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Gateway Park: When will Minneapolis get a signature downtown park?

All the very best cities have one.

The largest piece of the proposed Gateway Park would unite Cancer Survivors Park and an empty lot next to the library now used by Metro Transit as a bus turnaround.
Courtesy of Accenture

All the very best cities have one.

No, I am not talking about a National Football League franchise or a symphony orchestra. Minneapolis has those things — or one of them, anyway. What I am referring to is a downtown park.

San Francisco has Union Square, a tropical piazza with a dramatic obelisk. Boston has the Common and adjacent Public Garden, where you can catch rides on boats shaped like swans. In New York, there’s Central Park, with a zoo, an ice rink and a merry-go-round; Bryant Park, with a restaurant and reading spots (it’s next door to the public library), and Washington Square Park, which features playgrounds and tables for chess. London and Paris have too many to mention. Even the city’s less populous neighbor St. Paul has two, Rice and Mears, whose lighted trees at night look as though they were laden with diamonds.

Minneapolis, however, has no signature downtown park — and it should. Remember when Obama was elected in 2008? He delivered his victory speech to thousands at Chicago’s Millennium Park. Well, if R.T. Rybak were to become president, he’d have to address his followers in a surface parking lot.

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Since 2008 at least, Minneapolis civic and business leaders involved in the Trust for Public Land, a conservation group, have been jonesing for a major park in the city’s core. David Wilson, managing director at Accenture and head of the park steering committee, believes that if downtown doesn’t get its act together — and fast — its future will be anything but vibrant.

Why is a park so important? He points out that many of his company’s 1,600 employees are people under age 30 who want the amenities of downtown living, restaurants, theater and entertainment. And they’re more likely to find a downtown amenable if it offers a swath of nature where they could walk, run, take their kids, play games and so on. Already, he warns, “Denver is eating our lunch, and Seattle and Austin [Texas].” In other words, young up-and-comers are not up-and-coming here but up-and-going there.

Property values rise

Downtown parks also offer dollars-and-cents benefits to property owners around it. According to a study done   for the Trust for Public Land, way back in 1856, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead conducted an analysis showing that property near New York’s Central Park sold at a premium. More recently, Chicago’s Millennium Park was found to have added $1.4 billion in value to nearby residential property, a 25 percent increase. Discovery Green in Dallas, which opened in 2008, boosted redevelopment by $312 million.

So it would go in Minneapolis. Among other financial benefits, a downtown park would add a premium of $147 million to property values; in turn, local tax coffers could expect an extra $2.4 million a year in revenues.

The plan that has evolved is Gateway Park, which would stretch from 5th Street to the Mississippi. In a way, it’s more a green corridor with lots of trees lining Hennepin and Nicollet to hook up two major splotches of actual park. The first would unite Cancer Survivors Park between Second and Third Streets with a now-empty lot next to the Main Library. (It was once the site of the Nicollet Hotel.)

Two triangles of land fronting Hennepin would provide passageways to a second large patch on Hennepin and First Street that would terrace down to the waterfront below. Down at the river level, the Post Office has an arcade that could be used for eateries and shops, places to rent kayaks, bikes, Segways and so on, says Wilson. “A lot of people who travel here don’t even know there’s a river downtown,” he adds.

The plan is a kind of cobbled-together affair, a patchwork of land that is already publicly owned. A walk along the green corridor would not be completely bucolic; a pedestrian would have to cross several streets, one of them busy Washington Avenue, which, though due for a sprucing up this spring, will remain wide and busy. And, I’m not sure exactly how Cancer Survivors Park, with its plaques full of homilies about the disease, will mesh with the rest.

Initially, I was a little disappointed that the vision wasn’t quite as grand as Manhattan’s Central Park. But there’s no way Minneapolis can do anything like that in an already built-up setting. After all, you can’t exactly run around tearing down useful buildings to create green space. And the plan capitalizes on land that’s mostly vacant. Anyway, a bits-and-pieces park may be a good approach. For starters, the park can be installed in phases. And, if any one bit or piece doesn’t work, well, the city can try something else — without having destroyed an entire neighborhood. 

Practically everybody in town has signed on to the plan: the Minneapolis Downtown Council, the mayor, the steering committee which includes leaders from Target, Piper Jaffray, the Pohlad Family Companies, the Minneapolis Planning Commission and the Parks and Recreation Board. The Minneapolis Parks Foundation’s River First program held a riverfront design competition last year. As it happened, the winning design connected downtown and the river with, you guessed it, a green corridor.

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Given all that, you’d think that Gateway would be a done deal. In fact, according to my colleague Steve Berg, who wrote about the what was then called Library Park two years ago, the groundbreaking was supposed to occur this year. Oops.

Some challenges

What’s holding things up? First, there’s a problem with the lot next to the library. The city used federal transit money to purchase it, and the land’s use was restricted to transit — right now buses to turn around there. For several years, Metro Transit balked at giving up the space, but if all goes according to plan, Wilson says, the bus operation will be moving to the Gateway Parking Ramp this spring. Then too, the piece of land that will step down to the river isn’t vacant. Sitting on it is a pretty ugly but presumably useful parking ramp that serves the Post Office next door. It would have to be torn down. 

There would also have to be a “deeper level of design,” says Bruce Chamberlain, assistant superintendant for planning services for Park and Recreation. So far, nobody has asked the public what it would like to see in the park — a skating rink, a merry-go-round, a pond or all three. And there needs to be programming of some kind. After all, visitors and residents need a compelling reason to walk from downtown to the riverfront. “There has to be a there there,” says Chamberlain.

Figuring all that out, he estimates, could take six to nine months. Also to be decided would be the ownership, the management and the financing. Wilson says that private companies may be willing to contribute, but for the long-term the park would need public funds. 

The main problem may be that no official government body seems to “own” the project. The Downtown Council and the Trust for Public Land are its “champions,” says Chamberlain. But the Park Board sees Gateway as an adjunct to its own agenda to develop the riverfront from downtown to the city’s northern border.

“What makes it [Gateway] powerful is its connection to the riverfront,” says Chamberlain. So the Park Board will “support” and “contribute” its professional expertise to the Gateway plan. But right now it’s not clear who will get the ball rolling.