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.
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.
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.)