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You can say this for ‘The Commons’ downtown park: It has a lot going on

The Commons
Hargreaves Associates
Rendering of winter activities at The Commons, in the shadow of the new Vikings stadium.

The plan for the new Downtown East park — now dubbed “The Commons,” has a lot going for it — and a lot going on in it. The latest design for the 4.2-acre site presented to the public last night by San Francisco landscape architects Hargreaves Associates crams in a ton of stuff: a café, promenades, a Great Lawn, a lesser lawn, a water feature, play areas for kids, a stage, garden-y places, trees (of course), places to compete at bocce and chess, kiosks, an ice rink in winter, tables with umbrellas, moveable chairs, public art and benches and terraces where public snogging could occur.  

And, of course, on days when the Vikings take the field in their new (lest we forget, billion-dollar) stadium sitting to the east of The Commons, legislation decrees that at least part of the park must convert itself into some kind of fair for fans (a fan fair?) where they will gather to eat, buy souvenirs and do other stuff that hasn’t yet been disclosed. (Actually, because the team wants extra days to set up and strike its tents and kiosks, the number will more likely total at least 27 days and possibly many more.)

From all this it sounds as though The Commons will do everything except end world hunger. And, hey, maybe Hargreaves Associates might find a place to install a vegetable garden and free-range chickens.

This seeming mishmosh is what happens when democracy reigns supreme. In assembling the design, Hargreaves held meetings with the public and considered 2,750 responses to a survey. And, although I haven’t seen the comments, I imagine that people asked for everything from a merry-go-round to a baseball diamond. As well as aiming to satisfy all or most of its customers, the designers had to cope with an odd site. Sitting in front of an enormous Wells Fargo office and residential complex now under construction, the park is divided in two by Portland Avenue and hemmed in on the south by light rail train tracks. And Hargreaves senior principal Mary Margaret Jones, who presented the plan, pointed out that the land has a 9-foot slope.  

Jacob Frey, who represents the Downtown East neighborhood on the City Council, told the 150-plus audience who came to the downtown library to view the plan that the park’s purpose was to “boost the level of happiness in downtown Minneapolis.” Mayor Betsy Hodges, also in attendance, wisely did not object to that goal. And, as she pointed out to me, studies [PDF] have shown that natural environments increase people’s sense of well-being.

I don’t think that The Commons’ environment will be all that natural, but the plan that has emerged makes sense. The largest feature in the park, dominating the eastern portion, is the Great Lawn, a grassy oval bordered by terraces, where visitors would sun themselves in the summer or build snowmen in the winter. It sits in front of the new stadium and would contribute to game-goers’ stunning view of the city from their lofty perches in the stands. At one end of the lawn will sit a “shade structure,” which could be used for concerts or other performances. (The oval could hold 4,000 to 6,000 people.) The Great Lawn could also transform into a space for, say, an art or crafts festival, with tents and kiosks.

To the north of the oval are four “activity rooms,” sections bordered by hedges. Depending on the demands of the day, they would provide, among other things, space for chess players, a bocce court (curling in the winter) and a playground where kids would use a set of what look like giant Lego pieces to create their own structures. (Equipment would be collected and locked up at night in a small building near or under the performance area.)

To get to the western portion of the park from the east, strollers would have to cross Portland Avenue, which will narrow to two car lanes from three. The surface, according to Jones, would be “pedestrianized” — whatever that means. On game or festival days, the city could close the street. Among those who attended last night, the most common objection to the plan was its effort to keep Portland open. “Close Portland!” people wrote on whiteboards that sat around the lobby. I have to agree. If you're going to build a park, let it be a park. Cars and trucks will find another way to get where they’re going.

The Commons
Hargreaves Associates
Aerial view of The Commons

The western portion of the Commons is even more exciting. There’s another oval lawn, which planners named “The Good Lawn” (as opposed to the “Great Lawn”) where again, park goers could sun themselves or play frisbee. To the north of that will sit an amoeba-shaped plaza, which on hot, sunny days would be flooded with a 1-inch scrim of water. Children could wade in it, and adults could wet their toes. Blowholes would squirt up sprays, mists and fog. On cold days, it might simply be used as a plaza (dry) and in deep winter a skating rink. A pavilion housing a cafeteria and bathrooms would be stationed at the north end of the plaza along with tables, umbrellas and chairs for eaters and readers. (A question I failed to ask: will there be wi-fi?)

The remainder of the eastern portion will be bucolic, full of trees and native-to-Minnesota plantings, the likely site of marriage proposals and wedding photos. Tree-lined promenades border the park on the north and south, providing places to stroll, meet and greet others and show off new babies or toned bodies. A double row of trees will screen the park from trains on the south side. Oh, and one more thing stuffed into the west end of the Commons: a play area filled with artificial hills where kids can pretend to be mountaineers or space commandos. 

People were enthusiastic. “I see this as a wonderful addition to the neighborhood,” said downtown resident Michael Kohlman, a recent transplant from Indiana. “My wife and I would definitely use it.” Steve Greenfield, who hails from Uptown, liked the plan except for the clumps of trees in front of the stadium. He fears that they would attract birds who would then fly into the glass-fronted stadium and plunge to their deaths. Like me, he also worried that The Commons had a bit too much packed into it. A former New Yorker, he observed, “There's a lot in Central Park, but it’s huge.” In fact, it’s nearly 800 acres.

The budget for the park is $22 million, according to Jones, though costs have not been nailed down. Some $15 million will go for construction and the balance for design and engineering fees and operating expenses for the first year. Right now, there is no government dough allotted for The Commons’ construction. The Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, The Commons’ natural owner and operator, felt that the park was thrust upon it without any consultation. And rather myopically (in my opinion, since how often does an opportunity to design and run a brand-new park in the middle of a city present itself?), decided to stick to its already determined priorities, among them RiverFirst. It will eventually own the land but lease it back to the city, and a nonprofit conservancy will operate The Commons.

Where will money come from? Private contributions. The Ryan Companies, which originally came up with the idea of a park, promised only to clear it of rubble and seed it with grass, which would not create a particularly interesting place — not a great setting for the Wells Fargo buildings it’s raising. So recently it contributed $200,000 to hire a consultant to mastermind the fund-raising effort. Whether philanthropic foundations, corporations and the public can come up with the money is an open question.

The funds raised could be insufficient to pay for all the elements in The Commons. In that case, designers may have to convene another meeting to survey the public on what they could live without.

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Comments (15)

A couple questions

1) RE: The children's area with equipment that needs to be gathered up and locked away every night: Just who is going to get paid to do the gathering up and locking away, and who is going to be paying said person(s)?

2) RE: The 1" deep wading pool on a site with a 9 foot slope: I hope someone has thought to level it (and "it" appears to consume a large portion of the allocated square footage). Otherwise it's going to be dry on one side and running up over its walls on the other! And the leveling process will require differential heights on the bordering walls - a detail I don't see reflected in the drawing.

Artificial outside water

Artificial outside water features do not have a happy history in Minneapolis.

And if the water feature is to be a wading facility, what kind of water treatment/chlorination will be required (Under full sun with clear water in a shallow pool, your chlorine level can go from 5 ppm to 0.1 in three hours)? It's a pretty difficult public-health problem.

And, as with any public space, I think about crossing the area after dark or on the cold miserable days of winter. Hedges can be windbreaks, but they can also be public safety risks.

(Or did I need a magnifying glass?)

How come Hargreaves envisions a Minneapolis downtown park in which no users are from ethnically or racially diverse communities?

What?

No tailgate area. If very many football fans show up with grills and beer, where will they party. The design seems to be ignoring the principal users.

Principal users?

If we design that area for the "principal users" who'll use the park less than 3% of days per year, the area will be a failure.

New Stadium Uses

If the new stadium is anything like the Metrodome it replaced, it will be used a lot more than 3% of the days of the year. The Metrodome was used all the time. I remember looking at the schedule back when it was still in use and as I recall it was used for something over 100 days a year. If somebody knows the exact number, I'd appreciate it.

What went on there? Gopher baseball, high school football and soccer, and monster truck rallies come to mind.

Oh, no!!!

No place to grill and drink beer? What is the world coming to?

The "principal users" were the ones driving the construction of the taxpayer-funded monstrosity that is the Vikings stadium in the first place. I think plenty of attention has been paid to them.

Snogging?

I probably shouldn't have to ask, and am (perhaps) showing my age, but what is SNOGGING, and should I be doing it more or less?

Snogging

You probably did it a lot more when you were younger, but my doctor tells me that it is a good thing, even for people my age.

If you catch my drift.

Close Portland

Good grief, close Portland to traffic and while we're at it, Nicollet Mall. We need to plan for the next 50 years and move far, far away from the car-focused, traffic-clogged last 50.

"survey the public on what they could live without" - how nice !

There is a reason the voters of Minneapolis were not allowed to vote on whether they wanted to pay for a stadium - they didn't want it and everyone knew they would vote it down.

But now that the taxpayers have been stuck with handing out a billion dollars over their objections, how cute to ask them in mock sincerity: "Would you like a few trees here, or would you prefer it over there? Your views are so valuable to us !!"

RE: Ed Kohler's comment above: it will be a failure only with regard to the public interest, which it was never intended to serve.

The key question, still unanswered: who pays for operations

No matter how good the design is, no matter how much initial fundraising is done, the success of this space will be determined by how it is managed and how its operating funds are generated (for an example of what happens when you get this part wrong, see Peavy Plaza).

To date, the plan for operating funding seems to rely primarily on the fickle generosity of corporations and private donors - a model that is not resilient and has not worked in other places over the long term.

A sustainable stewardship model needs to include large portions of funding from sources contractually obligated to contribute over many years and decades such as surrounding property owners, the Vikings, the MSFA, Wells Fargo, etc.

Assessment

Neighborhood parks were originally paid for by assessment of surrounding property owners. An argument for doing so was that their property values would be driven up by the proximity of the park. That seems clearly the case here. In terms of operating costs, I get that building a park on space that's already developed is expensive, but I don't get why operating costs are necessarily higher. They certainly shouldn't be unpredictable, since all of those amenities are already found somewhere in the park system.

In regards to closing Portland, just build a pedestrian overpass in the middle of the block. Maybe lower the speed limit on that block.

How is this going to work out?

Seems like there's misplaced hope that despite the downtown parks within the area we already have being empty all the time (Gateway Park, Gold Medal Park, Elliot Park) that people are going to use this one. Sure, on game days or the odd street fair or farmers market, there will be people. But this is not going to be Minneapolis' answer to Central Park no matter how hard the developers hope and pray.

Ask yourself, when is the last time you packed up the family so you could spend the day in a park?

Hello Marlys

Nice to see you writing again. I just have to point out that actually nothing is going on in that park that as yet does not exist, so we can't actually say that a lot IS going on. People do a lot of "planning" but a lot of plans never see the light of day, and a lot of plans that do see the light of day... fail. Especially in the field of urban planning.

I hope that something kind of exciting does happen in this space but I think the biggest strike against is it's proximity to the empty Vikings stadium. If that space and the surrounding area were combined retail housing development instead of a stadium that's going to be empty most of the year I think a park might attract a lot of people. History does not appear be on the side of the planners in this case, but we can always hope.