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Downtown Minneapolis becoming a ‘green’ magnet — and needs to be greener still

You’re in an airplane, flying over Minneapolis on a sunny summer day. Looking down from 40,000 feet, you see something resembling a gray doughnut hole, surrounded by green. This is downtown Minneapolis.

In a city renowned for its lush natural beauty, downtown has been the exception. The majority of Minneapolis’ 1 million trees and 6,500 acres of parkland reside in its neighborhoods, while for decades asphalt and concrete have dominated downtown.

But that scene is starting to change. Downtown leaders are recognizing that investments in greener landscapes, pedestrian-friendly amenities and sustainable building practices are good for business, as well as for the community as a whole.

Appealing streetscapes draw more pedestrians, reducing traffic congestion and pollution from cars, while providing more business for retailers and restaurants. Tree canopies shade and cool paved surfaces, reducing energy costs and the “heat island” effect created by crowded buildings. Another plus: Just one mature tree can reduce storm water runoff by 13,000 gallons a year, decreasing the amount of water streaming from storm sewers into the city’s water-treatment plant.

Obstacles can be overcome
For these reasons and more, downtown Minneapolis needs to get greener. Granted, there are challenges — many older buildings need retrofits to become more environmentally efficient, and much of the open space outside is covered by concrete. But with vision and determination, the downtown community can overcome those obstacles.

A prime example: The recent transformation of Marquette Plaza into one of the nation’s most environmentally friendly structures. The prominent 40-year-old office building — whose 22 tenants include Xcel Energy, Foley & Mansfield, CenturyLink, Meet Minneapolis and several federal agencies — is the first downtown Minneapolis building to achieve LEED platinum status. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and platinum is the highest level of certification under the program, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.
The most visible sign of Marquette’s Plaza’s superior sustainability is the one-and-a-half acre “green roof.” The grass expanse doesn’t just look good — it provides natural insulation from temperature extremes and helps filter pollution from the air and rainwater. Inside the building, property manager Base Management also invested in technology and operational changes that have dramatically reduced water consumption and lowered energy costs. Marquette Plaza now uses 694,000 fewer gallons of water annually. If all Minneapolis buildings followed the same measure, more than 90 million gallons of water would be conserved each year.

Accomplishments, but just a start
Another example is the business community’s launch and funding of the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District (DID). The DID was created in 2009 with a singular mission: make downtown more attractive and inviting to businesses, employees and visitors. One way this has been accomplished is by emphasizing all kinds of greening across the 120-block-area that comprises the DID. Using money raised mostly from charges to commercial properties, the district provides services to make downtown cleaner, safer and greener.

During the DID’s first two years, the organization carried out a major clean-up, removing two million pounds of trash and erasing 10,000-plus graffiti tags. It assembled a legion of DID Ambassadors who offer a welcoming and reassuring presence on downtown streets. In addition, the DID is currently sponsoring a pilot outdoor recycling program on Nicollet Mall.

These accomplishments are just a start. Much more must be done to truly turn downtown Minneapolis from gray to green. The DID envisions more tree-filled boulevards, roadside greenbelts, “pocket” parks, and plantings at downtown gateways, such as freeway exits.

All stakeholders needed
Achieving this vision will require the active involvement of downtown’s numerous stakeholders. Many already are contributing to the cause, and the DID last year established the inaugural “Greening Awards” to showcase the commitment of these civic associations, businesses and community groups that have created and maintained public green spaces in downtown Minneapolis. The program honored nine recipients at an award ceremony in January.

This summer, the DID undertook a demonstration project to prove that concrete shouldn’t stand in the way of green progress. On 10th Street between Second and Third Avenues, it removed concrete along the curb lines and installed trees and perennial grasses.

These projects, like transformation of Marquette’s Plaza, are prime examples of what the downtown community in Minneapolis can — and should — do to enhance the environmental and economic health of the city’s center.

Sarah Harris is the chief operating officer of the Downtown Improvement District.

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