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Latest concepts for downtown Minneapolis park revealed

Hargreaves Associates
"Contrast," one of the four concepts for a proposed Downtown East Commons park in Minneapolis.

If you go by the map, it’s hard not to see the proposed Downtown East commons near the under-construction Viking stadium as two parks, not one.

Portland Avenue, a significant arterial on the eastern side of Minneapolis’ central core, must remain open, so it will always be a physical and visual barrier in the middle of the proposed park.

In response to that challenge, landscape architects and designers commissioned to design the new space presented four park concepts on Wednesday that either emphasized the divide or try to bridge it. In each case, the block closest to the stadium is more open with what is called the Great Lawn, making it available for use on Viking game days. The block closer to downtown has more intense uses — from a cafe to water features and play areas.

Here is how architects led by Hargreaves Associates of San Francisco described the four concepts that were unveiled to the public at a Wednesday evening forum at the Mill City Museum.The title of each reflects the degree to which the two blocks are treated as distinct halves or one unified whole. The full presentation is available here 

Concept 1: Contrast: “Each block has a distinct character. The westerly block is more organic and focused on respite, while the eastern block is rectilinear and flexible.” In this concept, tree-lined promenades run along Fourth and Fifth streets, and a plaza with very shallow water plus some sprays or misters would be featured in the western block. Designers proposed that the sprays might be cool in the summer but emit a warm mist in colder months to “extend the season.” Lead designer Mary Margaret Jones, president of Hargreaves, described the western half as “whimsical, organic, flowing” and the eastern half as “rectilinear.”

Concept 2:  Contrast + Connect: “Each block has a distinct character, with key elements connecting across Portland Avenue to link the blocks.” This concept includes a wetland garden that doubles as stormwater filtering, a play area and a “dynamic plaza that seasonally transforms” from an interactive water feature with water and fog to a plaza for winter markets and events. The plaza crosses Portland to unify the two blocks visually.

The second Alternative Approach
Hargreaves Associates
Conceot 2 presented at a public session at Mill City Museum Wednesday. Designers call this “Contrast+Connect.”

Concept 3: Connect: “Multiple elements connect across Portland Avenue, offering a gradient of open space character from the western to the eastern block.” While other concepts’ water elements evoke the city’s lakes, this concept has an actual lake that could be used for model boats and environmental education in the summer — and an ice rink in the winter, designers said. It would seemingly flow beneath Portland, emerging on the eastern block. This idea was not well received by those attending the forum. Several who spoke said the lake took up too much space in the small park and worried about maintaining it.

"Connect" is the title given for Alternative Approach 3
Hargreaves Associates
“Connect” is the title given for concept 3 for the proposed 4.2 acre downtown park being designed as part of the Vikings Stadium project.

Concept 4: Unite: “A single character defines both blocks.” This concept looks inward, surrounding the property with trees and landscaping, leaving the interior core as a large open lawn. Other uses are distributed around the exterior to accommodate a childrens play area, urban gardens, lunchtime seating, markets and festivals. Some complained that the design had too many trees and not enough open space.

The final concept — Alternative Approach 4 — was called "Unite"
Hargreaves Associates
The final concept — concept 4 — was called “Unite” by landscape architects designing the East Commons park.

All designs include some sort of cafe that would include restrooms and space for park operators. The eatery would be in addition to a promised cafe in the residential building along Fifth Avenue South that Ryan is planning. Depending on the configuration, the open lawn could accommodate between 4,000 and 8,000 people for concerts, though Jones said she wanted it to feel intimate for 100 attendees as well. All the concepts also showed what are called program spaces or “outdoor rooms” that could hold tents for farmers markets or festivals, gardens, lawn bowling or curling areas. Jones said she wanted to create a “four-seasons” park and said the area gets lots of sun because the buildings to the south are relatively low or set back from 5th Street.

These concepts were influenced by a previous public session attended by several hundred people, as well as an online survey taken by more than 2,500 in which residents were asked what they were looking for in the park that is currently the Star Tribune building and its adjacent parking lot. That land was sold to Ryan Companies as part of a redevelopment that is flowing from the stadium project. Ryan will clear the land and put down grass before turning it over to the Park Board in the summer of 2016. In turn, the board has agreed to lease it to the city for one dollar. The city is hoping to give up operations to a non-profit conservancy.

The finished park, so far unfunded, is set to be completed by December of 2017, in time for the Super Bowl that is to be played in the new stadium early the following year. The $15 million price tag is to be covered by private fundraising, park backers say.

Jones said a single design will be presented at another public session May 27. She said designers weren’t looking for residents to vote or choose one concept, but instead say which ideas they liked. The next proposal could combine features from all four of the concepts presented Wednesday, she said.

Council Member Jacob Frey said the hard work of providing the land for the park had been done. He termed the designing icing on the cake. He urged those attending to keep an open mind about design ideas. “When I saw Option 1, I said ‘That’s the one I want,’” he said. “And then I saw Option 2,  and then I saw Option 3.”

Related to park design is a pending plan by the city of Minneapolis to reconfigure streets in the area. The plan is supposed to make the area more walkable and bikeable while still retaining arterial access through and around the neighborhood. Portland Avenue through the Commons, for example, would be reduced to two southbound lanes and a protected bike lane would be added. There would be no parking allowed next to the new park.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/09/2015 - 10:59 am.

    It’s hard not to notice

    …the prevalence of “architect-speak,” a variation on George Orwell’s “doublespeak.” My thanks to Mr. Callaghan for providing readers with some examples: “…The westerly block is more organic and focused on respite, while the eastern block is rectilinear and flexible.” Sigh.

    As in Orwell’s version the use of a specialized language helps to obscure fairly simply concepts, making the result more palatable to, or at least less well-understood by, the general public. While it’s linguistically interesting to see “rectilinear” and “flexible,” in the same sentence, there’s no obvious relationship between the two terms, since a “flexible rectangle” is oxymoronic.

    If there will be no parking around the perimeter of the “park,” use will more or less automatically be limited to those living nearby, or to those attending a specific event in the space, and using some other means of transit to get there. That certainly seems to be baked into the design(s), and frankly, if I’m paying big bucks for a luxury condo (the only kind of condo we build in the Twin Cities) that faces the “park,” I wouldn’t want it to be populated on a daily basis by the usual riff-raff one sees in regular parks. Families, children, dogs, etc., are for the more plebeian open spaces elsewhere in the city. It’s not a space, in other words, that a city resident who doesn’t live downtown is likely to take a visitor to, since convenient access to the space is obviously a secondary consideration except for those wealthy enough to be living in the proposed residential building, and other, similar buildings in the immediate area. The Super Bowl would be an obvious exception.

    Happy to see my tax dollars going to produce something “organic” that induces “respite,” however…

    • Submitted by David Tinjum on 04/09/2015 - 06:22 pm.

      How could it be more convenient?

      Ray, you forgot to consider:

      – The 150,000+ people who work & live Downtown who are accustomed to having to walk more than 30 feet from their parking spot/transit stop/bike rack to their destination.

      – The millions of visitors to Downtown each year that rely on transit when staying Downtown.

      – The millions of Twin Cities residents who use (gasp!) LRT every year, which stops at the front door of the Commons.

      – The many thousands who bike Downtown every day.

      – Last but not least, let’s not forget the thousands of parking lot spaces within 3 blocks of the new park that are usually empty.

      Is walking a couple of blocks (worst case) really a deal killer?

      David Tinjum
      Publisher, Mill City Times

  2. Submitted by Max Musicant on 04/09/2015 - 11:39 am.

    Too much grass, not enough operating $

    I’m concerned about the amount of grass being called for given the use of the space for large tailgating events multiple times a year. Grass does not accommodate intense usage. The park would likely either 1) evolve into having lots of mud/dirt areas or 2) cost a ton of money to constantly re-sod.

    The design should accommodate the likely uses and operating funds – though both of these seem to still be very much TBD.

  3. Submitted by Adam Miller on 04/09/2015 - 01:45 pm.

    Before we even get to the design

    The biggest issue in these images is the street that cuts the park in half.

    Maybe the park can survive this intrusion, but before we commit to it, let’s try closing Portland for awhile and making Park two-way.

    If the test leads to horrors, then fine, build a park in two parts. But it seems much more likely that the relatively limited traffic currently using these two streets can either fit onto Park or find other routes.

    This is much too easy to test to just go forward with an obvious major drawback.

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 04/09/2015 - 04:08 pm.

      Portland could be a feature, not a bug

      If Portland is closed for events then using it as the event space makes sense. Keep the tailgater traffic on the street and off the grass.

      • Submitted by Adam Miller on 04/10/2015 - 11:35 am.

        Reports are it will be closed for events

        That’s not the problem. The problem is the rest of the year, when we’re most interested in attracting people to use the park, when having cars rolling through the middle may be a serious problem.

  4. Submitted by Ralf Wyman on 04/09/2015 - 03:34 pm.


    Wait, does “There would be no parking allowed next to the new park” mean not on 4th or 5th streets or Park Ave? That’s nuts. People park next to Loring Park, Gold Medal Park, the streets by Stone Arch bridge, etc.
    I’d be fine with no parking on the block of Portland running through the park – that makes sense. But one of the ways people will come and be casual users of the park, cafes, and features is if they can park nearby. 2 hr meters makes perfect sense.
    Red-bag them on game days, concert days etc if they must, but day-to-day, parking is part of the mix of a multi-modal, vital city.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/09/2015 - 04:17 pm.


    I don’t live downtown, so I’ve no idea what kind of use is normal for Portland Avenue, but Adam’s comment makes a great deal of sense. If, as he says, eliminating the street leads to “horrors,” then sure, put it back (we don’t need another K-Mart situation), but none of the designs presented provide a way for people to easily move from one segment of the “park” to the other, and if we have to have the “park,” dividing it with a street makes no sense.

    I’m sympathetic to Max’s complaint, as well, but “open space” pretty much assumes grass. Too many trees make the space claustrophobic, and the last thing downtown needs is another pair of city blocks covered with pavement. Surface parking lots without the parking don’t strike me as an appealing feature.

  6. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 04/09/2015 - 04:22 pm.

    It’s good that the county is insisting that Portland Ave. remain open to traffic, despite this little “park” that will sometimes (a few weeks each year) be available for the general public. The street was there first, has a fair amount of traffic (with Park Ave.), and is an important way for lots of folks to get to south Minneapolis without trying to use the frequently-jammed freeway.

    What amazes is that the designers actually want a water feature or two, that spews mist in the wind and cold weather of winter. If they want green, go green, with trees and small shrubs. Grass? That’s what should be the subject of experiment, to see if grass can live under so many feet.

  7. Submitted by Mike Lhotka on 04/09/2015 - 06:28 pm.

    Green space

    That green space would make a nice soccer pitch.

    • Submitted by Paul tuite on 04/09/2015 - 09:02 pm.

      soccer pitch

      My thoughts exactly about having a soccer pitch but probably could not have permanent goals.

      To keep the area open would forego the large water features and will need durable surfaces to handle snow plowing as well as foot traffic. Not sure if this means natural grass or a combination of porous pavers, crushed gravel, etc.

      If they are going to make this kid friendly need to have the play area near the cafe for parents to sit and sip and watch their kids while at the biergarten. Lake Calhoun and Harriet kid play areas are not proximal enough to the food/drinks and so it would be good to have a social area combined not separated by trees.

  8. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/10/2015 - 08:15 am.

    False premise of operative public interest

    The public interest does not matter in this sordid affair, except as a distracting noise to deflect our attention from the fundamental fact that this space is virtually owned by, and will be deployed primarily for the benefit of – the MN Vikings.

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