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For now, new Vikings stadium will be surrounded by … parking lots

There’s hope the grander stadium will jazz up development, but that may be up to the owners of nearby parking lots.

There's a great deal of hope that this grander stadium will somehow jazz up development and repopulate the blacktop deserts stretching through Elliot Park and Downtown East
Minnesota Vikings

Life has conferred many blessings on me, and one I give thanks for every day is living in an apartment with two views. One frames the glossy towers of downtown Minneapolis, which lift my spirits, especially at night when they’re lit up like Oz.

That compensates for the other, less stirring view of the Metrodome, which sits like a derelict spaceship in an immense no-man’s land of parking lots. To paraphrase Robert Frost, “Something there is that doesn’t love gray walls without windows.”

Soon, we’ll be getting a new stadium, and given the amount of money in play, about $1 billion, there’s every expectation that it will be better looking than the one we’ve got. (A low bar, in my opinion.)

And there’s a great deal of hope that this grander stadium will somehow jazz up development and repopulate the blacktop deserts stretching through Elliot Park and Downtown East, the two neighborhoods surrounding it. Already, the Stadium Implementation Committee, a group of officials and citizens charged with making recommendations on the design plan, has laid down its vision: that the stadium “stimulate high-density, mixed-use development of varying scales and styles that is designed to be transit-oriented.” In other words, let there be housing, let there be offices, let there be retail, and let there be buses and trains.

‘Opportunity sites’

The other night, David Fields, development director of the Elliot Park Neighborhood Inc., (EPNI) came to a meeting of the Mill District Neighborhood Association, an informal group of condo-owners, to itemize “opportunity sites” where such development might occur. “When we’re talking opportunity sites, we’re talking parking lots,” he says.

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If that’s so, there’s a lot of potential for new development because surface parking lots comprise about half the acreage of the two neighborhoods and about a third of the acreage downtown Minneapolis overall. So it’s not far off the mark to say that the city’s future development rests in the hands of people who own surface parking lots. (It’s probably time to convene a new civic improvement group called Parking Lot Owners for a Better Minneapolis.)

Fields took his audience on a block-by-block Power Point tour of the neighborhood, identifying parcels where new development could rise from the blacktop. It quickly became clear that development would not be easy. One reason: Large institutions — Hennepin County Medical Center, North Central University and Augustana Health Care and the Star Tribune — dominate the area and have development plans of their own.

For example, there’s a nice triangular piece of land along Chicago and 14th Street where you drive around a bend and catch a stunning view of the city. It would be a great site for an apartment building — or would have been, but North Central University, which “was hurting for parking,” says Fields, nabbed it.

Then too, the Vikings have their eye on some of those lots so they can turn them into, yes, parking. Hubert’s Sports Bar & Grill on 6th and Chicago, kitty-corner to the Metrodome, owns practically half a block, says Fields. The Vikings would like to buy it for a parking ramps (they’re allowed 2,500 spaces) for VIPs who could “get from their cars to the stadium through a skyway, without getting wet,” says Field. The team is also looking at acquiring another lot to accommodate tailgating.

No land rush

There’s been no land rush yet; and some parking lot owners have little incentive to sell until there is. Because their property is unimproved, the taxes are low. Particularly in Elliott Park, where many of the lots are only a quarter or half block, “owners figure that they’re making enough money,” says a real estate consultant who didn’t want to speak for attribution because he is involved in Viking land deals. That’s less true of owners of larger lots in the Downtown East area, which often sit at least partially empty, even during business hours. They may be more open to developing their property.

The Metropolitan Council has granted Minneapolis about $43,000 to study surface parking lots and figure out how to get them developed. The tax structure will come under analysis — perhaps there will be a proposal to raise taxes on undeveloped downtown land — as well as strategies for prodding lot owners to do something already.  

Nagging at the back of my mind, however, is the worry that maybe that land has become parking lots because there hasn’t been demand for higher uses like housing or commercial buildings. Fields asserts that a zoning designation of “light industrial” crippled the area for years. It was so restrictive, he says, “that you were lucky if you could get an abandoned warehouse to be used by an artist.”

About six years ago, the zoning changed to a much more flexible B4N, or “downtown neighborhood district,” which allows higher density and mixed uses. But I can think of other reasons why Elliot Park and Downtown East have been inhospitable to development. For starters, there’s the butt-ugly dome sitting in the middle of everything. Then there’s the tangle of freeways and ramps that has Cuisinarted the neighborhood into chunks. And finally, there are those big institutions like HCMC looming over everything.

Fields says he and EPNI were agnostic about construction of a new stadium — “we wanted the Metrodome gone,” he says — but now he’s now pleased with the arrival of a new stadium because it’s bringing attention to long-neglected Elliot Park.

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I’m not certain that a stadium can revitalize a neighborhood, however. Even if the new structure is more beautiful than the Taj Mahal, it won’t automatically draw new development. After all, there are only about 10 NFL games a year, and even if Gophers’ baseball and other athletic teams play there, the building is in use only part-time. A stadium does not need to have any particular kind of neighborhood around it to survive and prosper. It draws people from all over the metro, and even the state, not the local area, and it provides them with food, parking and chotzkies to buy when they they visit.  

More likely to alter the fate of Downtown East and Elliot Park is a possible purchase and development of four of the five lots owned by the Star Tribune. Back in December, the Ryan Companies, a local construction giant, allowed that it was in negotiations for the property on behalf of Wells Fargo. The site would become a campus for 5,000 of the bank’s employees — employees not currently in Minneapolis — multi-family housing and a large downtown park, which the area currently lacks.

Talk about a game-changer. That could be it.