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Sorting out the ins and outs of Downtown East

Ryan Companies
The Ryan Companies' proposed $400 million office-retail-residential complex plus park in downtown Minneapolis.

While reading the “Downtown East Development: Draft Alternative Urban Areawide Review and Draft Mitigation Plan,” I was again thankful that I never became a practicing city planner. I would have had to spend the majority of my waking hours assembling such tedious, but necessary documents.

This one, which is 88 pages long, not counting appendices, attempts to quantify every possible effect—on the land, the water, the air, the flora and fauna, the traffic and parking—of the Ryan Companies’ proposed $400 million office-retail-residential complex plus park in downtown Minneapolis in which Wells Fargo is to be the principal tenant.

It doesn’t make for riveting reading. While skimming the thing—called the AUAR for short—I fell asleep with it tucked in my arms like a Barbie doll. But you’ll be happy to know that the development’s effects on the natural environment would be minimal. Since downtown east is one of the oldest parts of the city, it hasn’t been natural—except for some scraggly trees planted around surface parking lots—for over a century. Even the birdies will be safe. Ryan pledges that only 40 percent of wall area would be devoted to windows, which should prevent most bird-into-building collisions.

If you’ve forgotten, this proposal covers a five-block area to the west of the new stadium. Offices and apartments would fill the three blocks to the north, and a park spanning Portland Avenue, called The Yard, would lie two blocks to the south. The AUAR considers two scenarios: Minimum Development and Maximum Development. Here’s how they shake out.

If I had my druthers, I would go for the maximum scenario—let’s get this part of town urbaned up, folks!—except that it seems to entail allocating to Wells Fargo one-third of one of the park blocks. I am not against buildings in parks, a discreet restroom, a cafe and/or a merry-go-round, for example, but a Wells Fargo mortgage office? Nosirree.

What came in for some really complicated analyses were parking and traffic volume. Planners estimate that the Minimum Scenario will require 225 parking spots beyond what the development would provide, while the Maximum would need another 1,374. But guess what? In the nearby neighborhood, there are already nearly 21,000 parking spots, 30 percent of which are unused on weekdays.  

The traffic section of the report gets so tangled that it’s almost impossible to visualize what might happen if the Downtown East plan goes ahead. For starters, four different roadway options are under consideration: 1) Park and Portland Avenues would be permanently closed; 2) Park Avenue would be reduced to two lanes and open during peak hours only, while Portland would be permanently closed; 3) vice-versa; and 4) Park and Portland Avenues would both e reduced to two lanes and open during peak hours only. (Bike lanes would remain.)

Estimates of future volume were made more intricate by other changes going on, for example, a narrowing of Washington Avenue from Hennepin to 5th Avenue, construction of a ramp from 4th Street to I-35 northbound, changes in roads by the new stadium and lots of other tweaking that you don’t want to know about.

So how do the options look? Well, here’s a table I constructed using the AUAR’s estimates of LOS (Level of Service) at intersections in the area.

Not to despair. Even if you were for Option 1 as the cleanest and easiest way to create a two-block park, the planners have some mitigation strategies to cut down on delays—for example, eliminating or decreasing on-street parking, adding a lane here, widening a street there.

In the meantime, Wells Fargo has not yet confirmed that it will go ahead with the plan. Reportedly, it would lease 12 stories in two of the office towers, reuniting a large portion of its 12,000 workers who are now scattered across the metro. And that brings to mind the need for yet another analysis: an economic impact statement. If Wells Fargo would be merely moving employees from one part of the city to another, Downtown East might prosper, but we wouldn’t be seeing any net gains in employment—except for the construction work.

Who can afford to live here?

On another subject: The average rent in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is $736 for a one-bedroom apartment and $920 for a two-bedroom apartment. Those numbers are modest in contrast to San Francisco’s $1,423 and $1,795 or Boston’s $1,156 and $1,444.

Not surprisingly, people with down-to-earth jobs that need doing—childcare provider, teller and nurse’s aide—struggle to make the rent. The Center for Housing Policy ran the numbers on 76 occupations in 207 metro areas. Below is a chart for 10 occupations in the Twin Cities. Neither a hairdresser nor a retail salesperson with a full-time job could cover rent for a two-bedroom apartment without spending more than the customary third of income on rent. A news reporter can just barely manage. Still, the Twin Cities can brag that its housing is fairly affordable.

Who knew dental hygienists made so much money?

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Pat McGee on 08/16/2013 - 01:30 pm.

    Not to despair if they close Portland and Park?

    Are you kidding? We’ll just fly everyone into HCMC. No problem. And, as for me, I will not hold my breath while waiting for planners to “add a lane here, widening a street there.”

  2. Submitted by Mike R on 08/16/2013 - 01:40 pm.

    Park and Portland

    What about routing Park and Portland under the park?

  3. Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 08/16/2013 - 03:17 pm.

    Once again, we have to dig a little in to the numbers

    The study makes the same assumption that Washington and Minnehaha Ave projects have made: a 0.5% annual growth rate in vehicle volumes through 2035. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why this assumption continues to be made in light of reduced VMT, VMT per capita, demographic changes, rising gas prices, and the investments we’re making as a region in transit options to get in to downtown (what are the CC LRT, SW LRT, Orange Line, Bottineau extension, Blue Line capacity upgrades, Chicago-Freemont BRT, and the rest’s share in handling commuters?) What is the impact in delay on mode choice? Living arrangements?. Where do they defend this number?

    Beyond that, we need to look at the numbers of delay in context. The 51 intersection area studied by the AUAR finds that average, per-vehicle delay would under the worst case condition (closing both permanently) would be 3.8 minutes in the minimum development scenario. In 20+ years. During PEAK rush hours only. Assuming all their numbers are correct. This means that in a world where we assume the car will continues to be the mode choice it is today, we would complain about shutting down both streets to save peak hour traffic 3-4 minutes at the beginning and end of their journeys at the expense of a more livable, enjoyable space (for both visitors and the hundreds of people who live in the area). We need to have a better discussion that evaluates the costs and benefits for all users involved. Key questions would be:

    – What about other modes of transportation? How much easier will it be to bike through/around the park if both streets are closed? How many bikers are there, how much time will they save? What about pedestrians? Does the street closure affect the 2 LRT lines running through here?
    – Is street closure safer for pedestrians and bicyclists? How many fewer collisions would occur per year, and what is this worth as a social cost?
    – How much more pleasant would a fully-continuous park space be for people, 24/7/365 (not just during 4 hours of peak commuting each day)?
    – How much additional development and tax revenue would it being vs the other scenarios?
    – How much time is added to every emergency vehicle by fully closed streets? Would a single paved lane through the park be sufficient for police/fire/ambulances? If so, would this SAVE time? What is this social value?

    The study stops short at evaluating vehicle traffic instead of completing the analysis based on how many humans can use the space and flow through by all modes. It makes some pretty baseline errors in assumptions.

    If I had to make a vote without knowing that data, I would vote for closing Portland and keeping a narrowed Park open during rush hours and events only. The underground ramp along the LRT station needs access, it keeps a street available for emergency vehicles, and realistically the park won’t stretch through the block between Park/Chicago anyway.

  4. Submitted by James Rickton on 08/16/2013 - 10:30 pm.

    Dear Alex

    A 4 minute increase in a 20 minute drive is, well, a 25% increase in the amount of time that it takes for one to get to and from work. You talk about the hundreds of people who live there, but if traffic is that busy, how many hundreds of people pass through there in their cars every few minutes during rush hour? It’s not as if the people who moved there weren’t aware of the road. If you wanted to, we could add their salaries up and the extended time and get an actual cost of delaying people 3-4 minutes and compare that to the social benefits of what you assume would be less collisions and the physical and perceived emotional cost of those assumed decrease in collisions and then determine, based (somewhat) on facts, rather then based off an “I want to live in New York” mentality, what the best decision is. That would, however, require us taking into account that people drive cars into work as actual human beings and not part of some 1950’s bygone era that no one partakes in anymore.

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 08/17/2013 - 01:53 am.

      Thank you

      for the reply. Regardless of if the streets are in downtown Minneapolis, a leafy street in South Minneapolis, or a cul de sac in a suburb, the people who choose to live (and work) downtown deserve a safe, healthy environment. This isn’t some fantasy about wanting to live in NYC, it’s about creating public spaces (including both parks and streets) that serve the needs of the businesses and people that reside there in addition to being safe thoroughfares for all modes of transportation. This isn’t some utopian vision, it’s what I would call the mandate of the public sector as it applies to urban design.

      AADT counts on Park and Portlant are roughly 5-6,000 total (daily vehicle counts), though obviously the average delay would apply to the many more vehicles using the surrounding intersections. Compare that to the roughly 8,000 people living in Downtown East and Elliot Park (and growing) who will spend time in this area every day. This development alone is proposed to add 410 housing units.

      I stand by my statement that analyses like these make too many assumptions in their model to be taken at face value (chief among them is the increase in vehicle trip counts given stark evidence to the contrary). I also stand by my take in that adding between 3-4 minutes, 22 years out, for peak AM and PM rush hour commuters who have chosen both a living location and transportation mode (car, 85%+ of them single occupancy) should not be the major concern of how we design our cities. This is not social engineering to get people out of their cars, it is simply refusing to continue to orient our public spaces with them as the sole beneficiary. It’s not equitable to continue making our places only accessible by car. It’s not environmentally sustainable, either.

      A 3-4 minute increase is actually anywhere from a 15-20% increase in total trip time given your scenario. However, using salary data is a false representation of the societal benefit in realizing that savings. Those people saving 3-4 minutes in each direction won’t earn any more money to put back in to the local or national economy, or in to the local government in taxes. It is purely a social benefit (more time to sleep in, see their kids, or go for a run), not an economical one. Slower, safer streets with better parks and amenities are proven to increase the tax base through higher property values. Calmed streets are proven across the US and world to be safer. These do carry real cost savings (reduced health and life insurance costs among others) as well as perceived emotional ones. If anything, a 3-4 minute delay downtown, on streets, which should be slow and safe anyway, may cause people to shift living (housing location) or commuting (mode, time of day, etc) habits to adjust to the difference.

      • Submitted by Earl Roethke on 08/21/2013 - 02:17 pm.

        Why not ask the people who live there?

        I live in Downtown East between Park and Portland, and I’m not at all enthusiastic about closing these streets. What I’d like to see are more boulevard trees along the existing streets. I’d also like to keep the maples that are currently surrounding the Strib’s parking lots downtown–trees take time to grow.

  5. Submitted by James Rickton on 08/17/2013 - 11:16 am.

    Sorry for the calculation error

    10:30 is late for me. Regardless of whether it’s actual economic dollars those 3-4 minutes earn or social benefit, what difference does it make? That’s still a cost and I would say things like going for a run reduce health care costs, etc. It’s shifting a cost is what it is.
    Let me put it in perspective and I’ll use a calculator this time, even though it’s not past my bed time now. 3 minutes each way, x 2 = 6 minutes per day. 6 minutes per day x 5 days = 30 minutes per week. 30 minutes per week x 50 weeks (we’ll assume 2 weeks of vacation) = 1500 minutes per year. 1500 minutes per year x 40 years of working = 60,000 minutes. Divide by 60 to get hours = 10,000 hours. Divide by 24 to get days = 416.6 and we have 1.14 years. Over one year of their life they’re going to have to give up. How is that fair? That’s certainly not small potatoes, at least not to me.

    3-4 minutes is a lot and those people chose to move where they did based on that road being there, just like the people who moved into the neighborhood moved into that neighborhood and paid market value based on that road being there.

    I’m not saying we can’t make changes, but in the sense it’s a little bit of a zero sum game where someone is going to lose when someone wins and I think it’s a unfair to discount the losers just because they choose a different form of transportation or come from a different area.

    And if you’re looking to get people to shift housing location, commuting mode or time of day to adjust, well that smells of social engineering and I can’t support that in any form, even if it benefits things I support. America and that whole freedom thing actually mean something to me.

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 08/18/2013 - 09:29 pm.

      Not to nitpick

      again, but the math is actually 41.6 days or 0.114 years over the span of a 40 year career.

      My frustration with this argument is that it continues to frame the discussion on the plight of the single occupancy car driver as the only means of getting around, and as the sole value proposition for discussing the status quo vs other options. It’s what makes the social engineering argument break down a little, in my opinion, because of the narrow thinking and rationale – valuing car speed/throughput/parking over all other modes and potential uses of land is far more what I would describe as social engineering.

      Asking to open up the conversation (ie having planners do their job and not focus on vehicle counts as the only measure of an intersection “passing” or “failing”) and being forgiving regarding a 3 minute delay one way, only during peak commute times isn’t social engineering in my book. I threw out all sorts of options that would naturally evolve over the next 22 years to work around the slight delay motorists might see: change transportation modes, carpool, change time of day getting to/leaving work, find jobs close to home, choose to live closer in, etc etc. This argument relies on the public sector providing multiple safe, efficient ways to get around and safe, enjoyable places to live (again, whether downtown Minneapolis or out in Eden Prairie), which this park with 1 road closed would do.

      I appreciate your thoughts and the conversation.

  6. Submitted by Richard Nelson on 08/19/2013 - 09:33 am.

    Closing Park and Portland

    Here’s what will happen if Park and Portland are closed between 5th and 4th Streets: drivers will adapt and change their habits; they will turn to Chicago Avenue, Fourth Avenue, Fifth Avenue or some other route. A minor inconvenience? Perhaps, but hardly traumatic in the rigid grid of wide streets that is downtown Minneapolis. For example: Nine blocks of Nicollet Avenue were closed to automobile traffic in the late 1960s, and the world as we know it did not collapse. In fact, downtown prospered after Nicollet Mall opened, and continued to prosper when the auto-free Mall was extended four additional blocks on Nicollet in the early 1980s.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/19/2013 - 10:23 am.

    Excuse me but…

    People seem to be forgetting that a big damn stadium is going to in the middle of this. Stadiums create dead zones because for a variety of reasons businesses and normal human beings don’t want to live next to them. The only salvation would be if the stadium is only used ten times a year, In which case it’ll be a billion dollar waste of space.

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