Minneapolis may be famous for its splendid new cultural attractions, namely the new Guthrie, Walker and Central Library. But it’s infamous for failing, in any pleasing way, to fit these architectural gems into their urban surroundings.
Blocks of weedy sidewalks and junky parking lots separate the Guthrie and the Library from the heart of downtown. The Walker lacks even a discernible main entrance, unless you count the elevator doors from the parking ramp below. Each attraction is, essentially, an island.
Neighbors of the new Twins ballpark want to break that unfortunate trend. Set to open in 2010, the ballpark figures also to be an architectural triumph, perhaps the best of the new generation of cozy urban baseball venues. But the project itself has sucked up all of the money originally set aside for the plazas, public art and tree-lined sidewalks that were to provide context and connection to the surrounding city.
“An urban ballpark is not a drive-in facility,” one neighbor reminded a recent gathering of the 2010 Partners, a coalition of neighbors, merchants and officials from the Twins and various local governments. She was right, of course. Many of the projected 3 million visitors per year will park their cars or take the train and then walk through neighborhoods to get to the snuggly-fitted ballpark — and, one can hope, they will linger after the games, too. What the 2010 Partners want is a pleasant environment for shopping, dining and residing, similar to the experiences found around urban-style ballparks in Denver, San Francisco, Chicago and other cities.
“We don’t want a repeat of the Metrodome,” said Chuck Leer, referring to the bleak atmosphere around the current stadium. Leer, a North Loop developer, put together the 2010 group as it became apparent that money for neighborhood streetscape was being siphoned off, first by landowners who demanded a higher-than-anticipated price for the ballpark site, and then by enhancements of the structure itself. Almost from the beginning it was clear that the $90 million set aside by the Legislature for “land costs and infrastructure” wouldn’t be nearly enough.
The Twins kicked in an additional $22 million on the stadium itself. And the Northstar-Hiawatha rail project paid for a bilevel transit station. Still, Leer estimates that the neighborhoods are as much as $8 million short of what they expected for streetscapes— even with the welcome addition last week of $1 million from the Minnesota Ballpark Authority to start a Ballpark District Enhancements fund.
The fund’s top priority is a pedestrian walkway hugging the Sixth Street side of Target Center that would allow people to walk from Firstt Avenue directly into the main ballpark plaza. That alone is expected to cost $3 million. A second priority involves streetscapes and directional signs along Fifth, Sixth and Seventh streets linking Hennepin Avenue to the ballpark. A third priority is public art near the ballpark entrances.
In addition, members of the 2010 group would like more attention to streetscapes in the North Loop and Warehouse districts, particularly along Third Avenue between the ballpark and Washington Avenue, and, perhaps, along Fifth Avenue between the ballpark and Washington. One of their interests is to select an exact site for the future “metro center” train station near the ballpark. Another is to energize the street by not moving people so easily into the skyway system. Still another involves who will care for trees and flowers along the streets if, indeed, they are ever planted. The city has no reliable system for that kind of maintenance, or for keeping sidewalks free of litter.
To see streetscapes trimmed from budgets is never a surprise in Minneapolis, where the pedestrian experience is highly valued in parks but not along downtown sidewalks. Landscaping was eliminated along the Hiawatha light rail line. And when Washington Avenue was repaved through the North Loop, incredulous neighbors were told that adding trees would violate the historic character of the district.
“Pedestrians don’t have a strong constituency in this city,” developer Michael Lander told the 2010 group. City Hall has a wonderful master plan that envisions nice sidewalks, but lacks the money, commitment and process to make them actually happen, he said.
The task is made more complicated because so many parties are involved in constructing the ballpark and its surroundings. The team, county, city, ballpark authority, MnDOT, transit projects, neighborhood and civic groups and Hines Interests, the dominant real estate firm— each has its own agenda.
“We’re new to the neighborhood,” said Twins president Jerry Bell, who has attended the 2010 group’s meetings. “We would like to see a ballpark district with good lighting, trees, good sidewalks, good signage and safety. It’s in our interests to be located in a nice neighborhood.”
One idea is to finance improvements from anticipated higher property tax values in the district. Another is to funnel higher revenues anticipated from nearby parking ramps into nicer streets and sidewalks.
Whatever happens, it’s clear that the new Twins ballpark, even if it’s an architectural masterpiece, will suffer unless the surrounding blocks are held to a higher standard. No major urban attraction— whether for culture or sports— can truly succeed in isolation. A good urban ballpark cannot be an island.