National designers urge Minneapolis to redevelop ‘blank hole’ near fallen I-35W bridge

After the I-35W bridge fell, Minneapolis City Hall invited a team of national experts to study ways that a new bridge could better distribute traffic into the city center. The battered old interchange at the bridge’s south end — the one at Washington Avenue — was carrying a good portion of the 250,000 people pouring each day into the city’s central districts, including downtown and the University of Minnesota. The jam ups during the evening rush hour and after games at the nearby Metrodome were epic. The city had long hoped that a new interchange could also disperse traffic onto 3rd and 4th Streets, thus recasting Washington as a more serene, tree-lined boulevard. Now, with a new bridge under way, the city hoped that a better interchange — and a better Washington Avenue — might be possible.

But when the design team — eight specialists from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) — arrived, the city got more than it expected: a whole new vision for that part of the city. As often happens when “fresh eyes” are brought to a problem, outsiders saw potential that the locals had missed.

The design team was amazed that a big empty hole sits smack in the middle of the Twin Cities metro area, a hole that’s interlaced with rail transit and roadways, located next to a successful downtown and a top university, and surrounded by the kind of job opportunities (“meds and eds”) that excite developers. So why was this 30-block area virtually empty, they wondered?

Especially with a concentration of hospitals and college classrooms so close by, Minneapolis’ “blank hole” has enormous potential to generate housing, retail, office and laboratory investments, said Mary Means, a member of the ULI team. She and others told city leaders at a session at City Hall last week that the south end of the bridge should be transformed. The forlorn area that now encompasses much of the West Bank, Cedar-Riverside and Downtown East areas, including the Metrodome and the massive trench that holds I-35W, should become a major new mixed-use community, they said.

Midtown Minneapolis
The ULI designers called it a “midtown,” drawing perhaps from Midtown Atlanta, the high-rise district that has gone up around Georgia Tech just north of downtown, or from Seattle’s new South Lake Union district, an ambitious plan boosted by billionaire Paul Allen to redevelop a mixed-use life sciences zone connected to nearby downtown with a streetcar line.

The Midtown name already has been taken in Minneapolis (the area parallel to the Midtown Greenway near Lake Street), but the design team’s observation is valid, although not entirely new. Other attempts to join downtown with the university’s West Bank campus have failed, largely because the freeway imposes a huge barrier.

Lately, the university has been focusing on expanding in the opposite direction, to the east, concentrating a series of planned life sciences buildings near the 29th Street S.E. light rail station expected to be part of the Central line to open in 2014. Housing and retail are a part of that plan.

Downtown business leaders, meanwhile, have been leery of the Vikings’ idea for a new “village” to surround its hoped-for new stadium on the Metrodome site, fearing it would compete with the downtown core. The ULI team believes, however, that there will be enough growth to go around. Two proposals are critical to their plan:
• The West Bank light rail station, now planned to be located in a “trench” near classroom buildings, should be moved one block to the west, to Cedar Avenue, where there are abundant air rights development opportunities.
• A new, tree-lined and pedestrian-oriented Washington Boulevard should proceed seamlessly from downtown, across the I-35W freeway, through Seven Corners and the new light-rail station mentioned above, then down Riverside Avenue past the Fairview-University hospitals complex.

Those changes would help unify the West Bank and Downtown East districts. Other important redevelopment opportunities, according to the ULI team, include the Metrodome site; the east end of the Mill District where I-35W meets Washington Avenue; Cedar Avenue near Riverside; and the intersection of Washington and Chicago Avenues.

Redeveloped area in central Minneapolis
Courtesy of the Urban Land Institute
This photo illustration shows what a redeveloped area in central Minneapolis might look like as part of a proposed plan by the Urban Land Institute.


A memorial
The current lull in the housing market is a good time for the city to undertake these plans. “You need to be proactive or you’ll miss the market,” Barry Elbasani, a Berkeley, Calif., architect and ULI team member, warned city officials. Indeed, while the ULI team thought Minneapolis had done a good job of micro-thinking, it criticized its broader planning. It wondered, too, why vacant parcels next to Hiawatha light rail stations downtown had not been developed. “Those things don’t just happen on their own,” said team member Means, a community redevelopment expert from Alexandria, Va.

All in all, the ULI team, which will issue a formal report in January, said that Minneapolis had an opportunity to turn the bridge tragedy into something positive — to, in effect, construct a new kind of bridge between downtown and the university that would provide new homes and neighborhood shopping opportunities, especially for hospital and university employees.

“It has been asked, ‘What will be the memorial for the lives lost on the bridge?’ ” said team member Marilee Utter, a Denver developer. “What struck me was the diversity of those who were lost. What a better memorial than to build a new kind of community on this spot.”

(Editor’s note: ULI is a nonprofit research institute headquartered in Washington, D.C. Steve Berg has done consulting work for ULI.)

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Daniel Miller on 12/14/2007 - 09:33 pm.

    First, I’m really liking the idea of this online/print idea of MinnPost.

    I also like the local emphasis that seems to be coming from many of the posts.

    Concerning Mr. Berg’s on redeveloping Minneapolis’ “blank hole” I am markedly less excited.

    As a long time south-Minneapolis resident, I used to hearing more prominent Minneapolitans declaring cedar/riverside and other parts of south Minneapolis eye sores. Of course, if these folks had their way, townhouses and fancy high-rise condos would be promptly dropped in by helicopter.

    I, for one, am sick of all our urban development brainpower and money being put into designing and building nice tree-lined pedestrian walkways, condos and starbuckses — all catered to “meds and eds.”

    I would like to talk about strengthening neighborhoods and community the natural way — from the ground up with the existing people, buildings, and resources.

    Mr. Berg and many urban developers, it seems, are excited to repopulate eye-sore areas with artificial-looking, cliché developments targeted at the young, privileged upper-middle class. (Does the argument still include “the trickle-down effect”?)

    What’s forgotten in conversations about redeveloping “blank holes” is that people already live there — people who can’t afford $200,000 condos. After all these years we’re still asking for decent, smart, and affordable housing.

    If the gentrification of the city continues, we’ll see if it will be prove sustainable. And if so, will it produce non-artificial, diverse, and healthy neighborhoods and community?

    My money says the interesting and vibrant areas of the city will continue to be those like cedar/riverside — the ones developers calls “blank holes.”

  2. Submitted by Matty Lang on 12/17/2007 - 11:20 am.


    I think you’re a little bit mistaken in your reading of the article. The ULI report isn’t calling for a redevelopment of Cedar-Riverside, but rather, a redevelopment of the literal blank hole made by I35 and I94 between it and Downtown East. It does call for improving connections between Cedar-Riverside, Downtown and a new neighborhood in the middle that currently is nothing more than a blank hole of wasted space in the heart of our fine city.

    The report is absolutely right that the Central Corridor station needs to be moved from Willey Hall to Cedar-Riverside and it’s correct in its call to redesign Washington, Cedar and Riverside Avenues into more people-oriented boulevards rather than only serving as the motor vehicle funnels to freeways that they are reduced to today.

  3. Submitted by Bryce Engen on 12/23/2007 - 08:16 pm.

    This is directed directly to the author of this article, because I feel that you alone have the connections and the intelligence to understand my argument. What was missed in the post-fall fiasco was the idea of ELIMINATING the 35W trench altogether.

    Hear me out. In many urban areas, namely, those outside of the US, the freeways terminate at downtown, thus making downtown a destination and not a nuisance difficult to get through. By diverging a freeway a mile or more from the downtown core drivers have multiple routes to choose from the reach their final destination. Along their routes the existing businesses see increased traffic, and at speeds low enough to allow the driver to glance around a bit.

    The 35W/I-94 mess which disects so many Minneapolis neighborhoods should be infilled and fixed, and jobs, homes, developments of all kinds will follow. There are already 2 freeway routes AROUND the downtowns, and if passing commuters wish to get from Duluth to Rochester they can take these routes.

    If our urban areas are to improve the monstrous voids need to be filled, and not with more roads!

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