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Needed: A park for the North Loop

The North Loop Neighborhood Association wants its own park, one that offers a lot more than grass and scenery.

The North Loop, now 4,300 residents strong, wants its own park.
Great River Greening, 2013; North Loop Neighborhood: Park Scoping Study, sketch by Pong Khow, 2013

One reason why I chose to live in the Mill District in downtown Minneapolis was the proximity of Gold Medal Park. If you live in the suburbs, you have a backyard to connect you to nature, assuming you’ve managed to keep the vegetation alive. But for those confined to an apartment, the availability of a park is almost a medical necessity — for mental health, fresh air, for views of plants and animals instead of steel and brick, and freedom to cavort without fear of being mowed down by a passing car or truck.

Not that Gold Medal Park is ideal. It’s a one-block grassy square in the middle of which rises a breast-like hill (reminiscent of a Dakota burial mound, I am told) whose top is reached by a spiral pathway. From there you can see the Mississippi, the Stone Arch Bridge and the Guthrie Theater. Otherwise, there’s not much to do except sit on a bench.

Enter the North Loop Neighborhood Association, which represents the Warehouse District. The area, now 4,300 residents strong — with thousands more on the way, thanks to a spurt in new apartment-building — wants its own park, one that offers a lot more than grass and scenery. “We don’t just want green space,” says Alice Eichholz, a member of the group. “We want a place people would spend time in, at all times of day and in all seasons.”

So the association, with a contribution from the Minnesota Twins, whose stadium sits just across I-94, commissioned a so-called scoping study, a kind of pre-feasibility report that explores of the possibilities. Leading the effort was Great River Greening, a Minnesota nonprofit and consulting group, one of whose purposes is to “increase urban residents’ access to natural areas and sustainable open space.”   

Report endorses park

To nobody’s surprise, the report enthusiastically endorsed the creation of a North Loop park. There were rationales aplenty. Among them: the North Loop is the fastest-growing neighborhood in the city.

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As a former industrial district, it has little greenery, except on the riverfront, and, says Todd Rexine, operations manager and design ecologist at Great River Greening, large superblocks of building cut off access by most residents. Increasingly, younger workers come to cities where they can live near work downtown yet enjoy recreation around the corner. To keep those people here (or to attract them), the area has to provide the amenities they’re looking for. The south end of downtown has Loring Park, the Mill District Gold Medal Park and the Stone Arch Bridge, the Northeast Father Hennepin Park, but the North Loop has almost nada. Historically an industrial area, it received no attention from the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board.

As a further selling point, the study underlined the fact that the mere presence of a park in an urban setting has been proven to raise property values in the immediate vicinity. Research in Dallas, for example, showed that homes adjacent to a park enjoyed a 22 percent premium in value over those a half mile away. A 2005 analysis of Philadelphia neighborhoods made similar findings — that housing fronting green spaces carried a 30 percent premium.

An analysis of sales data for 44,000 homes in Hennepin County supported those findings; those within 200 feet of a park enjoyed a premium of about $13,000. Nationally, studies have shown that commercial buildings reap similar benefits.

The North Loop study, however, was pretty conservative in computing these premiums; they went as high as 17 percent for properties within 100 feet of a park but sank to 1 percent for properties within 1,000 feet, which is only about two city blocks. Still, higher property values, no matter how mingy, translate to greater investment appreciation for property owners, more property tax revenues and a financially sounder city.

The vision for the park is pretty ambitious. What the neighborhood wants, as channeled by the report, are: a shady lawn area, a sunny lawn area, an active play area, including “fitness structures” and a half  basketball court, and a plaza with a small stage, “seating walls,” places for public art and, most important, food vendors. In the midst of all this would lie a water feature evocative of Bassett Creek, which once traversed the area but now flows underground from Penn Avenue and -I394 to the Mississippi River.”The park should mimic the natural environment,” says Eichholz.

The plan, or rather the scoping, anticipates using local flora, which would put a lid on the cost of upkeep. Trying to make parks look like the English countryside, as Frederick Law Olmstead did, can get pretty costly. Finally, a number of strategies would aim to reduce and filter storm water draining into the sewer — so that we send less dirty junk down to New Orleans.

Problems ahead

All of that sounds really appealing, but there are problems. (When aren’t there?) For one, the North Loop is a historic district. Its heritage is industrial; trees, plants and water features don’t fit into that. “There could be a conflict,” says Rexine.

The proposal contemplated four different sites, all of them vacant. Of the two that were most appropriate (for reasons too numerous to mention here), one, named “A” on 3rd Street North, is about two acres in size; the other — “D” — is about half as big and sits on Washington Avenue. Both pieces of land cost about the same amount, about $1.2 million, but “A” has only one owner, which would make acquisition easier.

Since this was only a scoping, the scopers did not put a price tag on the park. And it’s not clear where the North Loop folks could get the money. A long list of possible sources shows that most are reaches. The DNR’s outdoor recreation program might help, but could supply only as much as 50 percent of the cost. The Parks and Recreation Board devotes about $7 million a year to capital improvements, but the money is already spoken for. The Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources can deploy state lottery proceeds for the protection of unique natural resources, but it’s unclear that a park on a piece of vacant industrial land in the North Loop would be considered a unique natural resource. State bonds can be floated to finance a park, but only one of regional or state significance.

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Even though the park is a sort of funding orphan, without any government or public backer, Eichholz is confident that the project will happen. “The community worked very hard to put together the 4th Avenue playground,” she says.

They cobbled together support from several donors, including the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, Bobbie and Steve’s Automotive World Youth Foundation, RCP Shelters, DuMor Site Furnishings, Target, Surface America and Three Rivers Park District. Restaurants in the neighborhood contributed a portion of their proceeds as part of a “Dining out in the Neighborhood” campaign. Volunteers from the neighborhood, the National Recreation and Park Association, in town for a conference and exposition, and local businesses helped to construct the play structure.

“It was very successful. And people really enjoy getting together there,” she says.

Now they want to repeat the experience with a bigger park. Impediments lie ahead, but, says Rexine, because of the scoping report, “the North Loop is now on the Park Board’s radar.”