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Design prof Thomas Fisher wants stadium to produce ‘vibrant’ new Minneapolis area

The key, he says, is how the Vikings stadium “connects to or interacts with the city around it.”

Minnesota Vikings

An immense and very expensive development in the heart of Minneapolis is about to get under way. I’m talking about the new Vikings stadium, of course.

Just to remind you, it will cost $975 million, about half underwritten by taxpayers and, if planned land acquisition deals go through, will cover several acres stretching from Fifth to 11th avenues south and Third to Sixth streets. Given its prominence, I thought I would periodically check on its progress.

To get a sense of how the stadium might change the local area — and the city — I talked to Thomas Fisher, a professor and dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. He was appointed to serve as co-chairman of the city’s Stadium Implementation Committee, along with David Wilson, a director at Accenture.

The assignment: to make “recommendations on the design plans submitted for the stadium, and stadium infrastructure, and related improvements.”

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The group, which hasn’t yet had its initial meeting, has no say in the design of the stadium itself, just “the skin out,” says Fisher. But, he adds, “When they talk about our having a say on the skin, it shouldn’t just be the color of the brick but how the stadium connects to or interacts with the city around it.”

He sees the project as an opportunity to create a vibrant new area. Here are his comments on the issues he believes are important: 

Not repeating history

The committee’s preliminary conversations, and the directive from the mayor, have been around not repeating the mistakes made with the Metrodome and the local area. Back when the Metrodome was built, there was a lot of concern that it would generate a second downtown that would draw people and energy from the one that was already there. And planners didn’t want to set up an entertainment district to rival what was developing in the warehouse district. So there was a conscious effort not to encourage development.

[As a result], the Metrodome is this big blank-walled bunker. There’s no life around it. The city now recognizes that was a mistake. If we just build a bigger version of the Metrodome, we’ll have failed.

Creating a place for everyday use

The area [around the stadium] has to be appropriate for game days. But we have to remember there are only eight games a year; even if the team is very successful, there will be maybe 10 games. The question is: What about the other 355? 

Football stadiums are really suburban-style buildings, with big parking lots around them for tailgating. The challenge here in Minneapolis is to build an urban football stadium: It’ll be downtown with lots of people around it all the time. We want the plazas and other kinds of spaces that handle the crowds on game day to become places where people are congregating, eating, recreating, doing all kinds of activity not only on game day but for the entire year.

We also have to ask: What do the people living near the stadium need and want? They have Gold Medal Park and Elliot Park, which are both traditional parks. Maybe they don’t need traditional parks. But perhaps they could use a space that we don’t really have much in the city, treed plazas and open spaces that have recreational or art activities going on. 

What’s needed

Urban open spaces succeed or fail depending on what’s around them. So, the area connected to the stadium must have commercial activity. We have to figure how activities related to game day can be utilized year round.

Thomas Fisher

Thomas Fisher

Concessions in stadiums, for example, normally face inward. But could they face outward so that people could use them as restaurants and stores even when there isn’t a game? 

[One way to make sure those commercial enterprises succeed] is to increase the density so there are enough office workers and residents to support them. One of the interesting paradoxes coming here from the East Coast is that I’m always amazed that people are afraid of density. Yet they want all the things that density provides. They want light rail, they want lots of interesting restaurants, lots of interesting things happening, but they don’t want density.

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Well, density well done is how you make a great city. It doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is living 50 stories in the air. Paris is a very dense city, but it’s not full of high-rise buildings. So we don’t have to build high-rises, but we definitely need the kind of density that will generate street life that people will want and that will attract more people to come.

How to produce development 

The transit station is going to be key. Two lines [the Hiawatha and Central Corridor LRTs] will cross at the stadium. Anybody coming from St. Paul who wants to go to the airport, and anybody coming from the airport wanting to go to St. Paul is going to have to get off at that station. There’s probably going to be a major bus terminus near the stadium, too.

Stations generate lots of commercial activity. Where people are changing trains, there will have to be dry cleaners, places to buy coffee and pick up newspapers. People want to live near stations, have their offices by them. This is a city that has not had a train system for a long time. So people don’t understand that train lines are not where they are because of office buildings. Office buildings are where they are because of the trains. You put in the infrastructure and the development follows.

A recreational center

We also ask whether there’s room for an entertainment district that isn’t competing with the entertainment businesses around Target Field. Maybe, instead of bars where you watch games on TV, we could have entertainment in the area involving physical activity: soccer fields and tennis courts and volleyball. Because the area is at the connection of the two light rail lines, kids could get there from both cities. They could utilize the stadium much more intensively.

Another thought: The Minneapolis campus of the University nearby has a population of 30,000. But it has very few recreational fields. If we created more recreational opportunities around the stadium, could there be a way for the university students to utilize them? And develop mentoring relationships with inner city kids? There are a lot of things we can try to do with a district like this.

Tailgating

 It’s anticipated that a fairly high percentage of people will be coming to the stadium by rail. So tailgating will have to be reimagined. Could there be distance-tailgating, maybe in a parking lot down by the Mall of America? A half hour or 45 minutes before the game, people would get up on the light rail and go to the stadium.

I’ve also been wondering about vertical tailgating. There’s a really interesting parking garage built recently in Miami. It’s not your typical low-ceiling garage. It has high ceilings and contains restaurants and other activities. Could we build a garage that serves for tailgating as well as parking? And have restaurants and other retail establishments interwoven in it? We have opportunities now to rethink things.  

Parking

Studies have shown that people are already using their cars less. [In the new digital economy we’re shifting into] they don’t need to travel to where the goods are, as they did in the past, because they can order stuff over the Internet. So we should design garages that can be reused. I’m a big advocate of not having sloped-floor garages. If you build flat floor garages with a circular ramp and with a little bit higher headroom, you could convert them to offices or apartments if they become obsolete — instead of tearing them down. 

 Connectedness

The mayor quite rightly wants us to think about making connections from the stadium to the river, to the housing area around Gold Medal Park, to downtown, to Eliot Park, to Cedar-Riverside — and to the West Bank of the University. We’ve done a study [of the I-35W, Washington Avenue interchange] and found that there’s quite a lot of taxable land [around I35] that is underutilized. Those sites will get built upon and developed, and then we’ll also see more pedestrian access [from various neighborhoods], bridges over all that spaghetti of highways to connect the university and the downtown.

[It would be great if we could] bring people together from all the different neighborhoods, Elliot Park, Cedar-Riverside, which have populations of color, people living around the river, and then the university community use the place together.