When competing design teams begin next month to sketch out ideas for fitting parks and development into Minneapolis’ Upper Riverfront, they’ll discover a particularly intriguing detour: a finger of potential parkland that juts six blocks into the heart of downtown.
Called Library Park by its promoters, the relatively narrow stretch of open land could become the “central park” and “river connection” that Minneapolis has sought for decades. The city, otherwise admired for its parks and trails, has never had a signature green space in its downtown core. It’s a vacuum that business and civic leaders aim to fill.
A new linear park would begin at the foot of the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, near the Post Office, run through the Gateway area, encompass the former Nicollet Hotel site just north of the Central Library, then wrap around the east and south sides of the library, ending at the Nicollet Mall light rail station on 5th Street.
Although still in its infancy, the project has been quietly under way since 2008, when the Trust for Public Land began seeking allies that now include Mayor R.T. Rybak and a dozen high-profile corporate partners, including Target, General Mills, Accenture, Piper Jaffray and several of the city’s top financial and legal services firms.
Lots of private support
“I’m absolutely committed to seeing this happen,” Rybak said this week, emphasizing the project’s private sector support. “Very few projects have attracted partners with this kind of capacity for getting things done,” he said.
“Downtown needs to be taken to the next level,” said David A. Wilson, Accenture’s managing director, who grew up watching his hometown of Detroit crumble, then fell in love with Minneapolis when he moved here in the 1990s. A signature downtown park, he said, is vital to the city’s growth and vitality. Drawing more residents downtown is especially important he said. To truly thrive the city needs a downtown population double or triple its current 32,000, he said, adding that green space will be a key motivator.
Rybak and Wilson describe a park that would be built and maintained primarily by private donors with the city contributing most of the land. Donors offer a preliminary cost estimate of $15 million to $30 million for a first phase to be located just north of the library. That’s ambitious goal, given the proposed 2012 groundbreaking.
A string of green
Advocates see the project as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to splice a series of small existing green spaces together with three blocks of unsightly surface parking. The result would form a seamless string of green that could deliver benefits similar to those brought by Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan, Millenium Park in central Chicago and — closer to home — Rice and Mears parks in downtown St. Paul.
Aside from the environmental, cultural and civic advantages, the partners see Library Park as a catalyst for private development in a city that could use a boost in tax base, jobs, retail and housing. Early sketches show the new park sharing space with mixed-use towers along Marquette Avenue between 5th and 3rd streets and with, perhaps, a revived planetarium, a feature that was trimmed from the Central Library when it was rebuilt in 2005-06.
A number of other redevelopment opportunities would touch the park’s edge, especially at the conspicuously barren Washington-Hennepin intersection, now home to vacant lots and an abandoned car dealership.
Rybak sees the timing of the project as critical in a down market: a city and its private partners investing in a green space to leverage a big financial payoff when development resumes. He compared the opportunity to the building of the Hennepin County Government Center — with adjoining park — in the late 1970s. Once surrounded by surface parking lots, the new park attracted five office towers now valued at $520 million. Since 1994, those towers have paid nearly $400 million in property taxes, Rybak said. This year alone they will contribute $24 million to the city’s general fund.
Applying the Chain of Lakes principle
Using green investments to raise property values and catalyze development is nothing new for Minneapolis. It has been a theme since the late 1800s when a system of public lakefronts was first laid out. The shoreline attracted the public, but adjacent parkways also generated pricey homes that added extra value to the city. Unfortunately, downtown was left out of the green strategy. Indeed, by the 1960s, when skyways appeared, downtown looked more like a walled-off fortress of concrete and glass with barely a tree in sight.
Reversing all of that has been a priority in recent years. Adding green space, keeping sidewalks cleaner and turning buildings “inside out” have been part of a concerted effort. Privately-built Gold Medal Park has also provided a model — and a lure for residential development.
Rybak considers Library Park an additional piece of the strategy. Its primary aim, he said, is to lure pedestrians outdoors and onto Nicollet Mall and to offer a walkable link between the Mississippi River, Loring Park and the Chain of Lakes to the south. Rybak also foresees the day when streetcars would traverse the river-to-lakes route.
It’s important to bring people outside in all seasons, Rybak said. After a recent trip to northern Europe he’s particularly convinced that Minneapolis “must show itself as a winter city.”
While the project’s focus is on the block just north of the library, the new layout would also incorporate two small, underused green spaces: Gateway Park, which runs along Hennepin Avenue across from the new Federal Reserve headquarters, and Cancer Survivors Park near the corner of Washington Avenue and Nicollet Mall.
The project would proceed in phases, starting on the north library block in 2012. But that’s a tall order. If private money cannot be raised by then the only recourse might be legislative approval of a bonding request, possibly by expanding the redo of the Nicollet Mall to include that block and the broader park vision.
There are other complications, too. While the city owns the block, the Federal Transit Administration controls its use and Metro Transit, which uses the block for bus layovers, has opposed development in the past. An attempt in 2005, for example, to develop the block as a combination bus station-condo tower failed.
Some at City Hall, notably Council Member Lisa Goodman, in whose downtown ward the park would be located, have serious concerns about the project. She and others want assurances that private interests will pay for and maintain the park. Others at City Hall wonder if reviving the area near Block E, Target Center and the new Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts might be a more pressing need.
Then, too, it’s not known whether Opus Corp. and other owners of property just to the east and south of the library would be interested in sharing their development pads with a new multi-block Library Park.
Part of a bigger picture
Whatever the case, new parks and their potential to generate development are much at play in Minneapolis and St. Paul at the moment. The four competing design teams mentioned in the opening of this piece have been selected by the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board and the Minneapolis Parks Foundation to complete a new vision for 11 miles of shoreline up river from St. Anthony Falls. The winning plan will be selected in February.
Meanwhile, three other studies are ongoing: Minneapolis planners are reviewing land uses along the upper river; the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is reclassifying “critical areas” along the 72-mile stretch upriver from Hastings, and the Minneapolis Downtown Council is proceeding with a 2025 plan that may include a substantial greening component. All of those studies figure to influence the look, feel and function of these cities in the years ahead.