Target Field isn’t just about baseball; it’s a teaching moment about cities

Fans converge on Target Field for Wednesday's opening playoff game against the Yankees.
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Fans converge on Target Field for Wednesday’s opening playoff game against the Yankees.

As Target Field wraps up its first season, rave reviews continue to pour in from near and far. Players, fans and media critics seem to love its fresh design, native beauty and joyful atmosphere (despite the home team’s playoff frustrations).

But Target Field’s significance stretches beyond baseball.

Perhaps more than any structure in the Twin Cities, the ballpark provides a teaching moment for how best to locate and design major attractions that draw big crowds. It signifies also a coming-of-age for Minnesotans, who are learning to consider multiple options for getting to and from big events.

Indeed, Target Field has altered the experience of attending a ballgame and, perhaps, other functions as well. No longer is going to a game just about getting in your car, driving down the freeway, finding a parking spot closest to the door, going in, coming out and driving straight home — although you can certainly do that. There are 7,000 parking spots in three huge ramps connected to the ballpark. Another 15,000 parking spots are available a short walk away.

But 20 percent of fans — about 8,000 per game — choose to arrive by train or bus. Hiawatha light rail trains added a third car to each train to handle game-time loads. Northstar commuter trains went from four to as many as eight cars to meet the heavy demand. Meanwhile, hundreds arrive by bike and, with a growing residential population nearby, some walk to Twins’ games. In another big change, fans are more apt to linger before and after games for dinner and drinks, ramping up the Warehouse District’s atmosphere and economy.

Straight to the parking ramp
These habits may seem elementary to city dwellers around the country, but they’re new behaviors for Minnesotans. Our family moved here in 1994. After attending our first concert at Orchestra Hall, my wife and I stood in Peavey Plaza expecting to mingle with the big crowd. But we stood alone. The plaza was empty. Everyone was in the skyway, headed straight for the parking ramp.

The Twin Cities’ other big cultural attractions (Walker, Guthrie, etc.) induce similar behavior. Why? Because they’ve been sited and designed as stand-alone buildings. Patrons are funneled into parking structures and expected to drive straight home rather than become part of the wider urban experience.

Light rail trains line up at Target Field station as fans file out after Wednesday's playoff game.
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Light rail trains line up at Target Field station as fans file out after Wednesday’s playoff game.

Target Field was designed for the opposite. It’s as if the ballpark were lowered into downtown and fastened to its surroundings, much as a piece of built-in furniture. Its appendages (especially its plazas) flow out into the neighborhoods, making it difficult to detect where the ballpark actually begins and ends. Its left field sections double as a light-rail station. Commuter trains operate below the third-base stands. Freeways run nearby, as do bicycle trails. And new pedestrian walkways provide seamless connections to downtown.

Despite a forward-thinking design, planners struggled in the days leading to the ballpark’s opening last spring. They knew that travel habits and assumptions would have to change. If everyone tried to drive to the game — and tried to depart at the same time — there would be chaos. “We knew a lot of people would be operating out of their comfort zones,” said Jon Wertjes, Minneapolis’ traffic and parking director. “A new culture was needed.”

Complications aplenty
To complicate matters, Target Field’s opening coincided with the city’s debut of a new downtown transportation plan that included transforming two major streets to two-way traffic, among other changes. Moreover, there were many fingers in the transportation management pot: the city, county, metro, state and federal governments. The Twins, the Minnesota Ballpark Authority (owner of Target Field) and various business, neighborhood and advocacy groups. There were built-in conflicts. The city’s diffuse bureaucracy was a particular headache. No one knew whether new directional signs, new sidewalks with trees or enough traffic cops to handle the crowds would appear on time.

“We knew that the first impression would be a lasting one, and we all wanted it to be a positive one, for Target Field and for Minneapolis as a whole,” said Matt Hoy, vice-president of operations for the Twins.

To face the communications challenge, the team and the ballpark authority hired Bob McFarlin, the former MnDOT executive now at the Webber Shandwick public relations firm. One result was “Destination Target Field,” [PDF] an award-winning plan aimed at introducing the public to the ballpark’s location and emphasizing the multiple ways to arrive, while also enjoying other city attractions. (Full disclosure: I’ve written a book, paid for by the Twins, about the planning and building of the new ballpark.)

“It has worked out remarkably well,” McFarlin said. There have been no chronic traffic nightmares, even with multiple big events going on downtown. People are leaning especially how to use transit to avoid and lessen auto congestion for big events, he said, thanks to extraordinary cooperation among the parties involved.

Wertjes sees a spillover effect. Incrementally, people are changing their habits when attending big events in close urban quarters, he says. He cites University of Minnesota football games. People are parking on the West Bank, walking across the Mississippi River and through campus, as a way of reliving their student days. “It’s about the total experience,” Wertjes said.

Cheer or boo?

Cheer: To Larkin McPhee’s extraordinary video documentary “Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story.”
Aired on Tuesday by Twin Cities Public Television after initial objections by ag defenders at the U, the 55-minute piece shows the devastating effect of agricultural runoff on the health of the river. It shows also how innovative farming can prevent much of the damage.

Boo: To Wisconsin’s Republican candidate for governor, Scott Walker, for opposing President Obama’s high-speed rail initiative with a promise to block the proposed Madison-Milwaukee segment. If Walker is elected next month, the Twin Cities’ hope for a high-speed line to Chicago could suffer a big setback. It’s tough to get to Chicago as quickly as possible without passing through Wisconsin.

Cheer: To the Minneapolis public school system
for cutting the size of surface parking at its planned North Side headquarters and investigating more creative transportation options.

Boo: To those failing to fill the seats at Orchestra Hall to hear one of the nation’s best classical music ensembles.
The Minnesota Orchestra, especially under Osmo Vänskä’s energetic baton, shouldn’t become the northern equivalent of the Tampa Bay Rays, a superbly talented baseball team that routinely plays to a half-empty house.

In Metrospect: Three of the week’s best stories

Sustainability replaces diversity as credo on college campuses
Peter Wood notices that the concept of sustainability is outpointing diversity as the campus ideology du jour. It’s popular because it offers students a “stronger sense of personal significance,” he writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

(I’ll add my two bits: It’s also because the educated young tend to see the world in post-racial terms.) But here’s Wood on comparing the two ideas: “Diversity asks us to focus on group identity and personal affiliation, and it puts race at the center of the discussion. Sustainability asks us to focus on humanity’s use of natural resources, and it puts climate at the center of discussion.” The two may seem like close cousins in the same liberal family, Wood says, but they compete for passion, commitment, moral high ground and money.

Despite transit success, job location suffers in central Portland
Wendell Cox, the conservative analyst well known for opposing rail transit and infill development policies, has noticed the same trend I’m worried about: lack of job growth in downtown areas best served by transit. Jobs, instead, are migrating to low-cost areas where employers can slough the social and environmental costs of auto commuting onto their employees. Cox, writing in New Geography, sees things not quite in those terms. He blames excessive regulation, growth controls and transit initiatives for penalizing job development in places like central Portland, Ore. Pro-transit policies have backfired, he suggests, shifting jobs farther from the core.

Seattle: Dragging its feet or pushing ahead on carbon neutrality?
Alex Steffen offers a blistering critique of Seattle, describing out-dating planning ideas in a city that likes to think of itself as progressive and eco-friendly. Seattle may be left to rust as the rest of the world moves toward a post-carbon future, he writes on the website World Changing.com.

But wait. He also holds hope that his city, with all of its green brainpower, can turn the ship around. Cities, Steffen believes, have the scale and the resources to lead a carbon-neutral revolution. Seattle, he thinks, should be in the forefront.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Dean Carlson on 10/08/2010 - 09:06 am.

    Spot on! We have some friends who live in Eagan and go to a bunch of games. They park at Fort Snelling and take LRT to the games. These are true rock-ribbed conservative suburbanites who drive everywhere. So kudos to all those who planned the ballpark and transportation plan.

    City and ballpark officials do need to fix the area around the LRT stop. There just isn’t enough room for those getting on LRT and those who want to cross 5th Street to get to their cars or the warehouse district. I know the County is thinking of taking down the small office building next to the garbage burner and building a larger plaza. I hope they do because right now the area outside Gate 6 is a huge and potentially dangerous bottleneck.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/08/2010 - 12:43 pm.

    In both St. Louis and Denver, my previous residences, I grew accustomed to being able to take public transit (either light rail or an express bus) directly to the baseball stadium. I haven’t been to Target Field yet, though it looks at the moment like it might be open for tours by the general public earlier than Twins management and players would like. Beyond that, however, this piece is, as Dean Carlson has said, “Spot on!”

    What’s described is precisely what happened in downtown Denver with the construction of Coors Field – something of a Renaissance of local businesses, and not limited simply to the usual sports bars. Housing and financial service offices, retail and clothing (not sports-related), as well as sports bars and restaurants, have all flourished in the area around Coors Field in the district of Denver known to locals as “LoDo” (for “lower downtown”). In fact, with both light rail and commuter rail access, Target Field is even more convenient for people who’d prefer not to have to drive to the stadium, and it should be no real surprise that many people linger in the area before and after a game when there are restaurants and other friendly gathering spots in which they can congregate.

    The only caveat is that, to a degree, the level of commercial activity might depend on the team’s success. When the Rockies were NL West doormats, business was merely adequate. After the amazing run in the fall of 2007, however, followed by “Rocktober,” things have been humming in LoDo. Given the Twins’ seemingly annual success in the AL Central, the team seems on track to draw people downtown for at least the immediate future, and that’s not only good for ticket sales for the baseball club, it’s good for all the businesses that have had the foresight or good luck to be located in the vicinity.

    Until I took up residence here, my life was spent as a suburban dweller, but over the years, I gradually moved closer and closer to the city whose name I always used when, while traveling, someone asked me where I lived. Once I’d settled into the northwest corner of Minneapolis, I quickly looked into the transit options for getting downtown to Target Field. Bus service doesn’t come close to matching the direct route to the stadium that I was able to take in metro Denver, but that’s counterbalanced by the combination of light rail and, from my end of town, the commuter rail, that seems tailor-made for both urban and suburban dwellers. In the process, perhaps some suburbanites will realize that compactness and convenience have tangible benefits.

  3. Submitted by Bob McFarlin on 10/08/2010 - 03:45 pm.

    Steve,
    Great article on Target Field. I would be remiss not to recognize the contributions of all the Destination Target Field team members who contributed so much effort and talent to the campaign – the Twins, Ballpark Authority, City of Minneapolis, Metro Transit, Mn/DOT, ABC Ramps, Meet Minneapolis, Minneapolis Warehouse District, Target Center, Timberwolves and Hennepin County. The beauty of working as a team to pursue a common purpose in the public interest was what made Destination Target Field a success.
    Bob McFarlin

  4. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 10/08/2010 - 05:07 pm.

    Good piece,Steve. I’m always happy to see downtown gain more visitors from outside the city, and I’m delighted that people are using rail. I note that the new stadium didn’t begin Twins fans’ use of rail; the cars also were mobbed after every Twins game in the dome.

    Perhaps one reason seats sit empty in Orchestra Hall is simple economics: Those seats are an easy luxury to give up when household income falls. I’ve found the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra thoroughly delightful — even despite its spells of sounds I have a hard time calling music — at considerably less cost. But I do appreciate the Minnesota orchestra’s work and am delighted to own the entire set of Osmo’s acclaimed recordings of the Beethoven symphonies.

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