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Making ‘The Yard’ work for the city, Ryan Cos., the Vikings, and the public

Courtesy of Ryan Cos.
Ryan Cos. proposal for the Downtown East park, dubbed "The Yard." logo

In the past month plans for the Vikings stadium, Downtown East and a new park, The Yard have raced ahead at lightning speed. As this has occurred, we have written two pieces that have appeared on The first (by Max) and a follow up (by Sam) raised questions and outlined a vision for what The Yard can and should be.

We’ll focus on that here: that The Yard should be the go-to gathering place for public events and celebrations with attractions, programming and management. A place with events like festivals, markets, ice skating, fireworks, and performances all draw people.

A way forward: Why The Yard needs to attract 1.9 million annual visitors on non-game days

By far the most important piece of a successful park is not its design but rather its programming. In order to become the go-to gathering place, it must draw people for everyday events and programming throughout the year. The current vision for Vikings game days is a very good start for those eight days, but must be replicated for the other 357.

Under current designs, The Yard will need to draw 1.9 million visitors every year. That’s a lot. For perspective, attractions like Minnehaha Falls and the Stone Arch Bridge get just over 1 million every year. We arrive at this number by taking the proposed square footage of The Yard, 183,000 square feet, divided by a standard of 300 square feet per person to make a park feel safe. Multiply that by 10 hours a day, 350 days a year. Subtract out “organic visitors” (ie Wells Fargo employees and new residents, assuming 1% usage at any one time) and you arrive at 1.9 million.

In other words, an underutilized park doesn’t feel safe, and indeed may not be! The way to overcome this is proper programming. How do we do that?

Less Fort Snelling ball fields, more Lake Harriet programming

Most of the talk around The Yard has focused on it being a sort of multipurpose field with some formal ball fields and possibly a concession similar to Tin Fish or Sea Salt. The concession is a very welcome addition, but 180,000 square feet with only a single restaurant and a bunch of space to kick around a soccer ball or play frisbee is not going to attract 5,000+ visitors a day.

lake harriet bandshell
The Lake Harriet area is so well programmed with activities, events, and experiences that it would still be great even without the lake itself.

The park committee should take a lesson from other world class urban parks (Part 2 covers those nicely), but also Lake Harriet right here in our back yard. The Lake Harriet area is so well programmed with activities, events, and experiences that it would still be great even without the lake itself. Think about it: great food, summer music/movies, playgrounds, beaches, the historic trolley, places to sit and people watch, woven together by trails and small, flexible open spaces woven in between, and very well connected to the surrounding area. Active edges make active interiors and we need to make sure that:

  • The design includes many features that are destination activities. Examples from other downtown parks around the country include fireworks, ice rinks, restaurant, stage, vendors, festivals
  • That there are reliable and sufficient sources operating funds. Funding should come from assessments of nearby property owners and less from concessions (at least in the early years). Concession revenues will be uncertain and unreliable at first. See: electronic pull tabs
  • That the space is actively programmed with activities year round – ice skating, St. Patrick’s Day festival, July 4th fireworks, Octoberfest, Holiday event.

Comparing The Yard to similar downtown parks throughout the country, we both argued that while green and natural elements are important, activity, programming and management are more so. We can’t mistake that greening will automatically attract enough people to make The Yard a great place. The design of the park should include seating and shade and enough pedestrian connections to encourage multiple routes and movement around and through the park, but also appropriate surfaces to accommodate crowds and vendors, for example. The biggest mistake we could make is too much grass that will just get trampled constantly.

The key to success: operating and programming funds. But who should pay and how much?

The Newberg post also illustrated that $25 million in additional capital funds will likely be needed for full build out as well as the reliable sourcing of between $2.5-$5 million inannual management and programming funds. This is not chump change.

Obviously the Vikings have their sights on The Yard for tailgating activities. In the current term sheet before the City Council this week, the Vikings and MSFA actually will have exclusive use rights to the eastern portion The Yard for 58 days a year (12.C.a). I agree with RT Rybak and others that this can and should be one of the best football and urban experiences in the country.

BUT, there are obvious items that need to be addressed. Going back to Bryant Park in New York for a moment. From 1994-2009 one Bryant Park was home to NY Fashion Week for two weeks every year. The event brought a tremendous amount of activity and publicity, but also the unfortunate consequence of preventing the public from using most of the park (as seen below). The Vikings and the MSFA should absolutely hold tailgating festivities in The Yard, but they should not have a monopoly over the use of park space on non-game days.

To the Vikings’ credit, they have agreed to contribute $1 million to The Yard improvements. By our reckoning, however, based on the possible $25 million improvement cost, and that the Vikings/MSFA get to use The Yard 58 days per year (16%), they should contribute at least $4 million to development of the park. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, 16% of ongoing management and programming is $400,000 per year. For all of the public dollars going to benefit the Vikings and MSFA use of a public space, the least we can expect is for those who benefit most to pay their fair share.

Recommendations to the City Council and Park Committee

The Yard can and should be a real asset for Wells Fargo, the Viking, the City, Ryan Cos., and – most importantly – the public. Here are our recommendations:

  1. Take the operations of The Yard out of Ryan Cos’ Term Sheet: Ryan Cos. has committed to building out the basics for The Yard, but will not fund, construct, nor maintain the “ultimate” park. This is very reasonable as this is not their area of expertise. BUT, that said, since Ryan is not on the hook to fully build out or maintain The Yard, they should not be negotiating the terms of its ongoing use in the place of a to-be-determined owner/operator.
  2. In the case that the MSFA and the Viking’s retain the exclusive usage of the park for up to 58 days (rather than the 10 days a year we recommend) than they should commit to funding 20% of the capital costs AND operating/programming funds toward The Yard for the length of their usage agreement.
  3. Commitments and legislation authorizing for operating dollars should be made upfront, not after the fact. As we noted before, this is the main determining factor of success for The Yard, not an afterthought left to be dealt with later
  4. Park and Portland should not only be narrowed and made two-way streets, but become curbless, instead relying on bollards to define borders, etc., in order to make the park more visually connected, minimizing the disruption of a street bisecting it. Mid-block crosswalks should be considered.


The Yard Series

Part 1: 3 Questions that Need to be Answered about the Yard

Part 2: Time to Raise Expectations for The Yard – A World Class Downtown Park

Part 3: “The Yard” Part 3: Making it Work: for the City, Ryan Co., the Vikings, and (most important) – the Public


This post was written by Max Musicant and Sam Newberg and originally published on Follow on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/11/2013 - 10:37 am.

    The problem is the lack of connection with the other major spines of activity.

    There is a significant portion of the crowds for any event that will flow from the 394 parking parking facilities.

    There is NO attractive pedestrian route from those ramps toward the stadium. Especially on windy, cold or rainy days.

    And there is no connection with the vitality and activity on First, Hennepin and Nicollet Avenues or the areas on the river side of Washington Avenue.

    My suggestion?

    Do away with the half road that is 5th (light rail). Make it into a attractive pedestrian route from the ramps to the stadium, connecting into Hennepin and Nicollet. There are already some open areas along there that would work nicely with such a space.

    And then, close Chicago from the stadium over to the river, providing a natural flow from the stadium to the river.

    It works better to have spaces that flow into one another, rather than a spot here and a spot there, and ugliness between.

    • Submitted by Max Musicant on 12/11/2013 - 11:56 am.

      Neal, you are spot on. Pathways are key – they are how we make sense of our environment. The majority of people downtown will choose to walk down Nicollet even if it is not the most direct route – because it is the most pleasant and (relatively) active. You are right that there are no good pathways leading from the downtown core to the new stadium/Yard area. With little “organic” activity, this makes actively programming the space and making a destination even more important.

      Closing down a few streets and really enhancing the pedestrian pathway experience makes a lot of sense along 5th and Chicago. One issue for the former is many of the newer office buildings have their parking access ramps going off of 5th – but that is a problem just looking for a creative solution.

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