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.
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.”
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.