were most appropriate (for reasons too numerous to mention here), one, named "A" on 3rd Street North, is about two acres in size; the other -- "D" -- is about half as big and sits on Washington Avenue. Both pieces of land cost about the same amount, about $1.2 million, but "A" has only one owner, which would make acquisition easier.

Since this was only a scoping, the scopers did not put a price tag on the park. And it's not clear where the North Loop folks could get the money. A long list of possible sources shows that most are reaches. The DNR's outdoor recreation program might help, but could supply only as much as 50 percent of the cost. The Parks and Recreation Board devotes about $7 million a year to capital improvements, but the money is already spoken for. The Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources can deploy state lottery proceeds for the protection of unique natural resources, but it's unclear that a park on a piece of vacant industrial land in the North Loop would be considered a unique natural resource. State bonds can be floated to finance a park, but only one of regional or state significance.

Even though the park is a sort of funding orphan, without any government or public backer, Eichholz is confident that the project will happen. "The community worked very hard to put together the 4th Avenue playground," she says.

They cobbled together support from several donors, including the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, Bobbie and Steve’s Automotive World Youth Foundation, RCP Shelters, DuMor Site Furnishings, Target, Surface America and Three Rivers Park District. Restaurants in the neighborhood contributed a portion of their proceeds as part of a “Dining out in the Neighborhood” campaign. Volunteers from the neighborhood, the National Recreation and Park Association, in town for a conference and exposition, and local businesses helped to construct the play structure.

"It was very successful. And people really enjoy getting together there," she says.

Now they want to repeat the experience with a bigger park. Impediments lie ahead, but, says Rexine, because of the scoping report, "the North Loop is now on the Park Board's radar."

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Comments (7)

Don't need it

The neighborhood has the entire river front parkway, on both sides. That should be enough.

Wanted more than Needed

I have to agree with Mark's comment. North Loop has an embarassment of riches already within a short walking distance. Both sides of the river have walking biking, running, picnicing and play opportunities a short distance away.
I believe projects like the Above the Falls plan which expands riverfront recreation and parkland north of Broadway is a much higher and overdue priority that reaches many more people, including expansion for those in the loop.

amazing

Personally, I find it amazing that people with plenty want more and more. Another park for people with the river right there is pandering to already existing excess.

What about adding amenities to nearby green spaces?

As you noted, there ARE nearby parks (lots of riverfront, Gold Medal Park -- and don't forget about the parks between Hennepin Avenue and 2nd Avenue on both sides of 2nd Street. It's absolutely true that these parks lack nearly all amenities beyond "green space," although most of them do have walls to sit on and provide either a shady or sunny lawn area, as well as already-existing and space for more public art. There is a plaza in Gateway Park by the Fed.

It makes sense to improve River access, by adding and better signing existing mid-super-block access points between the neighborhood and river.

What about adding some of the other desired amenities -- an active play area, including "fitness structures" and a half basketball court -- to the already-existing parks?

As for the most important food vendors, I'm sorry to report that North Loop and Mill District residents have much better access to that amenity than almost any other Minneapolis resident.

North Loop Park

I for one fully support a new park in the North Loop. I don't understand those who would be against adding more green space to improve quality of life downtown. Yes, the river is CLOSE, but it's not like it's just a door step away from the new condos/apartments going up. Does anyone really think Loring Park, Lake of Isles, Gold Medal Park, Chute Square, or Mears Park in St. Paul should never have been built? Do people think the outlying neighborhoods of downtown have too much green/open space? We're talking about investing in the city's future here to make it more attractive to families, etc. for years to come.

I urge people to look at the Pearl District in Portland as an example of a new neighborhood similar to the North Loop that was successful in building two new public plazas/parks within the last 10 years - Jamieson Square and Tanners Spring Park (used by the North Loop's study as a model).

Yes, and...

You're right. More amenities in neighborhoods -- especially green ones -- are always good. Close does not equal a door step away.

I think for equity sake, we should spread them out evenly, first, though. Have you looked at a map of the parks in Minneapolis, yet? Turns out there are parts of Minneapolis (glance just a bit north from your own home) where it's a 20 minute hike to the nearest green space. It's my opinion that if we're investing in new parks, we should fill in those HUGE gaps before adding more parks in neighborhoods where there's a riverfront a few blocks away.

Those neighborhoods don't have any of the restaurant, retail, entertainment, or or job amenities of North Loop, either.

North Loop Park

First off - it is Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board - no "s" please.
Correction - you state: ...water feature evocative of Bassett Creek, which once traversed the area but now flows underground from Penn Avenue and -I394 to the Mississippi River.

Bassett's Creek is still above ground at Penn Ave. It goes underground at about Dupont and 2nd Ave. N. at the Railroad crossing. It also serves as the neighborhood boundary of the Bryn Mawr and Harrison neighborhoods.