A vision to make Bloomington more than a giant parking lot

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.

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.

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.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Alex Bauman on 05/18/2012 - 10:02 am.

    All we’ve seen so far is disconnect

    You hit the nail on the head with the seeming incompatibility of a regional mall with dense mixed-use development, and unfortunately all we’ve seen so far of Bloomington’s South Loop plan indicates that city officials don’t really get what makes a neighborhood walkable or urban. Take the “unglamorous road and utility work” you mention. The “lowering” of Lindau Lane will of course act as an extension of the freeway environment that most drivers will just have left, and encourage drivers to keep their freeway driving habits as they drive through the urban neighborhood envisioned to the east of the mall. Similarly, another project currently underway is basically banning pedestrians from Killebrew Dr on the south side of the mall, closing two at grade crossings and requiring pedestrians to use an overpass that takes them through the new Radisson Hotel. I share your hope that Bloomington can pull off this marriage of urbanism and suburbanism, but it’s going to take a 180 degree pivot in the attitudes of their public works staff.

  2. Submitted by Alex Bauman on 05/18/2012 - 10:11 am.

    Complete Street Freeway

    I’m sorry, but I have to add this because it’s such a hilarious bit of doublespeak – the “lowering” of Lindau Lane that you refer to is known as the Lindau Lane Complete Street project. I look forward to seeing whether bikes and pedestrians will be accommodated in the below grade segment of the roadway.

  3. Submitted by Erik Juhl on 05/18/2012 - 06:39 pm.

    Parking lot, play lot

    There are a lot of parking lots in Bloomington. Makes it easy to overlook that 1/3 of Bloomington’s land is preserved as parks and open spaces. Or so it says at the top of this page:


    I think it’s time to try out one of the city’s hiking/biking trails!

  4. Submitted by John Hickman on 05/20/2012 - 07:37 am.


    “Seriously, I don’t think I have ever set one foot outdoors in Bloomington that was not in a parking lot.”
    Ms. Harris, your article highlights the Long Meadow Lake area of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge forms the entire southern border of Bloomington from the airport to the Bloomington Ferry Bridge and has at least six public access points. Bloomington also contains the Pond Dakota Mission, Nine Mile Creek, Hyland Park, Normandale Lake, Bush Lake, and Richardson Nature Center, among others. In all these places, visitors are permitted to set out on foot from the parking lot.

  5. Submitted by Elmo Tingey on 05/20/2012 - 12:06 pm.

    Leave Your Preconceptions Behind?

    “Seriously, I don’t think I have ever set one foot outdoors in Bloomington that was not in a parking lot.”

    Marlys, you might be surprised to know that 43% of the land in Bloomington is parkland or wildlife refuge. In addition to the many areas that John Hickman mentioned above, there are two Izaak Walton chapters and grounds in the city, a beautiful wildlife refuge center and first class museum at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. All of the public schools are located by large parks or natural areas. There are parks and playlots located within 3 or 4 blocks of every neighborhood in the city. The Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge was formed by Bloomington activists in the 1970s, and it is the largest urban wildlife refuge located in the U.S. There’s even a trout stream within a quarter mile of the MOA.

    A strong group of community activists is working to build a recreational bike trail that will travel along the river from Ft. Snelling to Bloomington Ferry, and another trail that will link Lake Nokomis and Minneapolis Grand Rounds, down Old Cedar Ave and across a restored Old Cedar Bridge to link up with the trails in Eagan, Burnsville, and Dakota County. This will be an extremely popular bike commuting route.

    All of these amenities are easily accessed by bicycle or by walking from anywhere in the city. In fact Bloomington’s street system is one of the best bike path networks in the Twin Cities area….. a grid of wide streets with very little car or truck traffic that is plowed in the winter.

    Marlys, I’m very impressed that you have a masters degree in urban planning. Maybe you should come out sometime to pay us a visit, and please leave some of your preconceptions behind.

  6. Submitted by Travis Kaufman on 05/22/2012 - 03:15 pm.

    Let’s Be Honest….

    …..with ourselves. The South Loop area talked about in this article is exactly what the author says it is, mostly parking lots.

    Yes, there are lots of parks and wildlife refuges in the city, but most of those are along the river and in the west side of town. There are no dedicated walking or biking paths on this side of town, like what they have at the Highland Park Reserve. Sure, there are paths down in the valley, but many of those need to be updated, and they are pretty much the same path for bikers and walkers. Walking and biking on the streets of Bloomington is ok, but I would rather have a nice winding paved path through trees instead looking at houses lining both sides of the street. There has been a mention that the side roads in Bloomington offer little vehicle traffic. That might be true, but when I’m out walking my dogs and I on the road, it never fails that there is a car that comes flying towards me and doesn’t slow down or move over. There have been many times in which I’ve had to jump back or to the side to avoid being hit. So, if you want to run the gauntlet of streets in east Bloomington for a walk, be my guest.

    The comment about Lindau being an extension of the highway is extremely ignorant. The only section that will be lowered is between Cedar (77) and 24th. If you took the time to read the proposal on Bloomington’s website, you would see that Lindau is to have street level shops and restaurants all along it from 24th to 30th.

    I see this area as a great opportunity for the city of Bloomington and its residents. It will add housing and revenue to the city. Add this to the MoA expansion and we are projected to add 20,000+ jobs to small area of Bloomington. It’s a win win situation for us.

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