A look at Plan-it Hennepin’s early plan for Minneapolis’ main drag

MinnPost photo by John Noltner
Downtown will never become vibrant unless we start thinking of it as a place where people come to hang out.

Plan-it Hennepin, that consortium of organizations hoping to transform Minneapolis’ main drag, presented its preliminary plan to the public at the downtown library Wednesday night.

Don’t get too excited yet. People involved with the project warned me no less than seven times that the proposal is not final, that things will change and so on. And, just in case I didn’t get it, a handout about the plan was stamped with the word “DRAFT” in 120-point type — which is about the size the Strib would use to tell us that the United States had invaded Canada.

A more definitive plan should be out after the City Council approves it, maybe in November. That’s about a month or so after the group’s $200,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts runs out.

Even then, I wouldn’t, if I were you, expect to see big changes right away. The reason: the plan (yes, I know that it’s only a preliminary draft) lays out a lot of generalities — a vision and some short- and long-term goals. And it identifies pockets of opportunity, mostly surface parking lots along the street where interesting stuff might be done. All around the library conference room were pictures of light shows and wall murals that could conceivably turn those pockets into arresting visual displays.

But it’s unclear whether Plan-It or the city itself can do anything with said pockets because most of them are privately held. Not every parking lot owner, I suspect, would be eager to donate his revenue-producing property to the city for a flower garden. To fill those pockets, the city would have to buy or rent the land.

Spearheading the plan, as you may recall, is the Hennepin Theatre Trust, which recruited as partners the Walker Art Center, Artspace and the city. The original idea was to turn the street into “a cultural corridor.”

‘Cultural district’

But project director Tom Borrup, from Creative Community Builders, a Minneapolis company that helps towns and cities develop “strategies and plans that lead to vibrant and prosperous futures,” said that the group had decided to think of the area as a “cultural district” which would encompass the two-mile stretch of Hennepin from the Mississippi River to the Walker sculpture garden as well as the side streets and parallel avenues to the east and west.

The change in nomenclature is significant. Corridors, after all, are what you pass through to get somewhere else; districts are places where you visit and stay. And downtown will never become vibrant unless we start thinking of it as a place where people come to hang out.

The group was eager to get ideas from the public. So over the past year, it held   workshops, focus groups and meetings where some 1,500 citizens heard experts talk about how to make places vital and interesting, got to play with a 40-foot replica of Hennepin Avenue and made suggestions about what should happen. At one session, people divided up into four groups to focus on new ideas for four discrete parts of Hennepin: Gateway (from the Library to the River, set for residential, retail and park space), the Theater District (an entertainment area ending at 9th Street), Harmon (from 9th to the Basilica which is residential, educational and retail) and Hennepin-Lyndale (from the Basilica to the Walker with museum and churches — and as one audience member noted, Loring Park).

A rich archive contains the results, including videos of people who use Hennepin commenting about what they want. The Walker Arts Center Teen Arts Council, for example, produced a video asking that the street provide more shopping, local business (instead of chains), places to “chill” (you’d think Minnesota had enough of that, at least in the winter) and public parks.

Everyone loved the process, from the project leaders, like Olga Viso, executive director of the Walker, who declared it “dynamic and gratifying,” to regular-folks like Cheryl Kranz, a volunteer who shows visitors around the river. “I felt that what I was saying would end up in the plan,” she said. She wants access to the Mississippi from Gateway park, a patch of land to the north of the library now devoted to parking lots.

Such an outpouring of public opinion is impressive. But the larger question is: What has come out of this year-long effort?

Sadly, not as much as I would have liked.

Seven key elements

First, Plan-it set forth seven elements that any redevelopment should “embrace.” These precepts are a bit muddly; so here they are with my interpretations, which I hope are correct:

 Stuff to Embrace Translation
Obvious physical and programmatic connections The street should hang together visually from one end to the other
Encouragement of curiosity There should be a lot of interesting and creative stuff there
Celebration of urbanity Encounters with new and different people should happen in planned and unplanned events
Display of compassion Okay, I have no clue—maybe people should be nicer to each other?
Safety and accessibility People shouldn’t have to worry about crime, and there should be many forms of transit to get there.
Accommodation of a range of space There should be mixed uses—living, working, eating, recreation, etc.
A significant sense of place It should feel like Minneapolis, not any old city.

There are some long-term goals too, with which few could disagree. For example, making downtown hospitable to residents and building it into a regional destination.

Plan-it does have a list of short-term actions, however. Some of them seem rather bureaucratic. First, for example, would come the creation of a Cultural District Alliance, to be lodged within the Hennepin Theatre Trust, and formally recognized by the City Council. And everybody from arts, culture, sports, theater, food vendor organizations and so on should (or would have to) help the Alliance implement its plans. And there would be some branding of the effort.

What about measure to change the street? I was able to tease only a few concrete items out of the draft: enforcement of perimeter landscaping for surface parking lots so that they are all decked out in greenery within 12 months; improvement of pedestrian striping on the streets and bicycle markings to make movement easier; simpler permitting for special events, like parades, flea markets and so on; a “no vacancy initiative” for Hennepin properties through “artist-led projects;” creation of green spaces every two blocks or so; programming of events centered on Hennepin; and even new buildings, for example, a hostel-artist building of some sort across from the Cowles center.

One big element is missing from this good-hearted but rather vague plan, however, and that’s money.  As one observer commented, “A plan with no credible commitment of resources is not a plan.”

Clearly, the Plan-it folks are hoping that now that they’ve presented us with a vision, somehow, “Field of Dreams”style, the money will come.

In our flaccid business climate, maybe Plan-it Hennepin’s best option would be to take on a few small projects to give us a glimpse of the possibilities. Get a grant and use the money to lease one of those big parking lots on a Saturday and Sunday for   an arts and antiques (or oldtiques) market. I’d go downtown for that. If it’s successful, an entrepreneur will want to take over.

And how about renting some of the blank walls alongside parking lots to advertisers for the installation of Jumbotrons pushing products? Yes, it’s advertising, but it’s visually interesting. If you don’t think so, visit Times Square.

Plan-it has made a good start. Now let’s get something going.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/14/2012 - 12:33 pm.

    For this non-native

    …downtown Minneapolis is not at all friendly. I generally avoid “hanging out” there – and I live in the city, not the ‘burbs.

    City founders made an egregious error decades ago, as city founders along other waterways have done over the years, I’m sure, by giving streets names with directions and numbers that do not correspond to any functional compass, but that nonetheless share terminology. If I lived and worked downtown, I’d probably figure out that “north” and “south,” when applied to street names, don’t really mean north and south when I’m in the downtown area. I’d probably also memorize the difference between “Street” and “Avenue.” I understand the logic behind naming 4th Avenue and 4th Street, but as a practical matter, that logic is a complete failure unless you deal with its results daily, and I do not. For this non-downtown-resident of the city, that nomenclature is persistently confusing, so just going downtown via automobile invites frustration. Hennepin is not really an exception.

    When I do go downtown, what I see, hear, and otherwise encounter is the automobile, or some variation of it. For someone who’s essentially a pedestrian, there’s not much on Hennepin, at least at present, that would attract me from the “hanging out” standpoint. I might go for theatrical event, but certainly not just as a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Look again at the photo that heads this article. What’s the attraction there for a pedestrian unless you’re addicted to exhaust fumes?

    I got very comfortable with Denver’s 16th Street Mall, essentially the same idea as the Nicollet Mall, but the latter just doesn’t work for me at all – or at least it hasn’t so far. In part, at least, that’s because the Minneapolis version is harder to get to. I need to change buses 3 times to get there from where I live in the city if I want to use Metro Transit. On anything but a fine spring or fall day, and assuming I have an extra hour and more to kill each way, that’s a deal-killer right from the start. Driving is not an attractive option because of that street name issue, and because parking in downtown Minneapolis is significantly more expensive than in other cities where I’ve lived. I’m well aware that there’s no such thing as truly “free” parking, but adding $5 or $7 to my lunch tab so I can park 4 blocks away isn’t an enticement to do so.

    I have to disagree, if only slightly, with the observer’s comment that “A plan with no credible commitment of resources is not a plan.” I understand the observer’s sentiment, but it’s still a plan, except that, in a plan without that commitment of resources, the primary ingredient of the plan is wishing, and wishing won’t make it so. Let’s see if any of the necessary resources materialize…

    • Submitted by Andrew Richner on 09/14/2012 - 02:04 pm.

      Bussing

      My criticism of transit route planning in Minneapolis is the exact opposite of yours. It seems that every route in the city must pass through Nicollet, Hennepin, or Marquette. Whether you’re in Uptown, University, South Minneapolis, North Minneapolis, or Northeast, your options for getting downtown are almost always better than getting to the next neighborhood over.

    • Submitted by Scott Stocking on 09/17/2012 - 05:06 pm.

      Change buses 3 times?

      I for the life of me can’t think of any place in the city where it takes 4 buses to get to or cross Nicollet Mall.

  2. Submitted by William Lindeke on 09/15/2012 - 03:54 pm.

    “display of compassion”

    i’d say that’s either “flowers”, or whatever is the opposite of “Defensible space”

    also, “range of space,” may be more like different sizes / ages of buildings and spaces, to accommodate different kinds of investment, at different scales (e.g. food trucks v. large ‘wondrous’ restaurants)

    good ideas Marlys! I’d esp. like to see your plan in place at the large parking lot at Block D

  3. Submitted by Nick Magrino on 09/17/2012 - 12:24 pm.

    Well…

    Part of the problem is that it already is an attractive place to hangout, but the people who are hanging out there don’t exactly have much disposable income and do a great job scaring away people who do. This is a problem on much of Nicollet Mall as well. Until Minneapolis starts figuring out how to discourage loitering by groups of people yelling profanity and harassing passersby, no amount of money spent on flowers is going to convince anyone to drive in from Minnetonka to feel cultured.

    • Submitted by Tom Stenson on 09/17/2012 - 05:05 pm.

      Expelling the poor from downtown

      What makes you so afraid of people periodically yelling some profanities? Wealthy individuals want to be isolated from the poor, so that they can ignore the effects of the policies that have benefited them. We have no problem supporting bombing other countries, but we do not want to think about the death of civilians, or why we are even bombing in the first place. We have no problem buying clothes made in sweatshops, because we try not to think of the real conditions of those workers, or how we benefit from that system. Instead, of “discouraging loitering” by the poor, how about we find ways to engage everyone, not just the wealthy. Does one need at least $50 to be culturally enriched in downtown or contribute to its vibrancy? Is our only value to Minneapolis, in the role of consumers? Why not create more than a green space when developing a park next to the library? Model it on the art shanty project by Medicine lake. An opportunity for people to experience art, music, and interact with other people. You might think the poor are useless, and they probably think that you are the root of their problems. It is very difficult for people with such distinct life experiences to interact, much less find common ground or enrich each others lives. Why not create opportunities that make this more likely, and facilitate the process once it starts? Poverty, lack of education, and a decimated culture are crippling to an individual’s potential. However, so are social isolation, insecurity, and pervasive anxiety and depression that come with living in a social structure where one competes and desperately tries to conform to a psychologically unhealthy paradigm of success.

      • Submitted by Nick Magrino on 09/18/2012 - 12:35 pm.

        Yeah…

        Being real academic about it is cool and all, but I live and work downtown, and walk the streets daily. After a certain number of parents you see scream “SHUT THE F**K UP” at their toddler, it starts to get to you.

        If you think it’ll help, sit at 7th and Hennepin for a few hours after dark and facilitate away!

        • Submitted by Tom Stenson on 09/18/2012 - 11:23 pm.

          Oh Yea!

          I understand that yelling profanities at a child doesn’t make for good parenting. I realize your frustration, but someone who has wealth but never has time for his/her child is not a good parent either. Those aren’t equivalents but in both cases, the results usually manifest in destructive ways later in life.

          As far as being academic, I am just trying to discuss a complex issue without injecting too much emotion because it is already challenging as it is. I grew up in a poor inner city neighborhood and I have also been around many people who do not lack in wealth. I can tell you no one is better, even though their problems are different. The problems of the poor are far more obvious, however. The wealthy might be dishonest crooks that destroy many lives, but we are not concerned that they will pick pocket us. The wealthy might fool us and mislead us, but they do not scream in our faces. I am saying that pushing the poor citizens out of downtown will not improve their lives or the health of the city as a whole. It will only serve to marginalize them and make their problems even more invisible to the wealthy and powerful who run our city.

          Of course they scream profanities, because they are part of a cycle. That child will grow up and do the same. That cycle goes back to historical injustices, and it will continue until the effects of those injustices is addressed. I am attempting to do my small part, form connections, and learn whatever I can. You are clearly a good person who cares about a child being verbally abused. However, poor people are not bad and should not be eliminated. All people are on average exactly the same genetically. The only difference is the programming and environmental effects. Those are the things we can address. That is why I think we should be looking for every possible way to do this, as we continue to plan the future development of our city. How do we make sure that the changes we make connect us, and economically, culturally, and emotionally benefit the most people?

          • Submitted by Pat Berg on 09/22/2012 - 07:44 am.

            Compassion

            “However, poor people are not bad and should not be eliminated.”

            I’m guessing that’s the “Display of compassion” part that Marlys had no clue about in her article.

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