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.”
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.