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A vision to make Bloomington more than a giant parking lot

The so-called South Loop plan would create a kind of new town dense enough to allow apartment living, shopping, dining and walking.

Bloomington has plans to unpave parking lots and put up Paradise.

“They paved Paradise to put up a parking lot.”

So goes the old lyric. Bloomington, however, is aiming for a switcheroo: to unpave those parking lots and put up Paradise. Well, maybe not Paradise, but a kind of new town dense enough to allow apartment living, shopping, dining and — be still my suburban heart! — walking. Seriously, I don’t think I have ever set one foot outdoors in Bloomington that was not in a parking lot.

The vision, embodied in a plan now in the final stages of winning approval, seems hard to grasp when you visit the so-called South Loop, a triangular stretch of Bloomington bounded on the north by Interstate 494, on the south by the Long Meadow Lake and on the west by Hwy. 77.

Looming over the landscape are the Mall of America and Ikea. Hotels and office buildings, most prominently the headquarters for Health Partners, as well as Reflections, two mirror-sided hi-rise condos, sit isolated on large plots to the east like modern-day versions of the dolmens at Stonehenge. The major streets are six lanes wide, designed not to facilitate walking but to stream cars from highway to parking berths.

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Frankly, it doesn’t look promising.

But I am rooting for the South Loop plan because it makes a whole lot of sense.

‘Smart growth’

The theory behind it, says Larry Lee, Bloomington’s director of community development, is “smart growth.” There are certain locations where higher density can work well, he contends, and the South Loop is one of them. Already, the area’s offices and hotels, not to mention the vast MOA, draw workers from all over the metro. The light rail has four stations in the South Loop, and the one at MOA, the most heavily trafficked on the line, connects riders to 15 bus lines.

Bloomington Land Use Framework Concept

Bloomington Land Use Map

If more people live in the area, we the public, both Bloomington and state taxpayers, leverage our investments in roads, mass transit and everything else. If we instead continue to encourage people to spread to the far corners of the exurbs, we have to build more roads, schools and other infrastructure to accommodate them. That’s very expensive and very inefficient. Call it “dumb growth.”

Bloomington’s land-use plan leaves most everything where it is now. A large swath down the middle of the area will contain offices to the south and hotels to the north. MOA and Ikea are designated an “entertainment” zone which is, I guess, what shopping is for most of us. But in the southwest and northeast corners will rise condos and apartments to house both those who work in the area and commute into Minneapolis. Surveys have shown, Lee says, that 30 to 40 percent of people in the housing market would like to live without lawns to mow, sidewalks to shovel and traffic to contend with every time they pick up a bottle of milk. Right now, most housing in the metro requires people to do all three.

And the area has a giant amenity — the Long Meadow Lake portion of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a stunningly beautiful wetland that the South Loop plan contemplates connecting to housing via new trailheads and walkways.  If everything comes together, the area could supply everything modern-day families want: city life with flora and fauna nearby.

First step in the plan, however, is a lot of unglamorous road and utility work, chiefly the extension of Lindau Lane to 30th Avenue South to hook the mall up to the Minnesota River. The portion of Lindau coming off the freeway will be lowered. Bridging the road will be a pad on top of which will sit a planned expansion of MOA. That, according to Daniel Jasper, the mall’s vice president of public relations, will contain a luxury hotel, a Mayo clinic office and 135,000 square feet devoted to retail.

That may sound like a lotta retail, but it’s about the size of three supermarkets and a teeny addition to MOA’s existing 2.8 million square feet of retail space. Already set to open in the spring of 2013 is the Radisson Blu hotel on the south side of the mall.

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Mall and South Loop plan

My question is: How will the Mall’s expansion — and who knows how big it could get in the next 10 years? — mesh with the South Loop plan for more intimate high density living? The two seem disconnected. MOA is a grandiose structure designed to facilitate cars and delivery trucks; it can function only when surrounded by huge roadways that become barriers to pedestrians. I don’t know if I would want to walk from that northeastern corner to, say, the Health Partners Building. It’s not that far, but in the winter, the prairie wind would blow you down.

In a sense, however, the South Loop plan could never become a reality without the Mall. Last year, says Jasper, it drew 42 million visitors and broke the $1 billion mark for sales. While a whole lot of malls are going sideways, MOA is in a class by itself, says retail analyst Jim McComb, president of the McComb Group in Minneapolis. About half of its customers come from outside a 150-mile radius, many of them from overseas. While gawping at the immense structure, they drop a lot of dough, producing millions in sales and income taxes for the state and property tax revenues for Bloomington.

In its 20 years of existence, the number of (hospitality-tax generating) hotel rooms has risen from 5,000 to 8,000. Perhaps most important, contends Lee, is that the Mall has given the area an identity. “If you say ‘South Loop,’ nobody knows what you’re talking about,” he says. “But you can talk about the Mall, people from all over nod: yeah, I know that.”

Maybe they should rename the area MallWorld or Mallandia or, to get more lyrical, Mallifluous.

Think of the Mall as a petite version of Disney World. Without it, nobody would have heard of Orlando, Fla. The theme parks — love ’em or hate ’em, they are what they are — draw millions of visitors and money. Outside the Disney complexes, however, sit a lot of neglected strip shopping centers, ugly hotels, big box stores and suburban sprawl. 

 Bloomington’s planners are trying to do better than that. Let’s hope they succeed.