The greening of downtown: Left out of the Minneapolis park system, downtown aims to catch up

Can greening take the hard edges off downtown Minneapolis and make it   a more inviting, competitive place to live and work?
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Can greening take the hard edges off downtown Minneapolis and make it a more inviting, competitive place to live and work?

Nearly 130 years after Minneapolis’ impressive park system was laid out, the city’s largely treeless downtown may be poised for a greener, leafier future. A series of meetings last week appeared to lay groundwork for softening downtown’s hard edges with more tree-lined streets, pocket parks and perhaps a central park, all aimed at bringing downtown under the green canopy that covers much of the rest of the city.

“There’s a tremendous momentum in this city to make downtown a more beautiful, more complete place,” said David A. Wilson, managing director of Accenture’s Minneapolis office. “You can see what’s missing here when you walk down the streets in other cities. Greening changes the whole feel of that experience.”

Wilson was among the corporate and political leaders who met last week to advance the greening project. No initiative was officially launched — although the Park Board will plant 500 trees downtown this year as a starter — and no financial model was officially adopted. Still, you get the clear impression that decades of inertia and ambivalence are coming to a close.

Among the reasons:

• Downtown doesn’t want to be left behind as the economy pulls out of a deep recession and development resumes, probably by 2014. But to compete with suburbs and other cities across the country, downtown must raise its “curb appeal.” Its relatively barren streets and huge expanses of surface parking make a poor first impression and fail to deliver the high-quality public spaces that builders and customers have come to expect.

• Attracting growth is important. As Mayor R.T. Rybak has said, the city must again add middle-class population along with jobs and commercial activity to hold the tax base required for delivering the quality of service that residents expect. The city must, in other words, win a larger share of metro growth and prosperity to stay viable. Nowhere is the growth potential greater than in downtown neighborhoods like the North Loop, Elliot Park, East Hennepin and the Mills District.

• There’s growing recognition that the city needs private-sector help to construct and maintain quality public spaces. For years businesses have complained bitterly about the city’s inability to keep up, but now the city’s financial dilemma is clearer. It’s clearer, also, that private efforts can work wonders. The Downtown Improvement District (DID), launched in 2009, has demonstrated the value of cleaner, safer, more attractive sidewalks. Adding a green element seems the logical next step.

• Greening is essential to downtown’s gradual conversion to a 24-hour model — a city that doesn’t empty out at night but becomes a place to live, work and shop in proximity. That model requires infilling surface parking lots and maintaining attractive, perhaps even beautiful, sidewalks.

Green isn’t just for decoration

Greening advocates aim for more of this (a side street in Brooklyn) ...
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Greening advocates aim for more of this (a side street in Brooklyn) …

But all this discussion about trees and flowers isn’t just about decoration. It’s not only about the energy and environmental savings either, or about enhancing property values. It’s about a fundamental need that Minnesotans don’t often articulate: We not only like green, we need green.

I noticed it when our family moved here in the mid 1990s and saw the eager faces of my neighbors as we lined up at the plant nurseries every spring. I noticed, as an editorial writer for the Strib, the extra emotion that readers placed on preserving and protecting nature. Because we endure long, brutal winters, we hold the green outdoors of spring and summer close to our hearts. I can’t imagine a downtown that thrives without paying attention to that fundamental need.

... and less of this (Fifth Avenue N., near Washington).
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
… and less of this (Fifth Avenue N., near Washington).

“We’ve come full circle,” said John Erwin, a parks commissioner who understands the irony of excluding downtown from the city’s green profile.

“The parks were built by business leaders as a tool for economic development,” he said, referring to the extraordinary step of reserving lakeshores and parkways for the public as an incentive for building valuable residential neighborhoods nearby. “But in doing that we turned our backs to downtown; now we have to turn around and look toward it. The question is, can we do this? The answer is, we’ve done it before and we can do it again, only this time we have to include downtown.”

Finding a governing/funding model
Erwin’s comments came during a meeting at the Minneapolis Club that included City Council President Barbara Johnson; Council Member Lisa Goodman; Bill McGuire, former CEO of UnitedHealth Group and a parks enthusiast; and a number of other corporate executives, including Accenture’s Wilson. McGuire and Wilson stressed the importance of forging a public-private governance model so that greening could happen deliberately and systematically rather than as disparate or competing projects. The consensus was that a high-profile leader is needed — perhaps Rybak.

“Our future is not bright if we don’t make downtown a more attractive place to live,” McGuire said.

Goodman emphasized the need to establish a fund — perhaps a conservancy — to ensure that plantings are properly cared for. She said that incremental steps from individual properties would be helpful, too, including pots, hanging baskets and roof gardens.

Provocative questions
Michael Rotondi, the energetic Los Angeles landscape visionary (his firm is RoTo Architecture), moderated the discussion. Earlier in the day, he had sketched out the larger implications to a breakfast crowd at the Hennepin County Central Library by asking a series of questions:

In a world dominated by individualism, is it possible to reach a consensus on such a project? How can you have long-term vision in a short-term world? Can we invest in projects that will mostly benefit those yet unborn? Is it possible to think deeply when you have to move quickly? Is it acceptable to fail and try again? Can you design and maintain a landscape for both summer and winter? Can landscape help to promote our innate need to come together face to face in a digital age?

For me, Rotondi’s questions offered a reminder that the urban topics we discuss in this space are all part of the same inter-related whole, the same civic ecosystem. Landscape, for its part, isn’t just about beauty; it’s about social interaction, the democracy of public space, economic development, prosperity, education, public safety, environmental benefit, energy conservation and healthy lifestyles.

Rotondi put it this way: “Nature isn’t just nice to have; it reminds us that we’re part of the bigger system. It’s not just an amenity, something extra to add on if you can afford it; it’s essential.”

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/21/2011 - 11:24 am.

    One of the things I found most charming in London was the presence of square-block parks enclosed by wrought iron fences. My favorite was one near the British Museum with a statue of Gandhi on which someone hung a lei of fresh flowers every day.

    The pocket parks being proposed could add as much charm to Minneapolis AND provide places for children to play away from traffic.

  2. Submitted by cheryl luger on 01/21/2011 - 01:55 pm.

    looking for one part of a private-public funding model ?
    what is the status of the park development fee ?
    imagine the funding that would have been available if the city’s elected officials had implemented it during the growth of the early-mid 2000’s.
    many suburban municipalities have successfuly utilized that model for years.
    i attended that first joint city-park meeting (6 years ago ?). city hall (elected and THE department)was hesitant, to say the least.
    since then, the city has dragged out the process…long after the legislature gave it the authority.
    i am not sure the people (other than downtown businesses) being suggested to lead it are the best ones for the job…given recent city hall history.
    kudos to the downtown businesses for the special service district and those individual businesses sponsoring planters/greenery
    …kudos to the park board for looking at amenities (such as the new kid friendly park serving downtown families). and for taking the lead in the impressive above the falls/riverfront development competitions (tickets to presentation ‘sold out’).
    a role for the tree trust.
    … and future kudos to the downtown residents and neighborhood associations that need to be a vital part of this vision.
    how about that for a leadership model ?

    stay safe and warm !

    cl luger
    ward 12, park district 5

  3. Submitted by David Greene on 01/21/2011 - 03:49 pm.

    Rotondi got it wrong right off the bat. The world is not dominated by individualism. Only the United States suffers from the delusion of hyper-individualism. It goes a long way toward explaining why we are so far behind the rest of the world in community development. We don’t particularly care about community anymore.

    This also explains why it’s nigh impossible to do things like single-payer health care, reasonable transit service, equitable education or anything which requires even the smallest amount of sacrifice by the individual for the common good.

    Until we cure this disease, we’re going to keep struggling to do things the rest of the world takes for granted.

  4. Submitted by Victoria Wilson on 01/22/2011 - 09:21 am.

    I agree with Steve “that the urban topics we discuss in this space are all part of the same inter-related whole.”

    Every day the 3.2 million people in our metropolitan area choose whether to ride the bus to work or drive so they can swing by to help their aging parents on the way home; whether to go to the PTA meeting or make a homemade meal instead of serving takeout pizza; whether to organize the National Night Out get-together or volunteer at their place of worship. Every action is limited by their time and resources. And it is reasonable to say that every family is rational in their priority assessment process.

    Since we know that an educated work force commands a higher value in the workplace, a working transit system provides people access to their livelihood, a healthy diet and clean environment saves money on public health expenses, family care for aging parents takes a burden off our social system; it is appropriate to call this inter-related whole an economic system.

    But can we quell David’s concerns that our community is not willing or able to be more productive? I think as in any fluid system there are surpluses to be recovered and wastes to be eliminated. But it is vital to remember that it is a system under constraints and the best we can achieve is an optimal balance.

  5. Submitted by David Greene on 01/22/2011 - 04:28 pm.

    Victoria, it’s reasonable to assume every family makes rational decisions based on the information they have. But they information many families have is incorrect. This is so for many reasons but the top one is anti-investment and anti-urban ideologues spreading disinformation. It’s very difficult to make good decisions when someone is telling you lies.

  6. Submitted by James Schwebel on 01/23/2011 - 10:27 am.

    There is a desperate need for a private/public fund to raise capital to be ready to acquire land in downtown for future parks. The loss of the Block E site for a park is still mourned by many of us. And now we learn that it was just sold for 12 million.less than 10% of construction costs.Had there been a well capitalized fund in place it could have been acquired, cleared,and repositioned as our finest downtown park, like Rice Park in St. Paul.And what of 8th and Henn. Shinders cite that has been available for two years? What a great spot for a pocket park,aka,Manhattan. A parks development corporation could employ a grant writer to tap funds from the Minneapolis Foundation or other environmentally oriented foundations. .Its never to late to begin a process which could transform our downtown.

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